E-commerce packaging ups environmental sustainability game as multi-generational demand grows
13 Apr 2022 --- The challenges arising between the boom in demand for e-commerce packaging emerging primarily during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing need to maintain environmental sustainability have been compounded by geopolitical issues this year – particularly the Ukraine war and inflating energy and material costs.
Despite the easing of lockdown restrictions in many world regions, consumer reliance on home delivery has kept a steady pace, creating new challenges for industry players as they attempt to innovate solutions that cater to these demands while continuing to lower carbon emissions and resist price increases for businesses and consumers.
As these issues come to a head, PackagingInsights speaks to Mondi’s Group eCommerce director Daniela Dorner about how the company is making the packaging industry a key driver in improving environmental sustainability across sectors.
No drop in demand
Despite the reopening of high street stores in many parts of the world, demand for home-delivered goods has continued, and consumer awareness of environmental footprint is still on the rise.
Online interviews with 3,085 consumers in Germany and Poland conducted on behalf of Mondi during the fourth quarter of 2021 showed that 90% of the surveyed population shopped online during the year, says Dorner.
rise in the senior generation of shoppers (55 years +).The data was gathered during the annual peak season for online shopping between Black Friday and New Year’s. In addition to regular online shoppers, there was a
“Their presence in the digital malls is visible, and they seem to be enjoying the online experience.”
“This [new consumer group] is combined with a strong demand by brands and marketplace owners for packaging that is fit for purpose and [environmentally] sustainable. Fiber-based paper packaging meets these demands and has been trending over the last few years. We do not see an end yet to this trend,” continues Dorner.
“In parallel to the growth of the online shopping market, and in line with increased consumer awareness, we have seen more brands switching from less [environmentally] sustainable materials to paper-based packaging solutions, and they are being vocal about it.”
The switch to fiber-based packaging, described as a “frenzy” by Innova Market Insights in its Top Trends for 2021, has been ongoing since anti-plastic legislation began coming into force worldwide.
“Paper can be sourced in a sustainable way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, maintains zero deforestation, and safeguards biodiversity and water resources. Mondi commits to these targets to lower the carbon footprint of paper products,” asserts Dorner.
“It depends on the application of the material – how it is sourced, processed, transported, used and disposed of at the end of life. For example, paper-based solutions from renewable, responsible sources are often fully recyclable at scale and in practice.”
On the other hand, Dorner concedes that plastic solutions often have very high material efficiency as they are lightweight and strong, but usually not widely recycled.
“There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ materials since [environmentally] sustainable approaches in packaging are often a trade-off depending on each application. Our approach is to use paper where possible, plastic when useful. But, it’s worth noting that the European paper industry has cut carbon emissions by 27% since 2005. It’s also the largest industrial generator and user of renewable energy in Europe,” she explains.
However, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine almost two months ago, the supply of wood for pulp and paper packaging has been hit hard, with many forestry standards organizations and leading packaging companies – like Stora Enso ad UPM – abandoning operations in Russia in protest to the war. Energy supplies for processing raw materials have also shot up as sanctions against Russian gas and oil take effect.
Despite criticism from some corners, Mondi is one of the only companies maintaining its operations in Russia, explaining that its mill in the Komi Republic provides local communities with energy and water supplies. The company is also donating €1 million (US$1,0940) to support the United Nations World Food Programme’s emergency operation to provide food assistance for people impacted by the conflict.
Fighting food waste
Despite the current crises in energy supplies caused by war and inflation and the outcries against trade with Russia’s multi-billion-dollar wood market, Dorner asserts that wider and more long-term issues are at stake when considering e-commerce packaging.
According to the US Food and Agriculture Organization, food waste, which accounts for roughly 8% of global GHG emissions annually, is a priority when considering packaging design and material sourcing.
“With the pandemic driving a 10% increase in online grocery shopping, Mondi is well-positioned to provide sustainable solutions for safe and responsible transportation of fresh produce. We have helped e-commerce companies decrease total packaging costs, reduce waste and delight consumers –from e-grocery bags to dedicated corrugated designs,” says Dorner.
“A good example of new product development is our new BCoolBox – a 100% recyclable material packaging system with thermo-insulation that keeps perishable food cool while in transit.”
The box is also effective enough to replace cooling trucks and the related energy used to fuel them.
Measuring environmental footprints
Demonstrating the effectiveness of solutions such as the BCoolBox is another challenge companies like Mondi face, often life cycle assessment (LCA) studies are used to measure the impact packaging has on the environment throughout its entire lifecycle, from production to disposal.
“When it comes to LCA studies and comparison of different alternatives via LCAs, it is important to underline that a nuanced debate always has to take place, as different material solutions may have trade-offs, and LCA studies are often not comparable due to different scopes and assumptions,” says Dorner.
“As an example: when food systems are assessed, the impact of packaging (for example, in terms of contribution to climate change) is relatively small compared to the impacts from sourcing and processing of the food it contains. So packaging plays a key role in ensuring that the food reaches its destination at required levels of quality and safety.”
If packaging fails due to damage or contamination, it results in avoidable food and packaging waste. From an environmental point of view, the reduced impacts due to food waste prevention can offset higher impacts due to more sophisticated packaging systems, she continues.
One material might have lower impacts for some LCA indicators but rarely in all impact categories. A focus on the climate change impact category is often made, but responsible sourcing and end-of-life impacts are also important criteria to consider.
“In the end, what matters is what is important to the brand, whether the production process or end-of-life recyclability of packaging – which we see as a strong driver in e-commerce packaging,” she concludes.
By Louis Gore-Langton
To contact our editorial team please email us at email@example.com
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.