The Sustainable Packaging Picture
Part of creating a successful package is delivering the most value to the consumer. That value can take many forms, including improving food freshness, increasing a product’s ease of use, and keeping it protected. But as brands and consumers continue to list sustainable packaging as a top tier value, converters have had to surmount a substantial challenge.
“Consumers don’t think that packaging is good for sustainability,” Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for the Dow Chemical Company, says. “They think that packaging creates waste and they don’t understand that packaging is necessary to get food and manufactured products from the manufacturer to the user.”
Part of the issue, Wooster explains, is that in most cases, consumers don’t look at the big picture of sustainability and the role that packaging plays. Instead, he says that there tends to be an immediate connotation for the general public that sustainability equates to recycling. And while a significant percentage of packaging can enter the curbside recycling stream, because so much of it is discarded in the trash, consumers equate packaging with waste.
“The sustainability performance of packaging, whether you’re talking about flexible plastic packaging or a corrugated case, is really a good story,” Wooster says. “It’s a good story because what you’re doing by using packaging to move materials from one place to another is you’re investing a small amount of resources to protect a large amount of resources.”
Materials Matter in Sustainable Packaging
An important step toward improving sustainability attributes in packaging is adopting what Kyla Fisher refers to as sustainable material management (SMM) or “lifecycle thinking.” Fisher, a program manager for the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN), explains that being able to recycle a package and reuse materials for as long as possible is a good goal for brands to have. However, even if a package cannot enter the recycling stream, it may be providing sustainability benefits that are not as easily visible to the consumer. She states that wastes occur along the lifecycle of a product, not just at end of life. Growing, harvesting, extracting and processing materials all use resources to create the material needed for packaging. Exploring the cumulative impact of waste can provide significant insight into opportunities to improve sustainability.
“For example, preventing food waste has a sixfold increase in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than organics recovery due to the upstream impacts of growing, harvesting and transporting food,” Fisher says. “If we have a package that can extend shelf life and reduce food waste but is not yet recyclable, we still have a net environmental gain. We need to start to look more holistically at what those tradeoffs need to be. Maybe it is ok we’re not recycling all packages, or directing them towards alternative recovery strategies, because we’re reducing food waste, GHG emissions or improving water quality, etc.”
In addition to viewing packaging from a lifecycle thinking perspective, Fisher explains that there are certain materials used in packaging that can help brands take on a circular economy approach. The circular economy concept focuses on creating closed loop systems that reuse or recycle material. It differs from SMM in that circular economy focuses on end-of-life reuse and recycling strategies, while SMM focuses on the cumulative impact of an item.
Fisher points out paper and aluminum as strong circular economy-friendly materials, but warns that when thinking sustainably, it’s best to select the packaging material that provides the greatest protection for the product inside.
“Paper tells a great circular economy story — we can reuse it over and over again six or seven times,” Fisher says. “That’s an ideal story. That’s source reduction. That’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Aluminum is a fantastic circular economy story. But to take it in isolation and say [one material] is great, it still misses the role of packaging’s primary purpose, which is to protect the product. Ultimately a package’s failure to provide product protection will result in increased environmental impact far beyond the scope of what material was chosen for the packaging.”
While each packaging material has its distinct sustainability advantages, there is a push across the industry to consistently make improvements. For example, the paperboard packaging industry has an advantage in that its materials are recyclable and the trees used to create paperboard are a renewable resource.
Gretchen Spear, the director of packaging for the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), explains that brands and consumers appreciate the recyclability of paper-based packaging, but the association has also set goals to improve the sustainability attributes of paper-based material across the board.
She explains that these goals make up the association’s Better Practices Better Planet 2020 sustainability initiative, and include increasing paper recovery for recycling, increasing members’ purchased energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from member facilities, promoting sustainable forestry, improving safety incidence rates at member facilities and reducing water use in pulp and paper mills.
“It’s a suite of six goals that the industry identified that we can improve upon from a sustainability standpoint,” Spear says. “When we were developing these goals, our industry’s customers told us, ‘You’re doing a great job, but you need to tell your story better and have these measurable goals in order to do that.’”
Telling the Sustainability Story
While the various members of the packaging manufacturing supply chain have a strong grasp of the important sustainability attributes of packaging, it is essential that the industry communicate this message to consumers to help change the negative connotation surrounding packaging and sustainability.
