The (complicated) rise of sustainable supplement packaging

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

SmartyPants is one of the few supplement brands to use bottles made from 100% PCR (post-consumer recycled) material. Image © Stephen Daniells
SmartyPants is one of the few supplement brands to use bottles made from 100% PCR (post-consumer recycled) material. Image © Stephen Daniells

Related tags Recycled plastic Sustainable packaging

The adage ‘first slowly, then all at once’ might be about right when it comes to making dietary supplement packaging greener in the US.

Packaging experts acknowledge the dietary supplements industry – in the US and elsewhere – hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of sustainable materials and methods for the pills, powders and liquids that define the sector.

One said the percentage of US dietary supplement manufacturers using sustainable packaging was “in the low double digits”.

A recent poll of US dietary supplement shoppers from Ingredient Transparency Center (ITC) found about half were not influenced at all by green issues in their supplement purchasing decisions.

Hardly impressive but moving in the right direction and picking up steam according to trade groups – fuelled by converging and intensifying forces for green good.

“There are legislative and consumer pressures coming to bear on the companies,”​ said Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) president and CEO, Steve Mister. “Pressure is even coming from shareholders in publicly traded companies to take a hard look at what we are doing in packaging and what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint.”

ITC found 63% of American supplement buyers said brand transparency information somewhat or greatly increased the chance of purchase and likelihood of paying more for products.

Brent Anderson, the Utah-based natural health market leader at labelling specialist Nosco, reckons the consumer-driven sea change is upon us.

“The messaging 10 years ago was that if all things are created equal consumers will purchase a sustainable product, however if it is more expensive or less convenient or doesn’t check another box, consumers aren’t going to go out of their way to buy it. That’s old. That’s not the case any more,”​ Anderson said. “It has a trickle effect so certainly from the printed packaging standpoint it really changes the way we do business.”

‘You can’t look at sustainability in a silo’

Few would argue with this overall green momentum, heightened in some demographics like under-45s according to ITC, but the complexity and difficulty in implementing meaningful sustainable actions not to mention communicating about them in ways consumers can understand and engage with, can be sobering for green enthusiasts.

“There are trade-offs,”​ Anderson said. “Packaging’s primary role has always been product protection and consumer safety so when I talk to my customers about sustainability my foundational pillar is always: We will only do this if we can also ensure product efficacy and consumer safety.”

Going all-in on sustainable packaging will not always yield the best results when it comes to the often very sensitive and fragile powders and compounds housed in dietary supplement bottles, sachets, tubs and other containers.

Anderson: “There are certain products you wouldn’t want to package in a biodegradable film that could lead to less protection of the product inside. That is never something that I would be willing to sacrifice for sustainability.”

“You can’t look at sustainability in a silo – it has to be part of your overall company initiative – it’s part of R&D and product development; it’s part of packaging and distribution. It can’t be just one person in charge of sustainability but without an eye to the distribution process. If your product goes through international shipment and sits on a boat for three weeks and faces high humidity, moisture, heat – those are important things to know when making a packaging selection.”

Green misconceptions

There is also the issue – regardless of any sustainability siloing that might be going on in packaging selection – that public perception does not always tally with sustainable packaging facts. Take glass…

“Whatever way you look at it, single-use glass – although it is easily recycled – it still ends up being higher carbon than most of the other materials because of the weight of the material essentially,”​ said Mark Hilton​, head of sustainable business at Eunomia Research & Consulting.

“Plastic isn’t as bad as everyone thinks compared to glass and aluminum. The move to plastics – even single-use plastic from single-use glass is actually a good thing contrary to what a lot of people think. Plastics get scapegoated.”

Natural Products Association (NPA) president and CEO Dan Fabricant agreed plastic often got a bad rap.

“Weight determines a lot in fuel costs so plastic can be better than glass. There are pluses and minuses with both. The challenge is unintended consequences like product integrity suffering. Some of those more nuanced conversation are the hardest to have sometimes.”

In an increasingly polarized world it’s not hard to imagine the scale and difficulty of communicating such material choices that might buck the consensus or take a bit of mental spadework to comprehend.

“Sustainability actions can be invisible or confusing to consumers. Brands need to do a better job communicating why sustainability matters and why they have made their selections,”​ Anderson said.

Technical gains

Most dietary supplement bottles were consumer-level recyclable, Anderson said, and benefiting from labeling advances.

“For some bottles to be recyclable the label has to be removed and there are advances there. That is a challenge – they don’t always come off cleanly but we have labels consumers don’t have to take off bottles in order to throw them in their blue recycling bins. They can throw the entire package in there.”

“Packaging manufactures have made significant strides in broadening the portfolio of sustainability options which can be tailored to fit the specific product needs and company goals.  Nosco has recently launched new material options for cartons, labels, and flexible packaging which include; materials with renewable forestry certifications(FSC and SFI), post-consumer recycled materials, and recyclable, biodegradable, and industrial compostable materials. We also have water-soluble labels that can be removed at home so the bottle can be repurposed.”

COVID-19 impacts: Lags, localism

The pandemic has added complexity to material selections as supply of supplement packaging staple items like glass, plastic and aluminum has been compromised in key source markets like China.

“The pandemic exacerbated disruptions to China-sourced packaging material generally – not just glass bottles – that had previously been reported due to tariffs imposed on many Chinese imports over the past several years,”​ American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) president Michael McGuffin told us.

“AHPA has communicated to the recently confirmed US Trade Representative to ask that her office reconsider some of the tariffs relevant to businesses in the dietary supplement and herbal product industries.”

Some manufacturers saw pill bottle lead times triple to 12 weeks, relayed Anderson.

“That had a huge impact on their ability to meet consumer demand in a year when dietary supplement demand in general was strongly increasing. Supply chain issues for plastics, glass and aluminum really impacted many brands’ ability to keep products stocked.”

Did Anderson mean that purely in the past tense?

“It should be getting better with the pandemic easing but I don’t see it. I think we are facing a second wave of some supply chain issues, especially international supply chains.

“One sustainability bonus of that is sourcing locally. Many companies have lined up secondary domestic sources at the very least; in addition to the improvements in lead time, this also results in significantly lower carbon emission from excess transit."

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Despite the obvious complexities and challenges in achieving greener packaging, Anderson said, “the old adage: ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is still very relevant today.”

“One of the best ways that companies can be sustainable is to reduce excess packaging. That doesn’t have to mean eliminating packaging entirely from a label, paper or film standpoint – it can mean thinner types of packaging be it paper or plastic. It’s just less raw materials being utilized.”

First slowly, then all at once…

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