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Sustainable Packaging: Complex and Necessary

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.

The Backdrop

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.

Talking Sustainability

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.”

Packaging Optimization

“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.

Lifecycle Assessment

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.

One place to start is with the practice of life cycle assessment (LCA), a methodology of determining the overall environmental burden of a product. This means looking at both what happens inside your facility as you create the package—to what happens once that package is in the consumers’ hands.

Consider first the package design, looking at whether it minimizes the cost of materials, labor, logistics, transportation, warehouse, and damage. Can transportation and logistics costs be trimmed, and sustainability efforts be met, with a smaller package design? Can lighter-weight or recycled materials be used, without causing damage to the package or end product?

The concept is to choose substrates and materials that deliver benefits throughout the supply chain.

A key strategy for improving the sustainability of packaging is optimizing the use of bio-based and recycled materials, says Adam K. Gendell, Project Manager, GreenBlue,  “The availability, performance, and price of some bio-based or recycled materials affect the feasibility of incorporating them into new packaging designs. Material and technological advances that positively influence these factors substantially improve the practicality of their use.”

Gendell asserts that “printers would be smart to learn about their emissions and effects of their inks and coatings on end-of-life. If specific inks and coatings are deemed advantageous, that'd be a no-brainer. In the broader spectrum of materials, there's so much to learn. Some buyers want certified fiber, some want recycled content—there’s really no one material that will always be deemed to be the best from a sustainability standpoint.”

To help drive an effective sustainability program, “it’s probably important to have at least one staff whose role it is to learn about sustainability, keep their finger on the pulse of the marketplace, and investigate means of improving sustainability within the company,” says Gendell. “There are often low-hanging fruit that companies would not recognize without someone learning the sustainability language and identifying those potential areas for improvement.”

Assessing the Cost

One critical question is who pays for the more expensive recycled cardboards or any of the more expensive processes involved.  While less waste does translate into more profit, that profit realization is often in the long term, while the monies outlay is in the short term. Packagers and converters are the ones feeling the pain here, because while there is a lot of pressure from brands to move in this direction, few are willing to pay the price for sustainable solutions.

“What we often see is that recycled materials are more expensive virgin materials,” says Blake. The prices are going up for recycled materials because they are in demand, and there isn’t enough supply to meet that demand—that’s the reality of the market today.

“We can’t generate clean, dry, uncontaminated material for all the needs out there, especially as Asian markets expand and take up these materials,” adds Blake. “We all believe, as the economics continue to grow and consumption grows, printers will generate enough of their own materials for recycling.”


To prepare for the initial conversation with the your customer, read up on the products and services offered by some of the substrate and technology providers. Examples include:

  •  Adalis, a global packaging and supply chain solutions company, provides packaging and supply chain expertise for design and development, product distribution and logistics cost reductions. 
  • Chainalytics’ Supply Chain Packaging Optimization service is designed to leverage packaging design to improve supply chain performance.  Its packaging consulting team assesses the customer’s manufacturing and distribution organizations to identify improvement opportunities and then engineers packaging breakthroughs to help realize productivity, efficiency, and sustainability gains.
  • Georgia-Pacific’s packaging group, which works directly with customers to optimize their packaging and help them meet their sustainability needs. This involves making sure that the package is the right fit and strength for the product.
  • GreenBlue’s COMPASS (comparative packaging assessment) is an LCA tool tailored for packaging design evaluation and improvement. Historically, it’s been used for optimizing the primary packaging, a new model now included quantifies the entire system, to include both single use and reusable tertiary packaging. Its How2Recycle recycling labeling system, now in use by such brands as Kellog’s, Costco, General Mills, and Microsoft, communicates recyclability across all material types and gives explicit directions to consumers to influence their recycling behavior, and specifies when a package component is not recyclable.

SPC’s Definition of sustainable packaging:

  • Is beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
  • Meets market criteria for both performance and cost;
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
  • Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
  • Is manufactured using clean production techniques and best practices;
  • Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle;
  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy;
  • Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.