Over the past decade, many consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies have vocalized various sustainability commitments, particularly from a packaging perspective. From pledging to achieve 100% recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging to reducing global use of virgin petroleum plastic, today’s leading CPG brands are making dedicated efforts to improve the sustainability of their packaging and rethink their entire systems — from supply and processes to downstream efforts.

Certain consumer items unfit for retail sale, contaminated packaging, plastics and other waste streams have traditionally been sent to a landfill or disposal facility for incineration. In fact, nearly 50% of all waste in the U.S. was sent to a landfill in 2018. However, in recent years, manufacturers have evolved, taking a more active role in focusing on sustainability and driving company goals to zero landfill and beyond.

There are also more regulations in place today that are driving an increasing number of recycling programs for consumers. Even those that are driven by regulations or government guidelines are stemming from a push by consumers who want their community to have a solution that can efficiently and effectively sort recyclables. At a time when 70% of consumers think it is important that a brand is eco-friendly, CPG companies should, and can, find ways to reduce and recycle materials as much as possible.

Considerations For Reducing, Recycling Or Achieving Zero Waste

When considering how waste generation fits into a CPG brand’s sustainability goals for growth, think about how the organization can close the gap from the initial design concept stage to end disposal. What are the opportunities for using post-consumer recovered material for building a product and bringing it to market but also generating less waste for a product to begin with?

It’s important to think strategically about design, packaging, fillers and pallets that are shrink wrapped. For fillers, companies are increasingly moving away from plastic air pillows and bubble wrap and switching to non-plastic, recyclable and natural fillers.

Even standard containers are often made using as many as five different types of plastics — for the cap, packaging, inside seal and more. This is a great example of an opportunity CPGs have to work with their design teams to reduce a product’s packaging down to one type of recyclable plastic or even eliminate plastic materials altogether. Not only is this crucial for the environment, but it’s also a win for a marketing and branding department that can promote plastic-free packaging to consumers as well as a product that is easier for the consumer to recycle.

CPGs must carefully and strategically analyze waste before it even happens. From initial product concept to lifecycle completion and everything in between, the goal should be to eliminate the waste, recycle as much as possible and work with a partner to build scalable, innovative programs focused on zero waste.

One key first step is to evaluate waste by going upstream within production and look for ways to reduce its generation. Then, examine the processing line. Are there returnable shipping container options (multi-use), different holding containers, staging and process flows? Think through not only how a waste product can be recycled but also how the organization can reduce the volume being generated. Often, this means going back to the beginning and looking at the complete process from a different perspective. Evaluate overages. Don’t just focus on the waste at the end; instead, evaluate design, generation, ultimate disposal and usage along the way.

At distribution and logistics centers, assess which facilities are reporting more damaged items and compare it to those with minimal product damage. By uncovering trends and best practices at like facilities with fewer damaged products, CPGs can build alternative processes and training for those with higher volumes of damaged goods to reduce the amount of waste being generated.

Third-party partners are typically the best way to uncover challenges and solutions like this, building and sharing best practices. These partners have expertise built on evaluating all aspects of waste generation and developing solutions so manufacturers and distribution centers can focus on their core business.

Benefits Of Removing Waste Streams

There are many advantages to eliminating waste streams from a brand perspective. First, there is a regulatory and compliance component. The more hazardous waste being produced, the more reporting that is required. By eliminating waste streams, CPGs may see less reporting requirements because of having a lower generator status.

Additionally, consumers today want more than just quality from the companies they buy from and often look for products and brands that align with their personal values. Sustainability is a big factor when it comes to influencing business decisions.

According to a 2019 Global Web Index (GWI) new packaging report, “Sustainable Packaging Unwrapped,” 60% of consumers say they are likely to switch to a brand that is more environmentally friendly than their current brand. On top of that, the GWI report found that 3 in 10 consumers do not feel they have enough information about what packaging can be recycled, and of those, 41% say it is because brand campaigns do not give them enough information. In addition, 71% of consumers are willing to pay an added premium — 37% more — for companies offering full transparency and traceability, according to an IBM study in partnership with the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Vetting A Sustainability Partner

When evaluating a sustainability partner to minimize or achieve zero waste, brands should not be forced to choose services from a pre-set, one-size-fits-all menu. Rather, the partner’s solution should be tailored to a specific organization’s waste journey, and unique sustainable solutions aligned with the organization’s waste generation, sustainability goals and growth plans should be developed. Enhanced tracking, reporting and data analysis of waste streams to monitor performance and measure against financial and corporate sustainability goals should also be a priority.

The partnership should be a long-term program, not simply a line-item pricing procurement model. It takes time to develop solutions that will bring a company to zero waste — there is no uniform, standardized approach. From one CPG to the next, different needs and different materials are being generated. Additionally, almost every organization is at a different place on their sustainability journey. Some are just trying to get out of landfill before they can begin to think about reducing materials, others are challenged with accurate data and risk, while others are taking final steps toward achieving zero waste.

Achieving zero waste is a journey — it’s not a one-and-done deal. The chosen third-party sustainability partner must take many considerations into account and look at all pieces of the puzzle. Finding a partner who can solve the very difficult challenge of making it easy to properly manage difficult-to-treat waste is an easy thing to say but a hard thing to do.

A partner should have no limitations on the type of waste problem an organization needs to solve. Work together to find ways to make it easier to recycle, repurpose, reuse — or in some cases safely destroy — the hardest-to-treat waste products or components of a product. CPGs need a partner that will take a hands-on, dedicated approach to recycling and beneficially reusing waste that would otherwise go into landfills, providing customized waste disposal and recycling solutions.

Additionally, a partner should offer the added benefit of compliance and risk avoidance. They should not only ensure programs are developed to uphold compliance with all environmental regulations, they should focus on the future, keeping CPGs from risk and expensive costs down the line and putting the organization’s best interest first.

When vetting an ideal sustainability partner, find a true long-term partner instead of a vendor. Because the journey to zero waste can be long, the partnership should be multi-year. Ensure the organization is working with a vendor that is willing to look at and be a partner for all your products instead of piecemeal. CPG’s only looking at hazardous waste and not the other packaging materials, or vice versa, can potentially miss the bigger picture. Companies should want, and deserve, a partner that has the expertise in all areas.