The Road to Sustainable Packaging
Packaging gets thrust into the guilty limelight as calls of concern highlight the state of the global environment. We explore how packaging companies can be sustainable now.
A staggering 80% of the plastics that end up in the oceans come from Asia. Packaging accounts for over 40% of plastic usage globally. Of all the packaging types, flexible packaging is by far the largest contributor to waste in the Asian region. Within this category, single-use plastics such as plastic bags and food packaging have been identified as main culprits.
Fortunately, an increasing amount of companies are realising the importance of environmental sustainability in packaging. Brands are constantly looking for ways to incorporate materials and manufacturing ways that have less of an impact on the planet.
In addition to obvious environmental benefits, the green route also allows companies to build better relationships with customers. A report by Unilever in 2017 showed that one-third of consumers specifically purchase from brands that are more sustainable.
A more recent 2018 report by GlobalData echoed this research, revealing that two-thirds of consumers worldwide think that living an ethical or sustainable lifestyle is important to creating a feeling of wellbeing.
Growing requirements for reduced environmental impacts and increased expectations for relevant packaging is driving and shaping the sustainable packaging evolution.
What is Sustainable Packaging?
Sustainable packaging does not just refer to the materials used in producing the packaging. It can also be efficient packaging design, ecologically friendly practices within the supply chain, or even providing end-of-life options for the packaging.
Professionals often refer to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s definition of the term. The environmental non-profit defined sustainable packaging as having the following qualities:
Is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
Meets market criteria for both performance and cost
Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy
Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
Is made from materials that are healthy throughout the life cycle
Is physically designed to optimise materials and energy
Is effectively recovered and utilised in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles
Actionable Steps Packaging Companies can take Today
In essence, sustainable packaging simply helps in reducing impact in the environment. Sustainable packaging is not a one-size-fits-all solution, which opens opportunities for the different routes brands and packaging manufacturers alike can take. There is a host of sustainable practices that companies can adopt to make their businesses more environmentally-friendly.
1. Simplify to make packaging easier to recycle.
Material use is one of the biggest factors in recyclability. Encourage the use of one type of material for the packaging. Generally, the greater the number of different materials used, the less recyclable it becomes.
“We need to work on making things more recyclable,” said Eric Tollemer, managing director of Cosfibel Singapore, a packaging company with an international clientele. “Make it possible to separate the materials in the packaging in a way that’s not too complicated. Simplify the packaging so that it becomes obvious that you can take away the parts.”
If the packaging calls for more than a type of material, make it such that the materials are easier to separate. Limit the use of additives or treatments that can also affect the recyclability of the material.
Tollemer explained: “For example, we make complex packaging for luxury brands which can involve combining different materials to for the complete product. Instead of gluing a paper piece to plastic, which makes it hard recycle, we designed it to be able to stick without glue. It is also easier to take apart to be recycled.”
2. Streamline Packaging Design
Streamlining packaging design refers to removing excess materials and being more lightweight. This is a straightforward way of being eco-friendly as it removes unnecessary product waste and eliminates environmental impact from transportation. Companies such as Coca Cola reported that adopting a streamlined approach has saved them some $180 million over a two-year period.
Streamlining a packaging design not only makes shipments lighter, it will also allow more of the actual product to be able to fit packing containers and retail shelves. Opt for retail and shelf-ready packaging, which requires less packing and less waste.
3. Explore Alternatives Materials
There is an enormous array of eco-friendly alternatives available on the market. Types of eco-friendly packaging materials include bioplastics that are biodegradable or bio-compostable. Bioplastics can also be materials that are bio-sourced, or made out of renewable raw materials.
There are different types of bioplastics out on the market today, such as Aliphatic Polyesters such as PLA, PHA and PHB, which are biodegradable. There are also starch-based and fibre-based bioplastics that can be explored and utilised based on specific requirements.
4. Use Recycled Materials in your Plastic Packaging
Alternative materials may not be the go-to due to low physical performances, overall appearance, or its high costs. If plastic seems to be the only answer for now, explore using recycled content instead.
Using recycled materials in packaging not only reduce environmental impact, it can also cut overall costs. The plastics which are most often used for packaging are high density and low density polyethylene with and without additives (HDPE and LDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Plastics such as PETs and PEs are classified as recycled content, PET being the easiest and most common to recycle.
For those willing to use post-consumer recycled materials, they can be found easily and not at much of a cost. Post-consumer recycled materials are simply waste materials that come from households or industrial facilities that can no longer be used for its initial purpose. The materials are then diverted and recovered from the traditional waste-stream, for example, trash facilities. This can stretch beyond plastic use, as paper and print industries have a high amount of post-consumer materials. Visit local recycling program facilities to have a feel of what materials are available; a lot of recycling programs have more material that they can handle.
5. Aim for a cleaner supply chain
Beyond packaging materials, sustainability efforts can be implemented on the supply chain level.
“Another way of being sustainable is within the supply chain. As a professional buying packaging, one aspect that we look at is how clean is your facility,” said Tollemer. “How are you manufacturing? Can you manufacture using less water? How are you managing your waste and your CO2 emission?”
Implementing green practices at all levels of your supply chain can also lead to an overall cleaner packaging producing facility. Find ways to lower water usage, reduce residual solid waste, electricity usage and VOC emissions.
6. Encourage the End User to Recycle
The reality is that most packaging is going to end up getting thrown out due to end-user decision. Recycling is important as even materials that are supposed to be able to be composted, don’t truly break down in landfills.
“At the end of the day, recycling is a must. This is the immediate thing that we need to take care of,” said Tollemer. “I always think its better if you encourage the consumer to do it, because then the consumer feels a sense of responsibility.”
Research has shown that people do want to recycle. However, it may not necessarily be easy to know what is recyclable or not. Having clear recycling labels and instructions on the packaging will inspire the end-user to take that extra step of recycling instead of throwing it in the trash.
There are creative ways to do this as well: “As a packaging design company, one of the things we are currently working with some clients is to include a QR code on the packaging that directs users to a website with information about the packaging material. The website can be accessed by recycling facilities or even motivated individuals to simplify the recycling process,” said Tollemer.
This can also accompany marketing campaigns, as in the case of Coca Cola. The beverage partnered with a grocery chain in the UK to launch a campaign encouraging users to reuse their plastic bottles in a fun way. The program encourages parents to sign up and ‘pledge’ to recycle, and provides a website where they can learn creative ways to re-use plastic beverage packaging, from making bird feeders to creating a self-watering plastic bottle plant pot. The program informs and encourages participants on the importance of recycling used beverage containers.
First published in Issue 08/2018 of Print Innovation Asia. Click to read the full version.