While significant progress has been made in developing more sustainable packaging over the past few decades, there are still many challenges that must be addressed to fully implement sustainable solutions on a large scale. Some of the major ongoing challenges include:
Cost and Infrastructure – Sustainable packaging materials and methods often have higher upfront costs compared to traditional plastic and paper-based packaging. This includes the costs of R&D to design new materials, equipment modification to handle different material types, and consumer education. Building entirely new infrastructure to collect, sort, and process alternative packaging also requires massive capital investment. Until economies of scale can bring the costs down and recycling systems are further developed, these higher costs will continue to be a barrier to wide adoption.
Consumer Behavior and Education – Even with innovative new sustainable packaging options available, changing deeply ingrained consumer behaviors and preferences takes time. Many consumers are still unfamiliar with how to properly dispose of new material types or what can and cannot be recycled in their area. Extensive education campaigns are needed to overcome resistance to change and build understanding of why sustainability matters. Without growing consumer demand, companies lack market incentives to fully transition their packaging portfolios.
Materials and Processing Limitations – No currently available sustainable material can perfectly replicate the ideal performance characteristics of plastic and paper for all types of packaging applications. Factors like strength, barrier properties, production speeds, and shelf stability still need improvement. These materials limitation also impact processing, as not all facilities are equipped to handle compostable, recyclable, or reusable materials on the same scale as traditional ones. More R&D is needed to develop advanced materials and optimize new processing technologies.
Contamination Issues – Even with the best consumer education programs, contamination of recycling and compost streams from incorrect disposal remains a persistent issue. Non-recyclable or non-compostable items mixed in can shut down entire processing operations or render output materials unsafe. This undermines the viability of recycling and composting infrastructure and reinforces calls for maximal standardization of sustainable packaging design. Continued improvement is required to address human error and establish robust contamination controls.
Legislative and Policy Support – While some jurisdictions have set ambitious waste reduction and recycling targets, inconsistent or lack of supportive policy at national, state/provincial, and local levels continues to hamper sustainable packaging transitions. Regulations around extended producer responsibility, packaging taxes, compostable labeling requirements, and post-consumer recycled content mandates need harmonization. Strong policy leadership is still needed to further incentivize package redesign, invest in modernized infrastructure, and hold companies accountable for their full lifecycle impacts.
Lack of Standardization – As the sustainable packaging sector grows increasingly complex with new materials, formats, and recycling/composting systems, maintaining high levels of standardization is a ongoing challenge. The proliferation of non-interchangeable solutions risks market fragmentation, higher costs, and continued consumer confusion over what can truly be recycled or composted. Independent certification of packaging sustainability claims also remains limited. Additional coordination is required globally to establish and enforce comprehensive standardization frameworks.
While sustainable packaging technologies and solutions continue to advance, significant investments in areas like materials research, consumer education programs, optimized infrastructure expansion, policy harmonization efforts, standardization work, and broader supply chain alignment will still be needed to fully realize their potential benefits at scale. Addressing these ongoing implementation challenges comprehensively and systematically will be critical to accelerate the transition away from single-use plastics and realize a truly circular economy for packaging worldwide. Continued commitment and coordination across all stakeholders will be required over the coming decades.