Packaging waste remains a global environmental concern, with millions of tons produced each year, a significant portion of which is plastic or paper.

Despite the potential benefits of reducing excessive packaging, a new study from Tilburg University reveals that unnecessary paper packaging creates a false perception of sustainability among consumers.

Excessive packaging: a growing environmental problem

Packaging waste poses a serious environmental threat, as reported by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which recorded more than 80 million tons of packaging produced in 2018.

Of this staggering amount, two-thirds comprised plastic or paper materials. Once the products are unwrapped, some packaging is recycled, but a considerable portion ends up in landfills.

Despite awareness of the environmental and financial advantages of reducing excessive packaging, many products continue to be overpacked.

The Illusion of environmental friendliness: paper + plastic

Tatiana Sokolova, a researcher affiliated with Tilburg University’s Faculty of Economics and Management, conducted eight studies involving consumers from the Netherlands, the US and the UK.

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The research focused on consumer reactions to overpackaging, specifically when unnecessary paper is added to plastic.

Surprisingly, the findings revealed that consumers perceive plastic + paper packaging as more environmentally friendly compared to identical products with plastic-only packaging.

Driven by the belief that paper is eco-friendly, consumers are willing to pay more for overpackaged products and tend to choose them over more sustainable alternatives.

The impact of a “Minimal Packaging” label

To test the effect of consumer perception on packaging choices, one of the studies introduced a “minimal packaging” label.

Participants were given the option to choose between muesli bars wrapped in plastic + paper or in plastic only.

Another group had the same choice, but the plastic-only option had a “minimal packaging” sticker.

In the first group, without the intervention, consumers were more likely to select the visibly overpackaged plastic + paper muesli bar over the plastic-only alternative.

However, consumer preferences shifted when the “minimal packaging” sticker was added to the plastic packaging. They became more inclined to choose the minimally packaged muesli bar over the overpacked plastic + paper version.

Objective vs. perceived sustainability

According to Tatiana Sokolova, the key takeaway from the research is that objective sustainability and perceived sustainability may not align. Consumers’ biased perception of environmental friendliness can lead them to make choices that may not actually be the most sustainable.

To promote more sustainable choices, educating consumers about what constitutes a sustainable option is crucial.

Interventions should be considered to bridge the gap between objective sustainability and consumers’ perceptions of sustainability, enabling individuals to make more informed and environmentally conscious decisions.