Breaking Down Sustainable Packaging Options
By Kevin Williams
What is “sustainable packaging?” Depending on who is asked you will likely have quite differing answers. For those who are not involved in manufacturing, sourcing and design (i.e. the average or even conscientious consumer), sustainable packaging is all the paper, plastic and glass that has to be put into bins for curbside collection. The exception is possibly the paper that goes to the landfill, because as we all know paper unlike plastic is biodegradable and will break down so it is naturally a better choice…right? The public perception of paper, versus plastic, is that paper, unlike plastic, is a natural and renewable resource. That is why it’s often affiliated with all-natural products to project the image of being natural and ethical.
The truth is that anything destined for a landfill breaks down very slowly, because the necessary elements to decompose matter (light and oxygen) are not available. So what goes in stays there, at least in our lifetime and several to come. The fact that paper contributes to over a third of the country’s total waste compared to plastic (approximately one tenth) puts the percentage of paper in landfills considerably higher. However, one must also consider that of all the recycling efforts surrounding plastic, only 9 percent is actually reclaimed and put back into use. The rest ends up in the trash heap.
In the organic industry especially, the package is the primary vehicle of consumer communication and education. The choice of packaging speaks volumes about your dedication to environmental sustainability, one of the key foundations of organic. However, the effects of packaging go beyond just what the consumer perceives. Packaging has been called the most integrated component of the dynamic commercialization process, because a change in the package can affect the cost of goods, manufacturing throughput, distribution, merchandising and product usage.
To determine how sustainable a packaging system is, meaning its environmental impact, you need to consider: the resources and energy required to produce and deliver the package leading up to product manufacturing; its effect on distribution after filling as a product delivery system; and, lastly, how the package enters the waste stream or recycles back into the system. This is referred to as a life cycle assessment, because it considers all aspects of the package/product from very early stages of sourcing to final elimination, otherwise referred to as “cradle to grave.” The public perception of sustainable packaging is based on the last stage, the waste, because this is where they have the most contact and the greatest awareness. This is why the focus is often on recyclable and renewable materials. However, it’s weight and material volume reduction that often serve the greatest good, establishing a low package to product ratio.
If all products were sold in high volume bulk we would achieve the ultimate level of sustainability, however, it would be at the expense of brand differentiation, preservation and convenience. The goal of most businesses within the organic and natural products market is to offer value added products in the most sustainable and environmentally responsible fashion while staying competitive. A life cycle assessment is the most effective method to gauge the environmental burdens a packaging option presents throughout all stages of manufacturing, product use and disposal. Through this assessment, companies can see how eco-friendly their product really is and identify ways they might be able to green their packaging.
This is exactly what Stonyfield Farm did in partnership with their yogurt cup supplier, Polytainers, and the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Studies. Together they evaluated their product delivery system(PDS), #6 Polypropylene cups, along with several other scenarios including material reduction processes (thermoformed cups), more recyclable options (#2 High Density Polyethylene cups) and biodegradable materials (unbleached paperboard and Polylactic Acid bioplastic). The goal was to identify the total environmental burden from the PDS including the total energy consumed in the package life cycle (raw materials sourcing, packaging production, distribution to facility/market) and the solid waste impact for each scenario.
Their key findings suggested that the greatest environmental benefit was realized by reducing the overall weight and packaging material used. In this instance it meant using the existing less recyclable polypropylene with no biodegradable properties to speak of. This direction ultimately proved more environmentally beneficial including lower energy use and waste impact than other options. For more information on the study go to www.css.snre.umich.edu.
