Sustainable Packaging’s Winners & Losers

Sustainable Packaging’s Winners & Losers

Corporate America is changing its ways as consumers demand sustainable packaging. For example, McDonald’s expects to use 100% renewable, recycled, or Forest Stewardship Council Certified packaging by 2025, while PepsiCo intends to use 100% recyclable packaging. Here’s a look at which packaging materials are in position to see the biggest benefits – and the biggest losses – from the shift to sustainable packaging.


As a sustainable packaging option, paper stands to benefit from a couple of factors.

First, paper packaging (e.g., cardboard boxes, paperboard, canisters, cartons, etc.) is easily recyclable, as paper can be broken down into wood pulp, then used for other purposes, such as paper manufacturing. Until the wood fibers break down completely, paper packaging can continue to be recycled. Current recovery rates for paper packaging are about 78%. Infrastructure exists to recycle most paper packaging, supporting demand.

Second, food producers are seeking to increase use of packaging that is made from renewable resources, recyclable, or contains high levels of recycled material to comply with packaging sustainability measures. For example, Walmart committed to using 100% recyclable packaging in its private-label products by 2025.

Some companies are even using the sustainability of paper packaging to market novel product formats. For example, Boxed Water Is Better, a company selling water in paperboard cartons, emphasizes the more efficient packing space of (collapsed) cartons, reducing the number of shipments required to transport the packaging to the company’s filling plant.


Metal packaging boasts strength, durability, fast filling speeds, and full recyclability, featuring a well-established recycling infrastructure. For example, used aluminum cans can be recycled and turned into new cans that are back on store shelves in as little as 60 days. Other benefits include metal’s image as a premium packaging material, which aligns well with the often premium image of environmentally friendly products. However, the process to create metal packaging is energy intensive, which may reduce demand.


Glass packaging demand is likely to be hurt by shifts to sustainable packaging. Glass is heavy, and therefore increases freight costs. Since the material is fragile, it also requires additional secondary packaging to keep it safe, and its breakability can be a turnoff to consumers. Snapple tea and juice, Marie’s salad dressing, and Wegman’s Fransesco Rinaldi Pasta Sauce have all transitioned from glass packaging to plastic, citing reduced shipping costs, similar recyclability to glass, and less breakage.

However, glass can be recycled near-infinitely, and a well-established material recovery chain exists (about 33% of glass is currently recycled). In addition, many premium sustainable food and drink products will continue to use glass packaging, as the material makes the product look upscale. Glass also is generally non-reactive with and does not leach into the substance placed inside.


Plastic packaging is likely to be harmed by consumers’ increasing focus on sustainable packaging. Because of the variety of resins used, and the separate waste streams required to recycle each resin, less than 15% of plastic is recycled. As a result, the recycling and composting stream is less developed than the waste streams for other materials.

Furthermore, rising awareness of the environmental effects of single-use plastics is persuading more municipalities to adopt bans on these plastics. For example, New York’s ban on polystyrene coffee cups, takeout containers, and packing peanuts took effect in January 2019. More than 100 other cities and counties in the country have similar bans in place.

Plastic pouches are gaining popularity for consumer products and present both drivers and constraints on sustainable packaging efforts. Pouches can help plastic packaging become sustainable, as they contain less material than rigid plastic containers. However, they are often much less recyclable, as they are made up of several different materials.

However, the sheer amount and variety of plastic packaging used in the US encourages industry research into creating more sustainable plastic packaging. Polylactic acid (PLA), a resin that shows some promise, can be composted at high temperatures. Other innovations include Loop Industries’ technology that breaks down waste polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into new PET and Pyrowave’s depolymerization technology that converts mixed plastics into oil, waxes, and monomers.

What Will Happen?

Overall, use of sustainable paper and metal packaging is expected to expand, while glass will continue to shed market share. Plastic has environmental disadvantages compared to paper and metal, but ongoing development of new resins and recycling technologies, as well as the material’s light weight, may encourage companies to rebrand plastic as a sustainable option.

Want to Learn More?

Don’t worry, we have you covered! For additional information and analysis of US industry trends, see Packaging: United States, a report published by the Freedonia Focus Reports division of The Freedonia Group. This report forecasts to 2022 US packaging demand and shipments in nominal US dollars at the manufacturer level. Total demand is segmented by market in terms of:

  • food
  • beverages
  • pharmaceuticals
  • foodservice disposables
  • other markets such as automotive chemicals, lawn and garden consumables, and personal care products

Total shipments are segmented by material as follows:

  • paper
  • plastic
  • metal
  • glass and wood

To illustrate historical trends, total demand, total shipments, and the various segments are provided in annual series from 2007 to 2017.

While you’re there, check out some of our related reports, which include:

About the Author

Owen Stuart is a Market Research Analyst with Freedonia Focus Reports. He conducts research and writes a variety of Focus Reports, and his experience as an analyst covers multiple industries.