Sustainability and Metal Packaging

by Alex Cosper on July 05, 2024

Metal packaging has now been used for over a century as the most reliable way to preserve food over a long time period. It's been one of the most sustainable packaging materials all along, due to its sturdiness and durability. While various traditional materials are being debated as to their contribution toward a sustainable society, metal is here to stay. Here are five important trends shaping the future of packaging, according to a global McKinsey study.

1. State of consumer concern and confusion

Consumers around the world are concerned about the environment and the safety of packaging, particularly to protect food. But consumers still prioritize other factors over sustainability, according to McKinsey researchers David Feber and Daniel Nordigarden. Consumers still base purchasing choices on price, quality, brand and convenience as main factors. Sustainability actually ranks relatively low as a priority for most consumers.

In the future, McKinsey expects fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturers to become more transparent about both products and packaging in terms of sustainability. Governments are driving businesses to adopt measures for reducing carbon emissions. The use of carbon intensity labels, such as on consumer electronics packaging, will make sustainability a more visible issue in the commercial world.

2. Regulatory complexities

Environmental regulations are moving in a stricter direction this century. But different regulations exist in different regions, so there are still no uniform standards on a global level for sustainability. Due to this wide variation, policymakers must take a granular approach to enforcing sustainable solutions for businesses. In some nations, plastic faces bans and taxes, due to concerns about pollution and toxicity. Metal, on the other hand, is safer with a longer lifespan and is easier to recycle than most other packaging materials.

The regulatory outlook on sustainable packaging points to a new era that will limit choices for packaging materials. It's crucial for manufacturers to prepare for the changes that lie ahead. At the same time, the various types of materials used for packaging today will likely still be around in the future. There will likely be more detailed regulations on what types of packaging can be used for certain types of products.

A goal among forward-thinking local governments is to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill. The more local governments within a region work together at this goal, the greater the odds of achieving sustainable solutions across broader geographies. Manufacturers can play a major role in waste reduction with messages on the packaging that encourage consumers to recycle.

3. Value chain gaps

One of the factors holding back the environmental movement is that most materials still go to waste. Only 16 percent of global plastic waste is reprocessed to make new products, while most of it goes to landfills. The problem with landfill buildups is that they inevitably leak toxic chemicals back into the ground. Gaps in the value chain, such as for coordination across different geographic regions, limit the amount of recycling that occurs.

Manufacturers need to raise awareness about these issues. A problem in the United States is that recycling operations are scattered across the country. Recycling needs to become a greater regional concern in order for it to become more mainstream.

4. Slow market adoption of sustainable innovations

Growing regulatory pressure is causing many manufacturers to look deeper into packaging innovations that achieve the goals of sustainability. At the same time, companies generally have been slow to adopt these changes, due to the complex challenges involved with green transformation. Two key areas in which FMCG manufacturers are improving sustainability are in the use of recyclable materials and reusable or returnable containers.

Metal containers of all sizes are commonly kept by consumers to store various items. A pocket-size metal container, for example, can be reused to store change, keys and jewelry. A larger metal container the size of a bread box can be used to store multiple miscellaneous household items such as tools, utensils and batteries.

Adoption of sustainable practices has occurred at a much faster pace in Europe than in the United States. Until recycling becomes more of a norm on a mass scale in all parts of the world, recycled metal will at least contribute to sustainable packaging in a major way.

5. Resilience of plastic packaging

McKinsey's global study found that consumers perceive plastic packaging made from recycled or compostable materials as highly sustainable. On the other hand, many of these same consumers view plastic containers made of recycled materials to be less sustainable. This confusion about packaging and sustainability calls for better education by manufacturers.

Ultimately, plastic is not disappearing anytime soon, despite the growing legislation calling for bans and restrictions. Brand owners still see the value in plastic for multiple reasons, such as its low cost. There's a growing focus among brands to improve plastic packaging and turn to recycled plastic for sourcing. Furthermore, consumer demand for plastic products and packaging is still relatively strong.

When comparing metal with plastic in terms of sustainability, metal has quite an edge due to its ability to protect food from contaminants. Safety is a top priority in the scope of sustainability, particularly when it comes to food products. Metal is also more sustainable because it potentially has a longer shelf life than plastic. Additionally, metal containers are more likely to be reused than plastic containers.


The concept of sustainability is becoming a central theme in supply chains and among producers of packaged goods. Several regulatory issues are setting the stage for sustainable packaging of the future. In nearly all concerns about sustainability, metal passes the test as a viable material with waste reduction and long-lasting qualities. So until the masses participate in recycling and other waste reduction measures, metal packaging is still one of the best ways to convey concern for sustainability.



[1] Sustainability in packaging: Investable themes (March 26, 2021 )by  David Feber, Daniel Nordigården, Anna Granskog , Felix Grünewald, and Oskar Lingqvist

Topics: Metal Packaging, Sustainability, Food packaging

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