Giant cardboard boxes, puffy plastic air pillows, Styrofoam, packing peanuts, polystyrene bags, and plastic wrap. Consider, too, what’s discarded from consumables: tray liners, clamshells, egg and milk cartons, and plastic soda bottles, to name a few.
We’re drowning in packaging — some 82.2 million tons of it is produced annually in the United States alone. Our pollution problem isn’t only about the stuff we consume, it’s the stuff around the stuff that we consume. While packaging materials tend to be short-lived in our households before heading to the landfill, they’re waste products that are likely to stay there for close to eternity, or else become litter that eventually finds its way into the ocean.
That realization hit home for Rich Cohen, who hatched a business plan for more sustainable packaging while on a year’s sabbatical from his corporate job some 20 years ago. Wherever he traveled, there was evidence of our planet’s packaging problem, and he recognized that the industry didn’t have any incentive to move to less wasteful and polluting material at the time. Inspired to help, he launched Chicago-based Elevate Packaging, which describes itself as the first company focused exclusively on making sustainable packaging materials — compostable bags, mailers, labels, and shrink-wrap.
Cohen was early to perceive a trend that in the last few years has become a worldwide phenomenon: Companies are making the switch from conventional packaging materials to ones that have a reduced carbon footprint, require less energy to manufacture, and produce less pollution. The trend has taken root in the last decade as the threat of global warming and the deluge of ocean plastic have awakened the public to the urgency of environmental protection.
Packaging innovation accelerated during the pandemic as consumers leaned into online shopping and then had to live with the accumulated boxes, bags, and packing peanuts. “Post-COVID, the growth rate of [the sustainable packaging] industry went up by three times,” says Ismail Sutaria, chief research analyst of packaging at the research firm Future Market Insights. The company expects that, over the next decade, the sustainable packaging materials sector — currently worth $274 billion a year — will grow worldwide at a compound annual growth rate of 5.4%. In 10 years it will make up 30% of the total packing materials market, up from 20% today, according to Sutaria.