Since recycling is such a high priority for consumers, Rosalyn Bandy, director of environmental strategies and outreach for the Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute (TLMI), explains that the How2Recycle label that is now appearing on certain products’ packaging is a step in the right direction.
How2Recycle is an initiative generated by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition that provides specific instructions for consumers on how to properly recycle a package. Bandy explains that this is important because for some packages, recycling is not as easy as entering it into the curbside pickup stream. For example, in some instances, a label will need to be removed from a package before recycling. The How2Recycle label provides consumers with all of that information.
“I think what’s really great about what’s happening now is people are looking at products as being part of a system or being part of a circular economy where the goal is to keep those molecules in motion and not have a single use and then dispose of a container, but to recycle it for as long as it can be recycled and to design it so it can actually do that,” Bandy says.
Beyond recycling, Wooster says that it is beneficial for brands to communicate other sustainability attributes that directly impact the consumer. For example, he explains that while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding waste are important environmental initiatives, they are peripheral concerns to the average consumer going about his or her daily life.
But, by adding messaging to a package that explains how it can keep food fresh for a long period of time or how it has a closeable seal that increases the convenience of the package, a consumer may be more inclined to select that product.
“If we talk about sustainability in terms that are directly meaningful to the consumer, I think they’ll resonate more with the consumer,” Wooster says. “They may not necessarily realize that those attributes are sustainability things, but they will realize that they’re attributes that are valuable about the package format.”
Another avenue toward helping consumers play an increasing role in packaging’s sustainability equation is making the recycling process easier, Spear says. One important initiative that AF&PA has worked on in conjunction with The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving recycling in the United States, is improving access to large recycling rolling carts in municipalities where smaller recycling bins are the household norm.
Spear explains that studies indicate in communities where small recycling bins are used, consumers often throw recyclable materials in the trash when the bin becomes full.
“What we know from research, is the larger the capacity there is to recycle something, the more it will be recycled,” Spear says. “If you fill up your bin before the next time your recycling is picked up, you’re more likely to put your additional or excess recyclables in the trash.”
The Package Printer’s Role
The responsibility to improve the environmental impact of packaging needs to be shared across the supply chain, but printers and converters should not overlook the role they play in creating an environmentally responsible package.
Fisher explains that as converters are speaking with brand owner customers and prospects, it can be beneficial to have a solid grasp of their own sustainability footprint. For example, she says if converters can talk confidently about how they’re sourcing their materials and the greenhouse gas impact from their production process, it can help to ensure a brand owner that they are working with a responsible company.
“There are stories that converters can tell as they’re going and speaking to their brands,” she says. “It’s that lifecycle thinking. If you’re a printer, are you looking at how you’re obtaining your inks? What are they made of? What’s the story you can tell in terms of cumulative greenhouse gas impact from production all the way to when you’re actually using it on the floor.”
As part of her position with TLMI, Bandy coordinates the association’s Label Initiative for the Environment (L.I.F.E.) program, which provides certification to members that meet specific environmental management goals.
Bandy explains that L.I.F.E. is a three-year certification program, in which label converters and suppliers monitor certain activities that can have an environmental impact, such as electricity use, gas use, waste production, solvent usage and more. Then, every three years, a third party audit is conducted to ensure the certified member is within L.I.F.E.’s parameters.
While L.I.F.E. is just one example of an environmental certification available to the label industry, Bandy explains that becoming certified can help a TLMI member market itself to brand owners. From the association’s perspective, she explains that TLMI is working toward increasing the visibility of L.I.F.E. to all industry stakeholders.
“Some brands have heard of L.I.F.E., but certainly not enough and they don’t necessarily know all of the work that goes into it and what it means and how it can positively impact their supply chain,” she says. “One of the things I’m planning on doing in 2018 is really developing a marketing strategy around the L.I.F.E. certification so that organizations, companies, retailers and brands outside of TLMI know what it is.”
Wooster explains that for brands, there are multiple sides to the sustainability equation — meeting consumers’ demands for sustainability and ensuring they’re making the right decisions for their company. Even if a package does offer sustainability advantages, he explains that it’s up to converters to help brands make it even better.
“It’s important that we don’t just hide behind the benefits we’ve offered in the past of having an improved product, but that we fix any deficiencies or perceived deficiencies that people might associate with our product,” he says.