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In checkout lanes in grocery stores around the world, plastic bags have become environmental bad guys. Many countries have outlawed them altogether, or require the retailers to charge per-bag fees to customers; even in places without any such regulations though, many grocery stores wage campaigns to encourage shoppers to bring their reusable bags with them, in an effort to cut down on single-use plastics and waste.

But in grocery store aisles, plastic bags might be environmental heroes. For manufacturers of a wide range of liquid food and household products, such as olive oil, wine, paint, and mouthwash, plastic pouches represent extremely appealing packaging innovations that promise to reduce their costs, protect their products better, encourage repurchases, and lower their environmental footprint.

Many of these items currently get packaged in plastic or glass bottles. The detrimental environmental impacts of single-use plastic bottles are well and widely documented. Although glass bottles are easier to recycle, and can be recycled innumerable times, they raise their own environmental concerns. In particular, the process for producing glass bottles releases substantial carbon dioxide (e.g., 675 grams per 375 ml wine bottle). Because glass is relatively heavy, shipping these bottles also demands relatively more fuel. Furthermore, glass breaks, which prevents its easy reuse and recycling. Even if these bottles enter the recycling stream, their size and weight means that they take up a lot of space.

Plastic pouches address all these concerns. The production process for creating the bags generates quite small amounts of CO2 (e.g., just 96 grams for a 1.5 liter wine pouch), and it often integrates previously used plastic materials, such that the pouches include substantial proportions of recycled material. They weigh virtually nothing; they take up very little space in shipping containers or recycling bins. And many of them are difficult to puncture, so there is little risk of waste or unintentional spillage.

Beyond these comparatively appealing properties, plastic pouches promise other benefits to household product manufacturers. For example, bottled olive oil tends to lose its flavor about three months after it has been opened. But the pouches, which use small taps to dispense olive oil, keep air out, so the flavor and character of the oil remain intact for much longer. Wine makers constantly worry about the effects of sunlight on their bottled beverages; the pouches keep any light whatsoever from reaching their wine, which helps ensure its high quality when consumers go to drink it. The paint company YesColours provides a small window on its pouches, so consumers can ensure that the mixed color is precisely what they want, then pour out only as much as they need to cover a wall, without struggling to pry open the top of an unwieldy, heavy paint can.

Cost considerations make a difference too. If a mouthwash or detergent brand can sell concentrated versions of its products, it can put them in smaller packages, which are less expensive to produce and ship. Once consumers are ready to use these products, they can pour some measure out of the small packages and add water from the tap, which offers convenience and easy accessibility to them too.

The ease of dealing with pouches in turn opens up some novel marketing strategies for the manufacturers. Many of them encourage subscription plans; the lower shipping costs created by the relatively lightweight pouches make it easy to get the items to customers on a regular basis. In business-to-business settings in particular (e.g., sales to restaurants), the producers are finding that getting good-sized pouches into buyers’ hands once, then automatically replenishing them, encourages repurchase behavior and expanded uses.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How many products can you list that might benefit from being packaged in plastic pouches instead of plastic, glass, or metal bottles or cans?
  2. Are there any downsides to plastic pouches for these types of products? List a few.
  3. What marketing tactics should producers use to convince consumers to embrace plastic pouches, instead of traditional bottles?

Source: Grace Cook, “Give Traditional Packaging the Sack,” Financial Times, October 19, 2022; “Feelgood Paints in Astonishing Colours,” https://yescolours.com.