The rise of zero waste packaging

Detailing the increasing popularity of zero waste packaging as a sustainable alternative to mitigate waste, chemicals and pollution.

The global zero waste packaging market was valued at an estimated USD 2 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow 8.8% each year until 2032 to reach almost USD 5 billion. The growth comes as over 200 million tons of plastic are produced and sent to landfill each year, making zero waste packaging an appealing and sustainable method of combating the pollution crisis. 

Consumer awareness of the environmental impact of packaging is high. In a McKinsey & Company survey, more than half of US consumers said they were “highly concerned”, showing awareness of the potential harm caused by plastic food packaging. As consumers seek out ecofriendly alternatives to wasteful and plastic packaging, zero waste packaging is becoming more popular. 

But what exactly is zero waste packaging, and which policies and regulations are driving it?

What is zero waste packaging?

A common misconception is that zero waste packaging means zero packaging altogether — but this isn’t the case.  

The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as follows: 

“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” 

In summary, zero waste packaging uses materials that don’t result in wastage after use, thereby reducing the volume of waste generated by packaging materials and the harmful effects of such waste on the environment.


Examples of zero waste packaging materials 

As regulatory authorities introduce new requirements around sustainable and zero waste packaging, and consumer demand grows, the packaging sector has responded through innovation. New packaging solutions include:  

  • Compostable bags 
  • Reusable shipping bags 
  • Corrugated cardboard boxes 
  • Packaging made of bamboo 
  • Mushroom packaging (mycelium-based packaging) 
  • Seaweed packaging  
  • Biodegradable packaging tape and labels 
  • Glass containers

Drivers of zero waste packaging

High waste volumes 

In 2018 alone, EPA recorded more than 80 million tons of containers and packaging waste, defining packaging as “the product used to wrap or protect goods, including food, beverages, medications and cosmetic products.”  

This type of packaging is used in plastic-wrapped fruits and vegetables, cleaning bottles, medication disposal boxes, and cosmetic creams, serums, and makeup containers — none of which are zero waste-friendly options.


Harmful substances 

Research into conventional packaging and the chemicals used in its production or disposal is key in driving the search for more sustainable alternatives and zero waste packaging. Not only does zero waste packaging remove the threat of potential toxins, it also helps limit the volume of damaging chemicals infiltrating the planet’s water or land. 


PFAS in packaging 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are widely used in packaging materials, where they’re intentionally added to plastic food packaging to provide water and stain resistance, or to containers such as takeaway boxes.  

PFAS’s harmful impact on both human health and the environment is now widely recognized. The subsequent focus among regulatory authorities to restrict and ban PFAS has a significant impact on packaging, with numerous bans now under discussion and taking effect.

The growing desire to mitigate and eliminate the presence of harmful chemicals like PFAS is driving zero waste as an initiative, so that reusable and recyclable materials in packaging lead to a reduction in wastage and harmful impacts.  

Packaging waste policies and regulations

In efforts to limit and control packaging waste, policymakers and authorities around the world are now implementing and proposing new regulations. The EU has defined guidelines for waste management and has mandated a quantitative increase in the reuse and recycling of municipal waste up to 2035. Since plastic and similar materials are difficult to recycle or reuse long-term, zero waste packaging is one way to achieve these goals.  

New extended producer responsibilities are also shifting the responsibility of waste to manufacturers. The use of compostable and zero waste alternatives are likely to assist producers in meeting these obligations in their operations and packaging.  

The following directives and policies are related to the rise in zero waste packaging:


The EU’s Waste Framework Directive  

Published by the European Commission, the Waste Framework Directive establishes basic waste management principles, requiring that waste be managed in the following way: 

  • without harming human health or the environment  
  • without risk to water, air, soil, plants, or animals  
  • without causing noise or odor disturbance  
  • without adversely affecting the countryside and places of special interest  

The directive details varying definitions and categories of waste and identifies a five-step “waste hierarchy” so that companies can evaluate their own contribution. To meet the aims of the Waste Framework Directive, EU member states will need to increase the reuse and recycling of municipal waste to a minimum of 55%, 60% and 65% by weight by 2025, 2030, and 2032, respectively — as further evidenced by the Circular Economy Package.   


The UK’s Circular Economy Package 

The Circular Economy Package is a long-term strategy for waste management and recycling in the UK, building upon the Resources and waste strategy for England. With a target to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2023 and no more than 10% of municipal waste heading to landfill by 2035, the package restricts materials which can be sent to landfill. The aim is to encourage more recyclable materials in circulation, therefore reducing the volumes of waste burned or buried, which pollute air and soil. 


The EU’s Plastic Bags Directive 

This Directive was adopted to combat the unsustainable use of lightweight plastic carrier bags — noted as one of the top ten littered items in Europe. The directive sets annual limits for member states to adopt on the amount of plastic carrier bags per person, decreasing in weight each year. 


Extended producer responsibility  

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is an environmental policy being adopted in numerous regions around the world. It emphasizes that producers are responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products, even after being sold. By focusing on the post-consumer treatment of products, EPR is a driving force behind many waste management initiatives. With the responsibility for products from design to end-of-life firmly situated with the manufacturer, businesses are increasingly expected to consider how their products are created, with a view on their accountability for their disposal too. This could take the form of a reuse or recycling scheme.

What’s next for zero waste?

With waste pollution surging annually, regulatory authorities and consumers are likely to place more emphasis on the need to reduce packaging pollution. Alternatives to harmful and unrecyclable materials will continue to drive innovation. By looking at zero waste options, manufacturers will take large strides towards meeting their compliance requirements.  

Discover more about packaging

Learn more about how the regulatory landscape for packaging is changing across industry sectors worldwide. Read our free report on emerging regulations surrounding packaging and packaging waste.  

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