Consumers Prove Convenience Eclipses Sustainability — What Can CPG Companies Do?
- According to recent reporting by the Washington Post, only 6% of plastics are successfully recycled in the United States. This statistic underscores the chasm between consumers’ perceptions of sustainability initiatives like recycling and the reality: Most packaging still ends up in landfills, largely due to a lack of infrastructure at the local level.
- Consumers say they care about sustainability, but they weigh their decisions on a number of factors, including convenience, price and overall value. Sustainable packaging must meet these metrics to succeed in the marketplace.
- How can companies balance consumers’ demands with their sustainability goals? A panel of Product Ventures executives breaks down the challenges and opportunities of innovating consumer packaged goods (CPG) that are better for the planet — and popular with consumers.
Sustainability efforts are a lot like the much-maligned paper straw: Without structural integrity, it doesn’t work.
Paper might be better for the environment than plastic, but it sometimes comes at the expense of the consumer experience. Likewise, sustainability initiatives like recycling only go so far without widespread, standardized local infrastructure to support them.
In May, The Washington Post reported the United States plastics recycling rate dropped to 6%, which means only a small fraction of all plastics Americans are recycled successfully. Our country’s recycling rate is shockingly low, but it’s especially troubling because it is even lower than a few years ago when the recycling rate was 9%.
One thing we know for sure: When it comes to sustainability, consumer perception can differ from stark reality.
The term sustainability itself is often misunderstood — or is too vague or broad to mean much at all. In the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) space, sustainability generally means environmental friendliness and or recyclability of product packaging. Consumers don’t generally understand the concept of a carbon footprint, but they do react positively to what they can control: their choices and their behavior.
And yet there’s a gap between what consumers say and what they do. Call it the paper straw paradox.
“It’s multi-dimensional,” says Randy Adis, Product Ventures’ VP of Consumer Insights, of consumers’ sustainability logic. “It changes based on the context.”
We convened a panel of Product Ventures executives to discuss how innovators can create better-for-the-planet products and packaging that consumers want to buy:
- Randy Adis, VP of Consumer Insights
- Eric Hartman, VP of Technologies and Commercialization
- Stuart Leslie, VP of Industrial Design
Arthur Augustyn moderated the conversation.
Rinse, wish-bin, repeat: Confusion reigns around the recycle bin
Because community and local/regional recycling infrastructure varies so widely, “There’s so much confusion around what is and what isn’t recyclable,” says Randy.
Whether or not they’re required to separate recyclables by broad type, sort plastics by number or throw the whole lot in the same bin, consumers tend to perform certain behaviors. Often, consumers “do the bare minimum” — or what they think they need to do, like rinsing out a package before they “wish-bin” an item they perceive as recyclable and hope for the best.
For too long, many industries saw consumers as homogeneous groups with similar behaviors. Now, consumer research reveals distinct personality types, many of which are driven by their personal desires.
“Some people are knowledge-seeking; they want to truly understand what’s recyclable, and what’s not. They want to educate their friends and family,” Stuart says.
Others are simply too busy to spend much time or energy on recycling if they spend any at all. But if it’s simple and accessible, they’ll toss plastic into a bin. That’s because “everybody learned that they needed to recycle” at some point, he explains. Countless citizens fought for curbside and office recycling receptacles; millions began rinsing bottles before tossing them into blue bins. But this whole behavior change among the American populace is a bit of a Black Swan event.
“We can’t teaching consumers different behaviors,” says Stuart.
Although “trained” to recycle certain items, consumers are “beginning to become skeptical of everything they read, and they’re realizing all that effort was for nothing,” Stuart argues. “We have a critical window right now. … We could lose the behavior if enough people get jaded.”
PET projects: A plastic success story
Randy says that’s part of the appeal of things like PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the chemical name for polyester). PET is a transparent, strong, lightweight plastic used widely for packaging foods (including prepared microwaveable meals), beverages (especially water and soft drinks), personal care products like shampoo, and cleaning products like liquid hand soap.
PET is completely recyclable and often PET plastic itself includes recycled PET. Consumers report that purchasing items made with PET recycled plastic makes them feel like their recycling efforts make a real difference.
“That’s something consumers can understand; it’s meaningful to them,” Stuart says. “We’ve heard people say, Yeah, I would pay more for something made of [or packaged in] recycled plastic.”
Plus, he adds that if an item is already recycled and can be recycled again, many consumers feel they have to “do their part to make sure it gets recycled again.”
Stuart says in the world of plastics, PET is “the best example of a success story in sustainability,” because it’s the only plastic getting recycled.
Goodwill, goals and government
Many Product Ventures clients have company-wide environmental goals, sustainability goals or ESG (environmental, social and governance) goals, usually accompanied by calendar milestones.
