As more products are shipped direct to consumers, manufacturers are reconsidering how they package products so they arrive intact and in smaller shipments.

Packaging experts are concerned about the environment. Rather, they’re concerned about how consumers feel about the environment. But they also want packages to arrive on time, intact and in easy-to-open packages, while not making expensive alterations to the supply chain.

But these factors don’t have to be at odds with each other. During the inaugural E-Pack Summit held in Chicago, brands, packaging suppliers and delivery companies discussed how e-commerce has altered the art of delivering packages to shoppers.

E-commerce is still a relatively small part of the overall global packaging market, said Ciaran Little, director of operations Americas for Smithers Pira, a packaging market research and testing company that hosted the conference.

The global packaging market, or the cost of all packaging materials and equipment, is $850 billion in 2017 according to Smithers Pira, with e-commerce packaging accounting for just 3.3% of that, or $28 billion. However, global packaging is expected to grow at just 3% per year through 2021, while e-commerce packaging is on track to grow by 14% during the same period according to Smirthers Pira.

Environmental concerns

One major aspect of e-commerce packaging that speakers discussed throughout the conference was the environmental impact of e-commerce packaging. Retailers and packaging suppliers are dealing with consumers who think oversized packaging is bad for the environment, don’t know how to properly recycle some packaging or think e-commerce package components, such as air cushions or polybag envelopes, aren’t recyclable enough.

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“E-commerce probably isn’t the best for any eco-conscious shopper,” Little said. But he also noted that consumers who want smaller packages aren’t considering that reduced packaging protection also means more returns due to damaged products, leading to more emissions per order.

However, some consumer packaged goods manufacturers are adapting their product packaging to better survive e-commerce shipping journeys. For example, Unilever’s Seventh Generation brand, which offers eco-friendly household cleaning and personal care products, worked with plastic manufacturer DowDuPont to develop a stronger cap and neck for the brand’s laundry detergent. DowDuPont tested the strengthened plastic in real e-commerce shipments to ensure it was stronger than the previous product. 

The increased protection on the bottle itself meant the manufacturer could tell online sellers of its products the detergent now required less packaging. It also helped the product packaging hold up better at omnichannel retailers, which are using more ship-from-store options to fulfill online orders. That means products initially destined for store shelves can now end up in boxes handled by shipping carriers, and the more robust product packaging ensures those orders arrive intact.

Considering the eco-friendly brand’s image and reduced breakage in transit, Seventh Generation director of packaging development Derrick Lawrence said the investment was worth it.

Pepsi concentrates on package reduction

PepsiCo also is looking to reduce its package size on the various food items it sells, both by altering product sizes and pushing consumers to change buying patterns to received fewer shipments, according to PepsiCo’s senior packaging engineer Rebecca Dominick.

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The beverage conglomerate’s Drinkfinity brand lets users add flavoring liquids—packaged in pods—to tap water in specialized bottles. Since the pods are full of concentrated flavoring, they can be much smaller than ready-to-drink options, allowing for less packaging overall. Additionally, the pods require stiffer plastic construction to work, so boxes don’t need to be filled with as much cushioning. 

PepsiCo recently acquired SodaStream, which offers cylinders of compressed CO2 to make soda water at home, which can then be flavored with SodaStream syrups. This also reduces PepsiCo’s need to ship and package water, the biggest component of many of its drink offerings.

PepsiCo also is trying to get consumers to purchase more products together to reduce the outer packaging required. At Gatorade.com, the drink manufacturer offers a range of bundles that include drink powder, energy bars and recovery drinks as one purchase.

Online retailers need different packaging

Packages destined for Amazon.com Inc., No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2018 Top 500, is another big concern for consumer packaged goods brands. Rob Dumas, packaging solutions supervisor at manufacturer 3M, said growing online sales have spurred the manufacturer to change its packaging for both stores and for how it ships its products to e-commerce retailers like Amazon. 3M sells products such as Command Strips, which are wall mounting sticky strips using for hanging light-weight items. 

For 3M’s Command Strip e-commerce orders, the manufacturer reduced its volume of packaging per strip by 29%. It did this by packaging the Command Strips in a polybag envelope instead of shipping the hard plastic strip packs, which are often sold at stores.

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And the company uses less plastic and paper with the e-commerce pack by cutting out internal boxes that kept store-bound packs in order, reducing the environmental impact, Dumas says. 

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