Involvement in sustainability packaging is a complex affair, but one that is necessary to be a competitive player in today’s marketplace. Large retailers and consumer packaged good companies like Walmart, Proctor & Gamble, Pepsico, expect their supply chain partners to implement sustainable practices during packaging production. From the moment a package is designed to its final point of distribution, there are elements that can contribute or detract to the package’s sustainability—from the type of board that is used, to how much gas is used to get it to its final destination.
Plastic wrap, cardboard boxes, and other food packaging account for about one-third of the 250 million pounds of solid waste that people in the United States produce annually, reported Sara Risch, Ph.D., speaking at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Packaging accounts for about 7-10 percent of a product’s environmental footprint.
But industry data also shows a positive trend: between 2005 and 2010, the use of sustainable packaging diverted about 1.5 billion pounds of paper, plastic, and other packaging materials from U.S. landfills.
Why It Matters
Whatever your personal feelings about the sustainability movement, chances are your customers are on board, or will be in the near future. Unlike other parts of product manufacturing and distribution—such as transportation—the package itself is highly visible to the consumer. For retailers and CPGs looking to soothe consumers’ cries for a lighter environmental footprint, packaging is a seemingly easy target.
The key takeaway is that sustainability is more than just one part of the production process. The fact that you use recycled fiberboard may be a mitzvah, but it doesn’t make your package sustainable. To create a true sustainable package, you need to start at the beginning—how the package is designed—and end with how the consumer disposes of that fiberboard.
“If you think you’ve done enough by providing solutions up until the consumer buys the product, you are missing the final scene—what happens to the package after it is used,” notes Alan Blake, executive director, PAC NEXT, the initiative created by PAC, Canada’s Packaging Association. PAC NEXT’s directive is “to proactively help the industry transition towards a world without packaging waste.”
“These days people talk less about packaging sustainability and more about packaging optimization, across the value chain,” says Blake. “With optimization you think upfront, in the design phase, about the package’s end of life. What you want to avoid, where it is feasible and possible around resources and economics, is having that package going into landfill. We speak in terms of reducing, recycling, and reusing.”
Packaging optimization looks at the whole system, following engineering of the package throughout the entire supply chain, ensuring that you are meeting both business and sustainability goals. Looking at just one part of the supply chain can have consequences further down the chain, explains Blake. For example, if you are using lightweight packaging material, once it goes through shipping and handling it might get damaged. The package is lost.
Package optimization demands that the function of the package isn’t comprised.
“Printers need to work with prospective customers and current clients and discuss how to doing their best to optimize the packaging design and discuss proposals for balance across the overall supply chain,” comments Blake.
Sustainable packaging design considers the full life cycle of the package, states the Sustainability Packaging Coalition (SPC), “and consequently seeks to minimize the total packaging system cost through efficient and safe package life cycle design.” The SPC is a project of GreenBlue, a nonprofit that equips business with the science and resources to make products more sustainable.