The drive toward sustainable packaging is gaining momentum, and it’s having an impact on any business that produces physical products. The 2021 Global Buying Green Report found 83% of younger consumers were willing to pay more for sustainable packaging and 67% of consumers believe packaging recyclability is important. Over half (54%) of consumers say sustainable packaging is a factor in selecting products and 57% are less likely to buy products with packaging that harms the environment.
 
“Consumers are really aware of what their products are coming in, especially excess packaging,” says Kate Haselhoff, senior project and partnership manager at the Sustainable Business Network. “People are realising they want a reduction.”
 
It’s not only consumers who are driving change: increasingly, global government legislation is being introduced that’s designed to limit straight-to-landfill packaging and encourage a circular economy. Here in Aotearoa, the Government is phasing out some single-use plastics, PVC and polystyrene packaging. It’s proposed all the bans will be in place by the start of 2025, so now is the perfect time for every Kiwi business to think about how to make their packaging more sustainable.

Here are some tips on how to get started:
 

1. Audit your current packaging

 
“What do you already have, what is it made from, and is it either reusable, recyclable or compostable in New Zealand in practice and at scale?” asks Haselhoff. “From a business perspective it’s a confusing landscape and a lot of businesses don’t know exactly what packaging they have and where is ends up at end-of-life.”
 
For example, you might assume your cardboard packaging is pretty eco-friendly, but if it’s layered with other materials, it’s likely that it won’t be recycled. Aim for materials that are genuinely recycled at curbside, says Haselhoff – the Sustainable Business Network has some guides that could help. And although the idea of compostable packaging is lovely, it’s not appropriate for every scenario so make sure you do your homework and get it certified to international standards.


2. Minimise where you can  

The mantra for packaging is ‘eliminate, circulate, innovate’. That the first step is not only the easiest, but it can even reduce your costs. Can you get rid of extra ribbons, labels or padding? Can you fit the boxes to the products, rather than using larger boxes? Well-fitted boxes means you don’t need to fill up the space with additional material and it can reduce freight costs.
 
Minimal packaging can be functional, beautiful, and appreciated by customers, says Haselhoff; “so bring your packaging back to its core functional purpose.”
 

3. Work out the product’s full carbon impact

 
Sometimes failing to protect a product can be worse than non-recyclable packaging. It’s possible that one small bit of plastic packaging could provide a lower carbon footprint for your product, if the recyclable solution doesn’t provide the same protection.
 
Eliminating the plastics we don't need is a key part of the solution. However, we know we can't recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis, and neither can we reduce our way out. Switching to an alternative material, or eliminating plastic packaging entirely, can be considered, though always along with the impacts throughout the entire life of the packaging and the system it is part of. There can be unintended consequences – a different material might have a larger environmental footprint due to the way it’s made or produce higher carbon emissions with its transportation (e.g. glass is heavier than plastic). Given its versatility, plastic is expected to continue to be used for various applications, so the best approach is to design a plastics system that works, in which it never becomes waste or pollution.
 

4. Look for easy wins in your supply chain

 
Think about how your products are moved around – are there quick changes you could implement to improve your product’s carbon footprint or waste? Look across the supply chain and try to identify areas where you could improve the packaging or choose a carbon-conscious freight option.
 
For example, you could switch from single-use pallet wrap to a reusable containment system. Or could you work with your suppliers on a reuse system? Supermarkets, for instance, use crates to transport produce, and send the crates back and forth between the growers and the stores.


5. Consider new solutions

 
You can start by speaking to your packaging supplier – they should have a good understanding of what’s recyclable in New Zealand, what’s reusable and what’s going straight to landfill. They can help you with ideas for making your packaging fit into a circular economy, and if there’s no easy way to make that happen, they should be able to help you think about new ways to make your packaging sustainable. Remember that recyclability varies by country, so make sure you’re getting accurate local advice and not being sucked in by ‘greenwashing’.
 
You can also talk to other businesses in your industry, whether local or international, about their solutions or how you could cooperate and come up with a reuse system.
 
“It takes time and investment to innovate on packaging,” Haselhoff says. “But with the Government phasing out certain packaging, and the UN looking to unite on a global plastics treaty, it’s great to be ahead of the game. And if you get it right, it’s possible that sustainable packaging could drive sales and save your business money in the long run.”