Sustainable packaging is important because it reduces the ecological footprint of all the stages in the product's life cycle. It helps both the producer and the consumer reduce their environmental impact.

The impact of humankind on the natural world is one of the greatest challenges we face today and in the decades ahead. Our expanding population and the global spread of economic development are both putting increasing pressure on the world's resources.

The planet's resources

Many of the planet's natural resources, such as minerals and fossil fuels, have finite availability. Other precious resources, such as our rainforests, clean water, and cultivatable land have natural limits too. Despite this, the demands from industry and agriculture are increasing year on year.

Climate change as a result of human activity is now widely accepted as a fact by most experts. The combination of our widespread burning of fossil fuels together with the destruction of much of the rainforest, planet Earth's 'lungs', has led to a reduction in the ozone layer, the melting of polar ice, and shifts in the world's weather systems. Unpredictable weather, droughts, floods, and changes to seasonal patterns are all predicted to be on the increase.

Despite improved controls in many countries, many of the world's ecosystems are still being degraded by pollution. The WWF estimates that between 200 and 2,000 species are becoming extinct every year, largely as a result of human activity.

The human aspect

A great deal of the social and political aspect of the drive to encourage sustainability has focussed on the impact the production of packaging materials has on people. The exploitation of natural raw materials, for instance, has the potential not just to affect wildlife and the natural world, but the world's indigenous peoples too.

Manufacturers are now coming under pressure to ensure their processes do not adversely affect their own staff and people who live in the areas where they operate. This pressure is not just coming from governments and the regulatory authorities, but increasingly from some of the major retailing chains that are demanding better standards. Thus, there is a growing expectation on companies to exercise due regard for the health and safety of their employees and local communities, as well as treating their staff equitably and paying them fairly.

Sustainability and business

Up until the last decade or so, the focus of the environmental impact of business was quite limited; it was restricted to the end-of-life of the product, including pollution and recycling. The sustainability agenda, however, has broadened out this agenda into a much more holistic one, following the entire life-cycle of a product and including economic and social factors. Sustainability is now a major agenda issue for governments and public opinion. As a result, the industry is coming under increasing pressure to improve its sustainability footprint.

The Packaging industry

With many different variables to take into consideration, it’s difficult to pinpoint one packaging material that is more sustainable than another. For instance, paper is easily recyclable and compostable, however, the production of paper has a huge carbon footprint and water usage.

The most popular and practical material used in food packaging is plastic. We rely on plastic for food packaging because it offers strong protection against contamination and damage, preserves products for longer, allows products to be safely transported over great distances, and offers the opportunity for product information to be displayed.

A common type of plastic used in the packaging industry is PET, short for Polyethylene Terephthalate. It’s strong, lightweight, transparent and recyclable. However, whilst it can be recycled, this sadly is not always the case. A whopping 91% of plastic is not recycled. The vast majority instead accumulates in landfills or sits within the environment as litter. Often, it ends up in the ocean. Also, plastic takes around 400 years to decompose. It may degrade into smaller and smaller pieces but once it’s been produced, it’s generally here to stay.

For this reason, there has been a rise in reusable materials for packaging, such as reusable and compostable options. Compostable packaging is not to be confused with biodegradable packaging. Whilst biodegradable packaging can be broken down naturally by bacteria and other living organisms, it is not 100% safe for the environment. Compostable packaging, however, is made from organic matter and can break down to form nutrient-rich compost.

The packaging industry has been pushed to the forefront of the sustainability agenda, not necessarily because it is the biggest source of environmental problems but because, from the consumer's point of view, it is one of the most visible. But when considering the packaging industry's sustainability footprint, we should focus on qualitative issues as much as quantitative ones. In other words, it is not just about reducing the amount of packaging produced, but about addressing the issues such as design that we have already touched on.

How to make packaging sustainable

For brands and packaging designers, the most significant area to consider when developing environmentally-friendly packaging is the material selection, striking the balance between practical and sustainable.

Firstly, it’s important to consider how much packaging is being used. Less really is more. Using less packaging simply involves making packaging as small and compact as possible, without compromising the product and the information needing to be displayed. Excessive amounts of packaging will put the eco-conscious consumer off immediately.

It’s also important to consider whether a packaging solution should be rigid or flexible. Both have positives and negatives. Flexible packaging takes up less space in transport, reducing the number of vehicles used and fuel consumed. However, flexible packaging can be made up of a combination of materials that make them difficult to recycle, leading to some of the products ending up in landfills. Rigid packaging can take up significantly more room in transit but is often much more widely recycled.

Another way to make packaging more sustainable is to give it another use and purpose. There is still a lot of work to be done with this concept, with many different methods being trialed and tested. One example is the Loop reusable packaging system. Consumers purchased their desired products and pay a small refundable deposit to cover the cost of a reusable container. Once the consumer has used up their product, they return the container and swap it for a full one. The returned containers are then cleaned and refilled with the product to be resold.

