What is Sustainable Packaging?

Packaging has value in its role in protecting the economic, environmental, and social value of the products it contains. But it must be considered in the context of the product.

Initially, going green primarily meant light-weighting. That can be one piece of it, of course, but now it’s more important than ever to evaluate packaging and product life cycle holistically. Consumers won’t necessarily appreciate the effort you put into packaging unless it results in a superior product in an easy-to-use packaging.

“Start with cost-effective performance, and match material properties with end-uses to make sure the package will perform to expectation,” said Steve Davies, NatureWorks director of corporate communications and public affairs. “Nothing is sustainable long term if it is not economically viable as well.” Companies such as NatureWorks will collaborate with companies to help ensure all conditions are in synch. “There are many paths to becoming more sustainable,” he continued. “There is no one right solution.”

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), an industry working group managed by the nonprofit GreenBlue, is dedicated to a more robust environmental vision for packaging. SPC has brought together hundreds of companies and stakeholders interested in working together to broaden the understanding of packaging sustainability and develop meaningful improvements throughout the supply chain. The industry group has a wide variety of reports, tools, and resources available to help companies make the business case for sustainability.

Goodrich contends that there is no “sustainable package.” Rather, each package is unique and requires analysis to determine how to make it as sustainable as possible. Materials used, where it is sourced, how it is created and transported and the technologies used to produce the package are important to consider in how a package impacts the environment.

Sustainability can be measured in a variety of ways. The SPC breaks it down into three broad categories: sourcing, optimization, and recovery.

Recovery is related to the next life of the package. Metrics include: recyclability, collectability and options for re-use. Paper and plastics are often widely recyclable but some of the treatments on the packaging to make it stand out on the shelf make the beauty package a contaminant in the recycle stream. “A great deal of high-end packaging in the beauty industry is difficult or impossible to recycle or uses harsh processes to get specific effects,” explained Nina Goodrich, executive director of GreenBlue. Beauty packaging also tends to be small and that makes it difficult to recover in traditional curbside collection systems. SPC has developed a How2Recycle label that can be seen on AVEDA and Target brand products. This label informs consumers how to determine if a package is recyclable in their area. MAC and Origins also have initiated take back programs to help to recover specific materials.

“Composting is a potential future option for some small packages,” Goodrich added.

Sourcing can include metrics related to the use of certified and sustainably sourced fiber, biopolymers, and recycled content. Energy metrics such as “percentage made with renewable energy” are also possible, according to Goodrich.

Optimization is related to material efficiency in primary and secondary packaging and in transportation. Traditional measures can include light weighting, cube efficiency, and manufacturing waste. “The important concept here is that the environmental footprint of the product is usually larger than the footprint of the package, so it’s important not to compromise the product,” Goodrich explained. “In the case of beauty, some packages are very elaborate so they may have a larger environmental footprint than the product.”

>>Read more about sustainable packaging in the July/August issue of GCI magazine.

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