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 sustainability as a top tier value, packaging manufacturers 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.”
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.