Replace Plastics With Paper

Paper is even more frequently suggested as a substitute for plastic packaging than bioplastics [for example, paper Boxes (Mono cartons) and bags]. However, currently available data suggests that paper packaging generally requires several times more mass to fulfill the same function as its plastic counterpart. As a result, the overall environmental impact tends to be higher for paper, except for its carbon footprint. So again, this is a case of burden-shifting: reducing carbon footprint, but increasing impacts such as acidification and eutrophication. Additionally, replacing plastic with paper could likely give us a serious supply problem. If we were to replace all plastics with paper, we must either cut down more forests or find areas for reforestation. The latter would be a double benefit, of course, but do we actually have space? Current data suggests that we still have a net loss of forests worldwide and that we are more likely to lose possible reforestation areas to other pressing needs, such as the expansion of cities and towns, agriculture, and industry.

Furthermore, paper and cardboard recycling facilities are already running at top capacity and would need to expand their operations to take in more recyclable waste. And at the moment, the recycled paper does not seem to significantly decrease the total environmental impact of paper, at least not based on data we have available today.

Our suggestion: Watch for new developments in the paper market, especially if weight can be reduced. Be aware of the risk of burden-shifting—always think systemically and holistically.

Shift to Mono-Materials

Laminates and composite packaging from multiple materials constitute one of the biggest hurdles to achieving recyclability (not recycling itself, for which the biggest problem is collection and infrastructure). So manufacturers have made considerable effort to shift to mono-material packaging (laminates included). The risk here is that mono-material solutions can end up decidedly heavier and bulkier than their composite alternatives and may need other additives. The reason is simple, companies use aluminum layers in laminates because of their insulative properties that—when replaced by plastics or paper—require thicker layers and, ultimately, also more mass.

Our suggestion: Analyze alternatives carefully and quantitatively to ensure that for the same packaging quality, the mono-material alternative does not in fact increase overall environmental impacts or shift burdens from one environmental impact to another.

Design for Reuse

Reuse is more difficult to envision than recycling given our current mindset. It requires us to move away from the way we currently handle packaging—tearing open and throwing away or recycling. It may also necessitate more robust packaging materials that need to withstand washing and sterilization. It also needs to have a well-built infrastructure to collect, wash, sterilize, refill and return the packaging to consumers. It is the milkman method made anew.

There have been various small-scale attempts in the past. Since the World Economic Forum in January 2019, the Loop Initiative has made headlines with all major brands in the cosmetics and personal care and the food and retail industries. The loop is attractive for these industries because it projects improvements, not only in the solitary world of circularity but also in the broader spectrum of Life Cycle Assessment.

While we anticipate these projections to come true, we also feel obliged to report the risks. As with recycling, the risk for reuse is higher if the heavier, bulkier materials designed for reuse have a worse environmental impact than their reuse compensates for. In other words, we should never examine packaging impacts in isolation, but comprehensively, with a systems-thinking approach.

A recent screening study highlighted that a current version of a reusable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bag carries a much higher impact than its single-use alternative. So much so that you would need to use the reusable bag at least 50 times to make it more sustainable. Manufacturers should therefore ensure that reuse is realistic in the actual customer setting and that that behavior actually compensates for any added impact in the material design changes. Manufacturers also need to calculate the additional impact of transporting, washing, sanitizing (possibly even tracking), and refilling those reusable containers.

Our suggestion: Increasing reuse is a must-win battle for optimizing resources and drastically reducing waste. However, companies need to use eco-design and life-cycle thinking (systems thinking) and push for the infrastructure of scale with a massive customer base to make the transition truly environmentally sound.

New Out-of-the-Box Ideas

What we haven’t touched on until now are new, out-of-the-box packaging ideas. There are a lot of innovative ideas out there, such as changing the form of packaging, completely enhancing stackability, compatibility, etc. We do know that for you to meet with success in outside-the-box thinking, you need not only brainpower but also courage and investment. Innovation is hard but all the more rewarding.

Our suggestion: Take the opportunity to reinvent packaging, and don’t be afraid to make alliances with suppliers as well as the competition. Innovation is imperative to a sustainable future.

Customer Is Key

While the customer is part of the change process in many of the above-mentioned initiatives, we want to emphasize this as a separate trend. Brands communicating and educating their customers on how to responsibly use and dispose of packaging are key to success in any area. This positive development is luckily on the rise. The only danger is if we move toward oversimplified (and eventually incorrect) qualitative descriptions designed to enable all customers to decipher the message, but actually mislead the public.

Our suggestion: Ensure that the environmentally solid ideals are communicated appropriately for different levels of customer curiosity. Today we have the technology to add a tiny QR code to a label and link more details that would be too much for most customers but satisfy the curiosity of others. Focus not only on engaging unresponsive or environmentally disinterested customers, but also on shaping the opinions of those who may have dragged onto the misled bandwagon (e.g., standard-bearers of “eco-friendly packaging is the best packaging”).

Courageous, out-of-the-box thinking, understanding your whole supply chain, and proper R&D are critical to the development of sustainable packaging. But the question will arise as to how you create a more sustainable solution if at the same time the recycling quotas force you to do the opposite. How can you, as a manufacturer, go against regulatory pressure and potentially risk pushback from customers to carry out the more sustainable option?

