For Brands to Truly Commit to Sustainability, We Need to Change Expectations Around Packaging

Recycling has a branding problem

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Every day, there’s a new story about plastic packaging finding its way into our oceans or our landfills. Single-use plastics are a huge problem for the recycling industry, obviously, but it may surprise you to discover that this crisis is also largely about branding. That’s because most plastic is generated by consumer packaging, and packaging is driven by branding.

Consumer culture has trained us to identify with our favorite brands through enticing ads, clever marketing and careful branding that reaches deep into our identity and speaks to our basic needs. What makes a brand cooler than its competitors? Slick retail packaging in brilliant colors that engraves itself in our minds and creates a lasting emotional connection with consumers.

With the help of logos, jingles and ads these brands come to life as they occupy our homes, bodies and workplaces. We know them by sight and shape: red and white Colgate tubes, bright orange Tide jugs, blue Pepsi labels, crystal-clear Evian bottles. Modern packaging leaves an impression, and we expect our products to impress us on the shelf, or at least we’re assumed to. Valid or not, this assumption about consumer preference is a contributing factor in our plastics crisis.

I run a cleantech company that converts recycled plastic into a wide range of functional products and makes additives that help designers dramatically increase the amount of recycled content in their packaging. These innovations have come a long way, but the color of recycled materials remains a significant barrier.

Recycling gets sorted by plastic type and composition, but not necessarily by color. In the rare cases when it does, the cost increases significantly, as does with the amount of waste generated. So, when an orange detergent bottle and a blue soda bottle cap get recycled together, the colors mix.

The recycled plastic that results tends to be grayish, with minor imperfections. It’s not nearly as pretty as virgin plastic; clear is less clear and neon green is less neon. For package designers trying to meet extremely specific brand standards, working with this material is a challenge or a non-starter.

So while many consumer brands have declared significant and impactful sustainability goals with specific targets on recycled plastic content in packaging, few are making good progress. And they will continue to struggle to marry this progress with consistent coloring and perfect visuals from branded packaging.

We need to ask some hard questions. Are these consumer expectations around packaging real or perceived? And are brands’ own expectations rational while the planet is drowning in single-use plastic?

Other industries have triggered paradigm shifts in branding by educating consumers about a problem, demystifying the issues around it and outlining specific steps toward a desired outcome. Experience shows that consumers can be flexible on aesthetics once they understand the impact.

Take the ugly produce movement. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made it his mission to reduce food waste by speaking up for misshapen tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers that traditionally didn’t make the grocery store shelves. Once the issue was explained to consumers, they became more likely to accept ugly produce, as Canada’s Loblaw grocery chain found with its successful “Naturally Imperfect” campaign.

We are already moving in the right direction with other recycled products, most notably in the paper industry. Brown and gray toilet paper, paper towels and coffee filters are good examples, most of which have a characteristic dull color and are proudly labeled as recycled. The same shift needs to take place in the packaging industry to make recycled plastics more viable.

When companies design their packaging, they consider a range of factors, such as strength and durability. Here, recycled plastics have come a long way, thanks to innovative processes that have dramatically improved material in order to meet quality standards for packaging.

Aesthetics remain a challenge. Consumer brands that design with sustainability targets in mind must also embrace an evolving color standard. Until the plastics packaging industry begins to embrace the duller palette and visual imperfection of recycled plastics, progress on the waste plastics crisis will remain slow. Designers, branding agencies and consumers must come together to demand change and prioritize sustainability.

I challenge the branding industry to embrace some new thinking and make dull plastic cool, a product that we recognize and value for its contribution to a sustainable future.