Improving sustainability in a thoughtful and determined way

Greater sustainability through food packaging

Photo of sustainable packaging

It sounds so simple. “Become more sustainable.” Companies in all verticals are hearing—and heeding—this call, and the food packaging industry is no exception. 

Food packaging is complex and becoming more sustainable is an ongoing journey that involves looking at the full life cycle of the product packaging. Small changes can impact  the planet and your bottom line. With so many factors, food packaging sustainability is far from simple. 

In general, there are always tradeoffs when considering how to improve your own efforts at environmental responsibility. At the forefront, cost is always a big factor. Sustainable packaging is becoming a necessity, and innovative products and solutions are reducing the cost. 

Still, there are a lot of factors to consider beyond cost. Many companies look at these main variables:

  • Can it be recycled?
  • Is it made from recycled materials?
  • Can it be reused?
  • Can it be reformatted?
  • Are bio-based renewable resources an option?

Plus, the nature of food packaging brings even more variables and complexity, so let’s look at what options you have as you work toward your company’s sustainability goals.

One of the first places to look is at materials. Broadly speaking, materials like styrofoam and plastic, once staples of affordable and durable food packaging, are now recognized as problematic for the environment due to their slow rate of breakdown. 

However, alternatives like paper or molded fiber packages might not be options for all applications, as they aren’t well suited for foods with high liquid or oil content. Fortunately, there are plenty of other materials out there. Glass, metal, new composites. The options do exist.

Unfortunately, so do variables. Switching away from one material isn’t just about balancing increased costs. There are three other crucial considerations specific to food products that make food packaging especially complicated.


In some cases, you could make a seemingly sustainable choice of switching to a material that’s thinner and lighter, meaning a reduction in the energy that it takes to produce it. That’s great! The downside is that thinner and lighter material might result in a higher rate of spoilage. If the spoilage rate rises enough, the increased waste could offset or even exceed the decreased energy. And spoilage is a very real problem, especially in areas like meat or dairy. Roughly 30% of the food chain is wasted annually in the EU according to a recent study. Not only does this require more energy to provide replacement food, it also contributes to additional material waste from the packaging itself.


For beverages and liquids, shifting from plastic to glass could be a way to achieve greater recyclability, a longer shelf life, and even an improved appeal to customers, thanks to rising interest in transparent packaging that lets consumers clearly see the actual product. Unfortunately, glass is often heavier and bulkier, which means that shipments will weigh more and also carry less product. This not only inflates costs but also raises fuel consumption, increasing your carbon footprint.


To help reduce reliance on non-renewable plastic and the resultant physical waste, there are lots of innovative bio-based substrates like Bio-PE and PLA as well as food-based materials from corn starch or leftover sugar cane. These seem like great alternatives, because they, unlike oil-based plastics, have the ability to biodegrade.

Again, however, there’s another layer to consider. Food-based materials require agricultural production, which can raise water and energy usage and possibly take away land from more energy-efficient crops. The bio-plastics may be theoretically biodegradable, but often only in an industrial setting, which means that end users can’t simply compost them on their own. This creates a need for a new waste management chain, collecting, sorting, and processing these materials—all of which takes energy and generates more carbon emissions.

In other words, all those buzzwords that SOUND green? They might be a bit misleading. That’s not to say they aren’t worth considering. It’s just important to look at them closely and consider secondary consequences that might not be immediately apparent from the hype.

So, sustainable food packaging is especially complicated. Is there a solution?

Yes, but it’s not just a single solution. It’s an approach. Ultimately, it requires a holistic look at packaging. You must consider it not just as a wrapping that should be minimized, but as an essential part of two of the main purposes of food packaging: health and safety.

At Veritiv, our holistic approach starts with a process we call Life Cycle Analysis. This evaluates your package design by looking at its entire environmental impact, from manufacturing and conversion to distribution and end-of-life. After that, we have the baseline to help compare alternatives and understand the impact of different decisions in different areas.


Whether reusable, recycled, or renewable, we can find solutions that minimize waste and maximize recycled materials. This can even go beyond the primary packaging that touches the food. We also look at boxes, cushioning products, and stretch film to help reduce the overall wastestream.


With a global network of designers, we consider sizing, structure, weighting, and more to ensure your packaging footprint is reduced and your freight optimization is well, optimized.


Beyond design, we also have ISTA-certified labs to verify and validate designs quickly so make sure that the solutions aren’t merely hypothetical.


Changing materials or other design factors has other effects. Not only can we help optimize existing equipment, we can help source and install new equipment. Plus, we can help identify automation solutions to further boost sustainability.

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It’s not always about new efforts. We also look for ways to do more with what you’re already working with, further eliminating waste and inefficiency. For instance, rationalizing SKUs can help reduce wasted space in warehouses. Or, switching products can minimize delivery needs, ultimately reducing emissions and transportation costs.

There are even more supply chain options to consider, especially for companies that make prepared foods or canned goods. Do the raw food products come over packaged? Consider looking at other suppliers that are more sustainable in how they deliver their goods. 

That said, of course you’ll also need to consider the potential for increased spoilage. You’ve probably got the picture—and the challenge—of food packaging sustainability. There’s always a trade-off. But as long as you can understand that, you’ll be on the right path toward improving your food packaging sustainability. And, if you want some more inspiration for how other companies are coming up with innovative approaches to sustainability through design, check out a few examples here.

If you want some more insight or ideas on how you can improve your food packaging sustainability, talk to us! We can help you find ways to improve your packaging—and find ways even beyond packaging design to help reduce waste throughout your operations. No matter where you are on your sustainability journey, a trusted partner can help you go even further. To learn more, contact Veritiv’s food packaging experts today!