A Sustainable Packaging Framework for the Real World
You might think that sustainable packaging should be a no-brainer: Find ways to deliver products in containers that don’t have to be incinerated or landfilled and don’t end up clogging waterways or floating in the ocean in gigantic plastic islands.
You could be forgiven for such an oversimplification. The problem of packaging is not small. As I wrote, packaging and containers make up 30.3 percent of the waste stream in the United States, or 38.94 million tons a year. It’s the largest category of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the country and probably in the world, as well.
When industry groups started working on developing sustainable packaging frameworks a few years ago, the guidelines they came up with tended to be general. Make packaging that is safe and healthy throughout its life cycle. Make packaging that does the job but is as lightweight as possible. Maximize recyclability. Use clean production processes. Conserve resources.
All of those tenets are great, but the realities of packaging in business are complex. Companies use packaging in very distinct ways, and it’s not enough just to scold them that they’ve got to stop using bad packaging and start using good packaging.
In a 2010 report, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published some of the concerns that company executives had over the way the sustainable packaging discussion was being framed. (See PwC’s report, “Sustainable packaging: threat or opportunity?”.) PwC said at that time:
[While] there is agreement about the growing importance of sustainability as an issue, there remains a great deal of frustration in the industry at the “disproportionate” focus placed on packaging and confusion about what “sustainable packaging” actually means…
In order to influence the developing agenda, the packaging industry needs to become more proactive and develop a consensus on what actually constitutes “sustainable packaging” and how the sustainability of packaging should be measured.
In September 2011, the Consumer Goods Forum completed an important step in that process when it released its Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability (GPPS), a framework and measurement system that can be used across companies and throughout supply chains to reduce the environmental impact of packaging. The forum is a network of CEOs and senior management from over 400 retailers, manufacturers, providers and stakeholders from 70 countries.
Rather than just propounding a simplistic list of green packaging practices, the GPPS first defines the role of packaging, that is:
- Protecting products from breakage, spoilage, contamination, tampering, etc
- Promoting products through such measures as descriptions, lists of ingredients, features and benefits and branding
- Providing information about products (for example, health and safety warnings and disposal instructions)
- Expediting convenient transportation, storage, portioning and usage for products
- Expediting unitization of products, or organization of products into unit loads through the supply chain
- Expediting product handling through the supply chain, including point-of-sale display.
That understanding serves to emphasize packaging’s larger function as a business process in order to put sustainability into perspective. The GPPS defines principles of sustainability in environmental, economic and social aspects and stresses the importance of taking a life-cycle view of packaging sustainability.
With that larger perspective, the protocol outlines principles of sustainable packaging, showing how packaging can be more sustainable by being (quoting directly):
- designed holistically with the product in order to optimize overall environmental performance
- made from responsibly sourced materials
- able to meet market criteria for performance and cost
- manufactured using clean production technologies
- efficiently recoverable after use
- sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy.
The protocol provides a standard system of indicators and metrics that companies can apply to facilitate packaging effectiveness and sustainability across enterprises and supply chains. The system is detailed and offers comprehensive guidance on how to apply its metrics.
The GPPS incorporates economic attributes such as total cost of packaging and packaged product wastage. A so-called Corporate Performance Checklist includes such items as energy audits, child labor, excessive working hours, acceptable workplace practices, remunerations, occupational health, discrimination and safety.
But the protocol devotes most of its focus to environmental attributes and life-cycle indicators, such as:
- Packaging weight and optimization
- Ratio of packaging to product weight
- Material waste
- Recycled and renewable content
- Chain of custody, i.e., identification and assessment of supply chain members
- Minimization of hazardous substances
- Consideration of water stress or scarcity in the product life cycle
- Packaging reuse and recovery
- Cube utilization, i.e., efficiency of transport and storage space utilization
- Cumulative energy demand
- Land use
- Water consumption
- Global warming potential
- Ozone depletion
- Particulate respiratory effects
- Ionizing radiation
- Ground-level ozone creation
- Acidification and eutrophication potential
- Non-renewable resource depletion
The GPPS seems to provide the kind of comprehensive sustainable-packaging framework needed by companies operating in the real world. An announcement from the Consumer Goods Forum quoted Tesco CEO Philip Clarke saying that the new protocol provides “a common language” that “will allow us to have the right conversations with our diverse supply chain” and to “work with suppliers to reduce the environmental impact of packaging [while] making sure it still does the essential job it needs to do to protect the products we sell.”