Sustainable Packaging Basics: What Is It, What Are Its Principles and Where Is It Going?
Sustainable packaging has emerged as one of today’s hot-button issues in industry. Why is there a huge push for greener and cleaner packaging? What does the term “sustainable packaging” mean? What should producers and purchasers of packaging solutions be doing to reduce their environmental impacts?
And consider this: A new report from Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) claims that the term “sustainable packaging” is “no longer relevant today” and is “too broad a term to be useful at a practical level.” What’s up with that? Would it be better just to abandon the whole idea, as PwC infers?
Packaging and the Waste Stream
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates that containers and packaging make up the largest category of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the country, at 30.3 percent of the total waste stream. However, out of the major MSW categories, shown in an EPA chart on the right, containers and packaging possess the highest level of recycling, with 48.5 percent of materials recycled. Comparatively, only 18.5 percent of durable goods, 36.1 percent of nondurable goods and 28.0 percent of other materials are recycled, respectively. Still, the total volume of packaging that gets scrapped in the United States is a massive 38.94 million tons per year — plenty of motivation for greening this category.
Global figures for MSW are harder to pin down, but the World Bank estimates that the world generates a total of 1.3 billion metric tons of waste per year. Forty-four percent of it is generated in the OECD developed countries, where the per-capita waste generation and the percentage of inorganic waste are both higher. That points to a lot of packaging being generated worldwide, especially in developed countries. (See the accompanying set of charts from the World Bank.)
Sustainable Packaging Forecast as $170 Billion Segment
A 2010 report from Pike Research estimates that worldwide revenues in the packaging industry will rise from $429 billion in 2009 to $530 billion in 2014, a growth rate that is outpacing the economy as a whole. However, the sustainable packaging sector, Pike Research forecasts, is growing even faster, from $88 billion in 2009 to $170 billion in 2014.
This is an important trend, according to Clint Wheelock, the firm’s managing director. A company announcement quoted him as predicting that “the move toward more environmentally responsible packaging is being embraced by consumers, manufacturers, retailers, advocacy groups and world governments alike.” Wheelock said that within sustainable packaging, the plastics-based segment will grow fastest, as “it represents more than a third of the total global packaging industry, second only to paper packaging.”
The World Packaging Organisation (WPO), in its Market Statistics and Future Trends in Global Packaging report, points to environmental concerns as a driver of packaging trends, while governments push industry players to reduce the volume of packaging materials entering the waste stream. Especially in Europe, where legislation is tightening up restrictions, the packaging industry is working to increase the recyclability of its products and to seek out new lighter materials:
One effect of the environmental legislation has been to encourage the packaging industry to reduce the amount of packaging used by lightweighting of materials, with examples across metal, glass, plastic and paper and board packaging. This has been made possible through the development of new technologies aimed at the strengthening of materials through new formulations and processes, factors which have also influenced other packaging materials areas.
Principles of Sustainable Packaging
The U.S.-based Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), in its “Definition of Sustainable Packaging” paper, “envisions a world where all packaging is sourced responsibly, designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle, meets market criteria for performance and cost, is made entirely using renewable energy and, once used, is recycled efficiently to provide a valuable resource for subsequent generations.” This implies “a true closed-loop system for all packaging materials,” according to the group.
The SPC recognizes that a changing regulatory and economic environment is putting pressure on packaging producers to decrease the life-cycle impacts of their products:
The SPC membership has observed that the true cost of packaging is becoming more complicated as costs that have traditionally been borne by society (e.g., disposal) or environment (e.g., emissions) are being redirected to producers through legislation, levies and stricter compliance regulations.
The coalition’s paper says that sustainable packaging:
- Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
- Meets market criteria for 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 technologies 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
In this list, the need for materials that are safe and healthy throughout the product life cycle stands out as a key requirement. The coalition points out that “the accumulation of problematic substances in the biosphere and in our bodies is the subject of increasing concern for consumers, health professionals, governments and companies.” The paper outlines the kind of strategy that can expedite safety and health in packaging materials:
Careful selection and specification of the safest materials available to meet the package performance requirements is the preferred strategy. All companies should track legislation, material bans and substances of concern to identify compliance issues and minimize risk. Leading companies have clear restricted substance lists and are identifying alternatives for substances of concern in order to design out hazards where possible and take packaging design beyond compliance towards sustainability. There is also a need for greater transparency regarding what is in packaging materials and to encourage the optimization of material formulations for human and environmental health. The development of tools and methodologies to assess material health is ongoing and will allow more transparent communication of material characteristics throughout the value chain.
The development of materials from biological sources and materials that can be readily recycled will also contribute to the positive environmental profile of packaging, the coalition stresses.
The Australia-based Sustainable Packaging Alliance offers a roughly parallel definition of green packaging in its “Principles, Strategies and KPIs [key performance indicators] for Packaging Sustainability.”
The alliance outlines a framework of four primary criteria for sustainable packaging:
- Effective: fit for purpose. The packaging system achieves its functional requirements with minimal environmental and social impact.
- Efficient: minimal use of materials and energy. The packaging system is designed to use materials and energy efficiently throughout the product life cycle.
- Cyclic: renewable and recyclable materials. Packaging is designed to reduce reliance on non-renewable resources and to recover them for reuse or recycling.
- Safe: non-polluting and non-toxic. Packaging materials and components used in the system, including materials, finishes, inks, pigments and other additives, do not pose any risks to humans or ecosystems.
Sustainable Packaging “Too Broad, No Longer Relevant”?
While the guidelines issued by these organizations offer some valuable principles, a more recent effort by the Global Packaging Project of the Consumer Goods Forum provides a framework and measurement system for the consumer goods and packaging industries that goes beyond merely providing a set of broad guidelines. Released in September 2011, the forum’s “Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability 2.0″ provides a comprehensive, standardized system and set of metrics that acknowledge the complexity of the business situations confronting large enterprises and the highly individualized needs of companies that produce and use packaging solutions.
To add a new wrinkle to the sustainable packaging issue, a study just released by PwC, on June 25, asserts that the idea of “sustainable packaging” is oversimplified and ought to be reconsidered. The study concluded:
Sustainable packaging as a term is no longer relevant today as the debate about good versus bad packaging has moved on. Sustainable packaging was used as an umbrella term to cover many aspects of sustainability and, as such, is deemed too broad a term to be useful at a practical level.
In upcoming articles, I plan to delve further into PwC’s study to explain why the firm thinks it’s time to move beyond “sustainable packaging.” I also plan to investigate in more detail the Consumer Goods Forum’s more comprehensive and innovative protocol for packaging sustainability.