• Packaging generates the most plastic waste of any sector.
  • Brands are investing in new ways to package their products.
  • Alternatives to plastic include laser-etching vegetables and engineered cardboard.
  • There’s also a growing emphasis on how containers can be reused and recycled.

Anyone who has seen a child tear open their presents on Christmas morning knows how little attention gets paid to the wrapping – it’s all about what’s inside.

Yet packaging is responsible for an extraordinarily high proportion of waste, which all too often ends up in the wrong place. As this chart shows, packaging generates more plastic waste than the next four biggest industrial sectors combined.

This chart shows how different sectors contribute to plastic waste
Packaging is the leader of plastic waste.
Image: Our World in Data

Driven in part by pressure from increasingly environmentally-conscious consumers, many companies are changing the way their products are packaged to be more sustainable. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation advocates strategies at the heart of a circular economy – elimination, reuse and material circulation.

Here are seven ways packaging is changing.

1. Direct elimination

The simplest way to prevent packaging waste is to consider whether the packaging is needed at all. Supermarkets like Tesco and ASDA in the UK, have been phasing out the use of unnecessary plastic films for products such as multi-buy tins, yoghurt pots, greeting cards and bed linen. In North America, Walmart has stopped using clear plastic in doll packaging, and is removing wrapping from some vegetables like individual peppers.

2. Innovative elimination

In some cases where the packaging was doing an essential job, innovative design can achieve the same result in a different way. For example, Carlsberg has replaced the plastic rings holding six-packs of beer with dots of glue that stick the cans together. ICA Gruppen in Sweden has tried laser etching to replace labels on fresh fruit and vegetables. Water-soluble films are being used by a number of companies for laundry detergents and cleaning products. There are even edible coatings, like those developed by Apeel and Mori in the US, that keep food fresh by using organic materials rather than plastic.

A sweet potato with a laser etching on the skin in place of a plastic label
Laser etching is one way to replace labels on produce.
Image: ICA

3. Refills

Where packaging can’t be eliminated, it can be reused. Major manufacturers such as Unilever and SC Johnson have started offering concentrated versions of products that can be decanted into spray bottles at home. There is a thriving start-up scene of companies specializing in refills for products ranging from toothpaste tablets to detergents in powder form that can be made up just by adding water. Global beverage giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have invested heavily in new technologies to improve drinks dispensers, encouraging consumers to use their own bottles.

A jar filled with what small white tablets, which replace tradition toothpaste plastic tubes.
Toothpaste tablets are an alternative to traditional plastic tubes.
Image: Bite

4. Return and reuse

The traditional milkman has seen a renaissance in recent years – but consumers can now get a lot more than milk. Danone offers a subscription service for its water dispensers in Latin America, reusing the jugs it collects. DabbaDrop in London is one of many locally-based meal delivery services, with its containers inspired by the tiffin boxes of Mumbai. Global reuse platform Loop recently signed a partnership with Tupperware, adding their iconic reusable plastic food containers to its existing stock of glass and metal.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about digital trade?

What is the World Economic Forum doing about digital trade?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution – driven by rapid technological change and digitalization – has already had a profound impact on global trade, economic growth and social progress. Cross-border e-commerce has generated trillions of dollars in economic activity continues to accelerate and the ability of data to move across borders underpins new business models, boosting global GDP by 10% in the last decade alone.

The application of emerging technologies in trade looks to increase efficiency and inclusivity in global trade by enabling more small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to repeat its benefits and by closing the economic gap between developed and developing countries.

However, digital trade barriers including outdated regulations and fragmented governance of emerging technologies could potentially hamper these gains. We are leading the charge to apply 4IR technologies to make international trade more inclusive and efficient, ranging from enabling e-commerce and digital payments to designing norms and trade policies around emerging technologies (‘TradeTech’).

5. Plastic recycling

If the packaging itself can’t be reused, at least the material it’s made from can be. The average European generates about 175kg of packaging waste a year – with only two-thirds of that being recycled.

A chart showing how plastic waste is treated in different European countries.
The treatment of plastic waste varies greatly cross Europe.
Image: Eurostate

To improve that, manufacturers are finding ways to make recycling plastic a more attractive option. Coca-Cola has started selling Sprite in easier-to-recycle clear, rather than green, bottles. Colgate-Palmolive have developed toothpaste tubes made from a single recyclable material.

The Holy Grail consortium is working with global giants like Procter & Gamble and Nestlé to develop “invisible barcodes” embedded within product branding, so that the plastic can be automatically sorted by recycling plants.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

6. Composting

Replacing long-lasting plastics with biodegradable materials can help to reduce environmental damage. PG Tips and Yorkshire Tea are among the brands that are replacing the plastic in their tea bags with compostable alternatives. In New Zealand, apple grower Bostock is using compostable stickers on their fruit.

7. Substituting materials

Innovations in paper packaging could eliminate the need for polystyrene and bubble wrap. Hexcelpack makes padded envelopes and packaging from honeycombs of paper and card, the ClimaCell from TemperPack can keep food and medical products insulated, while Flexi-Hex offers protective packaging for everything from mobile phones to wine bottles and surfboards.