Companies are taking several different approaches to sustainable packaging solutions. According to our survey, most companies prefer to improve their current packaging formats, rather than develop entirely new ones. New solutions, such as innovative materials, require increased investments in time, resources and knowledge. 

By improving the sustainability profile of their current packaging, enterprises may hope to make their current offerings and processes more efficient while avoiding a complete overhaul of their current systems. Just over 60 percent of participants are aiming to make their current packaging options more recyclable while 55 percent are redesigning their packages to reduce weight.

When it comes to implementing sustainable solutions, we have a problem. But by “we,” I don’t just mean brands and packaging solutions companies; real progress lies somewhere in a collaboration between social science, environmental science, civic engineering, politics, and corporate and consumer responsibility. 

Collaborate to Develop a Circular Economy

The circular economy has become increasingly influential in the packaging industry as brands strive to make their products more sustainable. But what does a circular economy mean?

A circular economy is about keeping resources in use for as long as possible. It refers to a world in which business and consumers alike work to get the maximum value from resources whilst we can, recovering and regenerating them into new products and materials at the end of their life.

With the world’s population expected to peak at 10 billion in 2050, demand for raw materials is ever-rising. However, the supply is not sufficient to meet this demand. Not only this but for extracting and using these raw materials has a major impact on the environment. The extraction can cause soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem functions, and global warming exacerbation.

With this in mind, companies globally are being encouraged to reconsider the way they make things and create products that are made to be made again. This involves moving towards sustainable materials and ensuring that whatever is produced stays in the economy and never becomes waste or pollution.

A circular economy is one that maximizes the service life of each individual product while minimizing its effect on the environment. It isn’t a singular, isolated endeavor; it involves everyone. Recycling facilities need to optimize their processes to ensure minimal waste; brands and packaging converters must design their products for sustainability; consumers should make a concerted effort to put their waste through the proper channels of disposal, and governments need to support these efforts through robust infrastructure and incentives.

This is a highly complex issue, and it is not within the scope of any individual or organization to rectify it. Developing and producing sustainable solutions will require consistent, global effort on the part of corporations, individuals, and governments. Even when compared to other transformational industry shifts such as child-resistant packaging, the scope, and magnitude of sustainable packaging stands alone.

Working with global brands to develop new packaging solutions, Jabil leaders have noticed a significant shift in the mindset and commitment from packaging leaders around the world. And this enthusiasm at the corporate level is now being matched by consumers that are willing to accept prices or aesthetics that are different from the current solutions. We’ve also seen companies setting internal sustainability goals and developing strategies to reach those goals. And converters like Jabil are aligning with material suppliers and the rest of the value chain to help brands meet their sustainability goals.

At CPP, we follow the traditional “reduce, recycle, use” approach to sustainability, but we believe there is also a vital fourth element: rethink. Rethinking packaging requires visibility and information throughout the entire supply chain and manufacturing process. Companies aiming to create more sustainable packaging solutions need partners who will optimize designs for sustainability, iteratively and rapidly assess the carbon footprint and determine the best material selection and sourcing options to help brands achieve their goals.

It is daunting, but achieving the circular economy is not an unrealistic goal. The sustainability initiative is more complicated than a change in mindset, more impactful than just improved recycling rates, and bigger than individual, siloed efforts; it’s a world-shaking revolution.

The Future

Environmental issues are presenting humankind with one of the greatest challenges we have ever faced. Climate change, the exhaustion of our natural resources, and the depletion of our natural environment are all very real concerns.

The way we have produced packaging up to now, although it is not the sole cause of our environmental concerns, still raises issues that businesses, governments, and the public need to address. Only by manufacturing packaging that is fully sustainable can we achieve the twin goals of providing a product that performs the task for which it is designed, but at the same time avoids having any form of negative impact on the environment.

The good news is that the industry is at last moving in the right direction. In the last five years, the proportion of packaging that can be deemed to be sustainable has increased by over ten percent. 

And don’t forget, focus your communication strategy on the net benefits across the diverse environmental impacts and with respect to the function of the packaging. We need customers to be on board with the chosen strategy.


CPP PACKAGING’S SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING OPTIONS

In the meantime though, companies can simply opt for more sustainable materials. At CPP, we offer a range of sustainable packaging options, from 100% recyclable plastic packaging, to plastic-free products such as our FSC certified kraft paper boxes.

During a recent Life Cycle Assessment on our product range, we found that our 100% recyclable range of materials is our most sustainable packaging option. In fact, customers switching from our PET/PE packaging solution to our 100% recyclable range could potentially use 16% less fossil fuel, make a 21% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and use 26% less water.

Our 100% recyclable range is produced using up to two-layer laminate. These materials move away from the mixed plastic laminates traditionally used which are not recyclable.

At CPP, we already provide eco-friendly packaging solutions for companies across multiple industries including food, apparel, health, electronics and etc, and more. If you would like some more information on how we can help you revolutionize your product packaging, please get in touch with us today.

-Bureau Chief: Kacharagadla | CPP Insights

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