Two heads are better than one, so the saying goes. Particularly in the case of trying to solve a problem or overcome a challenge. While sustainability is ever-present in packaging design conversations these days, it may be that to effect real change the industry can’t go it alone. Collaboration could be the key to a truly sustainable packaging future.
One of the biggest benefits to collaborating on a packaging sustainability issue is the ability to share resource. This could include everything from expertise to data such as how much of a company’s packaging is thrown away.
The NextGen Cup challenge is a great example of a united approach to a problem. It’s widely recognised that single-use coffee cups are a sustainability issue. As a result, the NextGen Cup brings together major players in the coffee business from Starbucks to McDonald’s to Nestle to Coca-Cola to develop a fully recyclable alternative.
Although these companies are ultimately competitors, they understand that single-use waste is everyone’s problem. By pooling their resources and expertise, the partner companies can work to find a solution in a faster and more cost-effective way than going it alone.
At the same time, the companies involved see this as a non-competitive issue but a societal one. The exact material used in the packaging isn’t something that is going to give any one company a leg-up over another. Showing commitment to sustainability and solving a problem the company contributes to might pay off though.
Equally, by getting the buy-in of companies that are responsible for generating huge volumes of these throw-away coffee cups, the resulting sustainable solution has the best chance of actually making an impact on the amount of waste.
Fast Company reported that McDonald’s and Starbucks are responsible for a combined 4% of the 600 billion cups used worldwide annually. Essentially, if every time someone buys a coffee from the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s it comes in a recyclable, compostable cup, then that’s going to have an impact.
Another reason to collaborate is to create universal standards in terms of sustainable materials. You only have to look at the array of plastic types out there to see the challenges faced in current recycling initiatives.
From types that can’t be recycled at all to types that have to be separated out from others and multiple types of plastic being used in the same packaging, it’s a minefield for consumers to understand – and correctly follow protocol – as well as a huge challenge for recycling firms to manage.
The sustainable packaging movement has already seen many different types of innovative materials developed. While it’s arguable that this isn’t the same issue as with plastic if they’re all compostable (for example), there can still be quite fundamental differences in the make-up of each type of packaging.
Processing for recycling can also be different depending on the operator and their infrastructure. Although many of the brands involved in the NextGen Cup Challenge already have recyclable cups, the reality is they’re not so recyclable when it comes down to it.
As such, there’s a genuine benefit to a single solution used by many. Rather than Starbucks and McDonald’s and Nestle all creating their own slightly different sustainable materials, this collaborative approach offers simplicity.
This is incredibly important when it comes to messaging for consumers. It means they can easily understand what to do with their waste cup and know that wherever they bought their coffee from they can safely drop it in the same receptacles or in their at-home compost heap.
Given that the vast majority of cups aren’t recycled currently – even before you get to the processing where some of the cups actually recycled will end up in landfill – getting consumers onside is a big deal. For recyclers, it makes the task of sorting and recycling material easier as there are less types to deal with.
The trickle-down effect
There is power in scale. Collaboration can be a way to reach the scale needed to make effective change.
For example, if you get an industry’s biggest players, as in the case of Starbucks and McDonald’s, to adopt something then that can have a trickle-down effect on others.
For other big-name brands, it may put pressure on them to adopt the same sort of solution. For smaller names, scale can help to make new material developments more affordable. It may also increase the volume of manufacturers who will produce the material. And in turn, maximise the number of recycling operators who will actually recycle the material.
This doesn’t only apply for single-use cups though. All sorts of packaging could benefit from a similar collaborative approach to developing a truly sustainable solution – it just needs some heads to be put together.
By Cate Trotter, Head of Trends at Insider Trends, London