A study of this scale requires a large commitment by the organization that would be prohibitive to smaller companies. As an alternative, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) is presently updating a modeling program called “Merge” that they licensed from Environmental Defense for package design. When launched, Merge will enable companies to quickly screen package design concepts based on 11 sustainability criteria using life cycle information and other data for basic packaging materials. These criteria provide an environmental profile that is appropriately scoped for a screening type of tool without the complexity of a full life cycle type of evaluation. The final draft criteria include fossil fuel consumption, water consumption, mineral consumption, biotic resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, human health impacts, aquatic toxicity impacts, recycled content, renewable content (sourcing metric) and recovery potential. However like most actuarial systems, Merge will only be as effective as the data available, which is presently being updated by SPC in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Dept. of Energy) and industry specific support. For more information on Merge and other efforts by the SPC go to www.sustainablepackaging.org.
The life cycle assessments and modeling programs are usually based on existing systems and constraints. For example, the upside value of offering a recycled material is weighted against the actual amount of recycling occurring for that particular substrate to date. There is the need to push beyond the constraints of the existing infrastructure, allowing innovation to drive new paradigms in manufacturing, use and recovery. The system will not adapt without the change leaders of the world. For this we have to recognize the organizations that are developing new materials and envisioning a new future for packaging systems. One such example is Pangea Organics, who in collaboration with UFP Technologies Inc. created a compostable, biodegradable and plantable package that loosely resembles an egg crate. Its biodegradable and reusable properties make it a viable option in sustaining the environment, a core element in the concept design. The packaging is manufactured with zero waste at UFP’s molded fiber division in Clinton, Iowa, and created from 100 percent post-consumer newsprint, without glues and dyes. To encourage secondary use while creating further consumer participation in the brand, Pangea embedded medicinal herb seeds in the molded fiber paperboard. Consumers could then soak the box and plant it in 1 inch of soil to sprout the seeds. This added detail served to reinforce Pangea’s brand proposition as a naturally healthful personal care lifestyle brand. Since the introduction, several other leading natural and conventional personal care brands have followed by introducing their own version of the molded fiber packaging.
Leaders need to keep pushing the envelope. Josh Onysko, founder and CEO of Pangea, recently announced they are collaborating with Chameleon Packaging, the environmental division of Design & Source Productions Inc., to introduce new packaging that uses a non-fiber based board called TerraSkin, a combination of mineral powder (>80 percent calcium carbonate) and a small quantity of non-toxic resin (<20 percent PE) which acts as a binder to create an environmentally friendly board that received Cradle to Cradle certification by MBDC. According to Nicole Smith of Chameleon Packaging, TerraSkin is UV degradable, breaking down to its original mineral components that allows for the material to be completely repurposed into new packaging, over and over again without denigrating, as recycled paper does. The limiting variable is reclamation; currently there is no means of bringing the materials back into the system, as a result much of it may initially go into the conventional waste stream. However, with more organizations adopting the material, such as Burt’s Bees soap wraps, the opportunity for consumer recycling programs to include TerraSkin, and others of the like will continue to increase.
Making Sustainable Stick
“If you want to turn the ship of state, you shouldn’t try to push the ship around from the front or even try turning the rudder, but find the ‘trimtab’ and turn that, and then the rudder and ship will turn more easily.”
The influence of the large retailers like Wal-Mart have turned the institutional ship toward sustainability through their scorecard qualifiers. For instance PLA (bio-based plastic packaging) by Cargill has established a foothold based largely on these criteria. In as much as these forces are bringing positive change there is the inherent risk that the Wal-Mart scorecard will become the de facto industry standard that all companies follow without full consideration of what the real potentials are. In otherwords, it could ultimately becoming an inhibitor to innovation rather than a stimulator.
We in the organic industry must act as the “trimtabs,” the change agents in the larger context of evolving manufacturing and institutional processes. According to Smith, one of the greatest challenges to implementing a new sustainable packaging material is the economy of scale. Creating dedicated runs for small volumes is price prohibitive, and instituting the necessary reclamation programs cannot happen without a surge in demand. This requires a collaborative effort on the part of conscientious manufacturers to become aligned on materials and processes that make sense.
Kevin Williams is the brand strategist of Pure Branding (www.purebranding.com), a leading strategic branding and package design agency dedicated to providing groundbreaking brand solutions exclusively for the natural products industry. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.