Sustainability in Packaging
Modern industrial economies consume enormous amount of natural resources and create large volumes of waste material threatening the availability of resources for future consumption. This system is not sustainable for the long term posing a risk to life and environmental pollution. This has led the environmentalist, economist, and scientist and policy makers to find ways in order to develop a system that is sustainable in the long term while meeting the needs of the present. A system is said to be sustainable if it is based on resources that will not be exhausted over a reasonable period of time and should not generate unacceptable pollution externally or internally. Sustainability is a continuous evolving process that includes resolving conflicts between competing goals while simultaneously pursuing the triple bottom line; economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity. Sustainability also requires using natural resources at a rate which can be naturally replenished by the environment. Therefore, in brief, sustainability means to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. The ground work on sustainable development started in 1987 when a report ‘Our Common Future’ was published by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development that led to the establishment of the ‘Commission on Sustainable Development’ in 1992.
Consumer and media awareness over issues such as toxic substances, climate change has been increasing. As a result more focus is given to sustainability in the various processes from manufacturing to packaging. Sustainability in packaging is gaining importance with increase in regulation on environment and also due to growing preferences shown by consumers for eco-friendly products and packaging. Consequently, many leading retailers and consumer brand companies have also begin to consider the environmental and social implications of packaging in their decision-making process. While laying emphasis on use of renewable and recyclable resource materials, sustainability also requires finding ways and means to reduce costs while at the same time making efficient packaging. With increase in demand for resources, increase in commodity prices, the case for sustainable packaging gains more significance because packaging competes for the same energy and materials used in products. According to the ‘Sustainable Packaging Coalition’, some of the criteria for sustainable packaging include:
It is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle.
Is able to meet market criteria for performance and cost
Is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy
Is able maximize the use of renewable and recyclable resource materials
Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
Is made from materials healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios
Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy
Can be effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial cradle to cradle cycles
The concept of sustainability is increasingly becoming important within the packaging industry, as packaging contributes sizably to waste and landfills. The negative impact of non-reusable and non-recyclable packaging on environment has raised concerns among the environmentalist, corporates, consumers and the Government alike. Various environmental legislations that are being enacted by the Governments have also played a part to make companies adopt sustainable methods in packaging given the huge economic costs in terms of penalties. A mention can be made here of the European Directive adopted by the European Union in 1994 to prevent or reduce the impact of packaging and packaging waste on the environment. In addition, cost pressures due to rise in oil prices, mandates from retailers to reduce packaging and consumer preferences for eco-friendly products have also provided an impetus to the move towards sustainable packaging. Also, many brand owners and retail groups make it mandatory for packaging and label suppliers to have ISO certification. Effective co-ordination between suppliers, consumers and regulators is required to connect a sustainable packaging strategy to existing market needs.
Efforts are being taken by the packaging companies worldwide to make packaging more sustainable. A major thrust to sustainable packaging came from Wal-Mart Stores, Inc, the biggest retailer in the USA when it announced its environment goals which include to create zero waste, to sell products that sustain resources and the environment and to be supplied by 100 % renewable energy. Wal-Mart started its sustainability initiatives in 2005 when the company reviewed its business activities to conserve energy, use more renewable sources of energy, recycle waste, and sell more organic products at its stores. Several measures were taken by Wal-Mart to bring about sustainability in packaging like in 2005, Wal-Mart in partnership with select private label suppliers improved the packaging on nearly 300 items in its Kid Connection toy line. By making the packaging in the toy line a little smaller the company reduced the use of its shipping containers by 497 and generated freight savings of over US$ 2.4 mn per annum. As per Wal-Mart’s estimates, this must have also saved more than 3,800 trees and 1,000 barrels of oil. The packaging network of Wal-Mart aims to reduce the amount of packaging in the supply chain by 5% by 2013 and to be packaging neutral by 2025. Also, in 2006 the retailer announced 7 R’s of its sustainable packaging which include Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Renew (able), Recycle (able), Revenue and Read. During the same year, a scorecard was also introduced by Wal-Mart to evaluate the progress of its suppliers in developing more sustainable packaging and track the company’s progress to reduce the packaging in its supply chain by 5% by 2013. Among the efforts taken by Wal-Mart towards sustainability is the initiative to transition all the liquid laundry detergent on its shelves to the concentrated ‘compact’ versions of detergent. This project is expected to result in a cost saving of more than Pounds 125 mn of cardboard, Pounds 95 mn of plastic resin and 400 million gallons of water.
Packaging design also plays a vital role in creating sustainable packaging solutions because the product has to be user friendly in addition to being eco-friendly. One way of achieving sustainability is to design the package is such a way that it reduces the use of packaging material without decreasing the inner content. Sustainable packaging design considers the full life cycle of the package and seeks to minimize the cost of total packaging system through efficient and safe package life cycle design. Also extensive research and development are being carried out by companies to create bio-degradable packaging materials which are recyclable and also safe for the products to be packaged. Using recycled materials (renewable or non-renewable) encourages waste reduction and the conservation of resources. Organic plant seeds and recycled fibers are often used in replace of virgin materials like SBS (solid bleach sulfate). For example, MeadWestvaco Corporation developed Nature Source™, a folding carton derived from natural renewable source corn and is optimal for packaging health and beauty products. The carton is made from polylactic acid (PLA), a versatile polymer made from corn starch. NatureSource is commercially compostable while it delivers cost and productivity benefits that are competitive with petroleum-based, traditional polymers. Bio-degradable products are mainly used for consumer goods like food and personal care products. Another way by which sustainability can be attained is to reduce the amount of materials used in packaging wherever possible. For instance, flexible containers are slowly being replaced by rigid containers which perform the same function as that of rigid containers while using fewer materials. Water Bag-in-Box made by The Klabin Company of Brazil can be a case in point. The innovative design of this package provides an alternative to rigid bottle system. Made from corrugated cardboard packaging from outside which is recyclable, the inner lightweight plastic liner can also be recycled into other plastic components. The new package cost 40% less than the rigid bottle system and is also less energy intensive to produce.
Not only the packaging materials, but sustainability of other resources used in packaging like labels, printing inks and adhesives also needs to be considered. Efforts are being undertaken to develop inks, adhesives that are environmentally friendly and also safe for products especially when used for packaging of food products. UK based-Berkshire Labels Ltd developed biodegradable self adhesive labels BioTAK™ made from replenishable and non-renewable sources. Besides, various vegetable-based printing inks are also being developed in place of petroleum-based inks. This apart, importance of sustainability in the production processes is also being realised. Companies have started employing clean production technologies in their production as well as packaging processes. Clean production seeks to reduce and ultimately eliminate the environmental impact of any emissions and toxins emerging from the production processes and applies to any industrial activity.
Challenges to Sustainable Packagaing
Finding methods that are economically viable and effective system to recycle and recover value from the packaging materials is a major challenge to the development of sustainable packaging. Another issue is with determining sustainability of packaging. Since sustainability is not absolute but a question of degree some packages may be more sustainable than others. Use of some renewably source materials used in packaging also pose problem with respect to their performance. For example, polylactic acid (PLA) is rigid and has a tendency to become brittle and requires humidity below 50%. Hence, the challenge is to create materials that fill the performance gap and are at the same time cost effective. One issue in sustainable packaging is that sometimes marketing aspect of packaging may get overlooked while making the packaging sustainable. Reduction in the amount of packaging material used is one aspect of sustainable packaging. However, it may happen that the product in question is small in size and while reducing the packaging is environmentally correct it may affect the visibility of the product in the store shelf. Also, if the competition companies does not follow suit by adopting sustainable packaging methods it will have an impact in the sales of the company making the first move.