For example, some companies want all their packaging to be either compostable, recyclable or reusable by a certain date. From a U.S. consumer standpoint, recyclable or reusable items have more appeal, because composting isn’t widely available and poorly understood. So a CPG company isn’t likely to choose compostability as a goal. “Composting” isn’t a viable solution for consumers because it requires a commercial composting facility to be properly composted. Most “compostable” items are not properly composted and still end up in a landfill.
Lawmakers have responded to the lack of sustainability infrastructure to influence the perception of what is truly sustainable. For example, a California law passed in 2021 that states: If a product is not recyclable in 60% of municipalities in the U.S., it’s no longer considered recyclable and cannot be advertised as such.
The lack of standardized recycling systems is one of the biggest challenges of recycling that can be resolved through government investment in recycling infrastructure.
While consumers might feel good about buying items packaged in completely or partially recycled materials, “collecting enough of that material is problematic,” for both municipalities and industries, he adds.
Meanwhile, maintaining goodwill with consumers is crucial. They need to know recycling is actually happening, rather than learn that most of the bottles and cans they wash out, sort and drag to the alley actually end up in a landfill.
But economic forces are at play, too. Municipal recycling centers must be economically feasible. If communities can’t generate income from the waste they collect, they have no incentive to do so.
“That’s where the federal government needs to step in,” says Stuart. “Somebody is going to have to finance this: either the consumer or the manufacturer or the federal government. But we’re going to need a federal standard at the very least.”
It’s important to consider what our government does subsidize, he adds.
“How much money does the government give farmers every year … either to grow certain products or not to grow products? That’s the type of intervention we need on a recycling level, to get the economic equation to make more sense.”
Material matters: Biodegradable ‘halos’ and consumer behavior
“Each material has its own beliefs and myths,” says Stuart. Paper has a “biodegradable halo,” meaning consumers think it’s “universally environmentally friendly” — that they can just throw it in a recycling bin or even “throw it on the side of the road … [that it will] go away and turn into beautiful soil.”
Consumers have a similar misconception about aluminum, built on a lifetime of crushing cans for recycling.
“But each one of these things has a bit of a myth and a bit of a reality,” Stuart adds.
Companies that package candy in aluminum foil will think they “check the box” of sustainability because foil is a recyclable material. In reality, virtually no consumers will rinse off and put foil wrappers or household aluminum foil into recycling bins.
“Consumers have beliefs and they have behaviors,” Stuart notes.
Innovators in the CPG space have to separate the two, “so we have something that’s truly sustainable, but also truly works with current consumer behaviors and actually gets recycled or is reused.”
When choosing between products in different packages (say, plastic versus glass), consumers weigh costs and benefits.
“This is where the paradox of plastics comes in — because it’s one of the most beneficial materials out there from a consumer standpoint,” Randy says.
From the perspective of consumer convenience, plastic is the best material for packaging design even if it is the most damaging to sustainability concerns. Many plastics are transparent or semi-transparent, allowing consumers to see the product they are purchasing. Most plastics are lightweight; they protect products well and extend their shelf life without adding significant weight to the package.
Glass is another material that can be transparent and is considered more sustainable-friendly, but it has its own problems. Glass is heavy and expensive to transport — but it’s also “perceived to be more natural because it’s perceived to come from inside of the earth. There’s a halo to that, too.”
Consumers perceive glass as sustainable, but “it’s [almost] never recycled because it is made from sand, so it’s dirt cheap to make new glass,” Stuart notes. “It’s much more cost-effective to make new glass than it is to recycle glass.”
So what’s the best we can hope for, and work toward, now? Enacting a universal standard for the collection and recycling of materials, consistent across municipalities, regions and states.
The biggest challenge is how, says Eric.
“Do you find a model that’s really working in a state and try to distribute it widely? Or do you try to figure out what the most common format is?”
Without consistency across regions, local and state governments will have difficulty adopting “proven” models, which might work well in one part of the country but not others.
After many years in the CPG space, the panelists agree: The best way forward is some kind of government mandate. But different regions of the country have widely divergent views on sustainability, some states would likely reject a federal mandate of sustainability.
Perhaps the most promising government intervention is sustainability education. In June, the EPA announced $375 million in funding for recycling, reuse and waste prevention grant programs and initiatives.
These grants “can fund projects such as public service announcements, advertising campaigns, and the development and dissemination of recycling program toolkits … on how to recycle right, reduce contamination in the recycling stream, produce higher quality recycled materials, and advance a circular economy,” according to a press release from the EPA.
Another cause for optimism: Reusable products and packaging, which are “clearly sustainable solutions if we can get them adopted by consumers,” says Stuart. Plastic bag bans in a number of states led to a behavioral change in millions of consumers who now use reusable totes.
That’s the crucial point about reusables across the board: Consumers will embrace sustainable options if they’re low effort, with real advantages.
Stuart sums it up: “If you add convenience, then you can truly change behavior.”
Product Ventures works with the best-known brands to provide a holistic approach to product and package design. What can we do for your company? Contact us today to discuss your next challenge.