Understanding Sustainable Packaging

Triple bottom line – Environmental, economic and social performance


Unfortunately, a lot of incorrect notions still abound, helped in no small measure by many different reports and claims or counter-claims published by a wide variety of people or organisations, each with different axes to grind, all intent on saying, a la Jack Horner, “what a good boy I am”. Everybody but everybody is bursting his guts to announce how good and responsible a corporate citizen and “green” he is and how many barrels of oil he’s saved or how many cars he’s taken off the road. Many of these claims are misleading or exaggerated. A lot of confusion certainly exists on what really constitutes sustainability in packaging. This write-up is an attempt to explain the basics involved though it must be admitted that the whole mélange of issues is aggravatingly complex and beset with contradictions and conflicts of interest between different fundamental objectives.
Defining sustainability
Let us start by trying to define what “sustainability” really means in the context of the environment. According to the dictionary, the word sustainability comes from the verb “to sustain”, which has two important meanings:
– to strengthen or support.
– to keep something going over time or continuously.

Sustainability is now associated with evaluation of a process or technology and, as it happens, it actually encompasses both of the definitions listed above. On the one hand, it must strengthen or support the environment and, on the other, it must keep it going over time or, preferably, continuously. To put it another and more practical way, sustainability of a technology or process is the concept of using it to meet the needs of ‘today’ without in any way compromising the interests of future generations or the ‘tomorrow’. It is the latter part of this statement that has to be treated as the inviolable bottom line. (We will see as we go along that the whole issue of sustainability actually relates to much more than just the environment itself.)

Based on this, we can lay down the two essential requirements of a sustainable technology or process as follows:
– It must not impose any burdens on the environment or on material resources, whether renewable or non-renewable.
– It must not cause any deterioration in their quality or availability.

Addressing the concerns
We need to first list the major concerns that have to be addressed. Many of the concerns are inter-dependent. The first group of concerns have to do with natural resources and the fact that some of the key ones are either non-renewable or, for all practical purposes, rendered thus because the renewal process takes up inordinate time. These include:

– Fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas).
– Various minerals (e.g. metallic ores and industrial raw materials).
Many other man-made resources are also concerns either because they are scarce or in short supply (like energy) or because existing infrastructure is inadequate or under strain. The latter usually becomes more of a constraint in poor and developing countries, which unfortunately constitute a major part of the world.

There are a number of concerns that relate to the environment, as we know it. The important ones are:
– Quality of the environment and the need to protect it from pollution (atmospheric, water, soil).
– Water, especially fresh water and ground water tables. Many people do not appreciate the acute scarcity of this resource.
– Forest cover and land use.
– Global warming and climate change.
– Ozone depletion.
– Preservation of all living species and plant life and protection of their habitats and natural food chains.

There are also some human activities that impact on the environment. In the context of packaging, the most important of these is the generation of post-consumer waste and the management of its collection and disposal.

Some guidelines
Given that these concerns need hardly be emphasised often enough, the simplest approach to sustainability is to try and lay down some basic guidelines which will form the basis for formulating an ideal and workable strategy. Some of these may be simplistic but, nevertheless, need to be stated so that nothing is overlooked. In no particular order of priority, we could list these guidelines as follows:

– Preserve the quality of the environment at all costs.
– Prevent depletion of resources, both natural and man-made.
– Conserve and/or reduce energy usage and constantly work at improving energy efficiency.
– Reduce waste, both during productive processes and post-consumer.
– Use renewable and recyclable or reusable materials/systems.
– Use cleaner and greener processes.
– Safely recover all materials. This includes biological means, if necessary.
– Avoid or reduce greenhouse emissions.

One can see that, unfortunately, some of these objectives are in conflict with others. Let us take an example to illustrate this, drawing upon a standard packaging operation viz. printing. World-wide, there is a move towards using water-based inks in place of solvent-based systems because they are greener, safer to handle and cause no VOC emissions into the atmosphere. The downside of this is that water-based inks are much more difficult to dry and need much higher energy for the purpose. There is, thus, a clear conflict of interest. Another thing that has to be kept in mind, and this is unfortunately a vital criterion in the practical world, is that what one does has to be economically viable and cannot end up being less cost-effective than the process one is trying to replace or modify. This is why we need to devise a scientific, analytical and quantitative approach to sustainability instead of going by notions or instincts. As we will see later, this is the reason for developing a ‘score-card’ system that accounts for both the positives and the negatives of a process with the ultimate objective that all technologies or processes must be burden-neutral.

Having come this far, let us now see if it is possible to generate a definition of what constitutes Sustainable Packaging. A lot of work is still being done to arrive at such a definition but the most definitive work on this has been carried out by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, an industry-wide coalition in the USA. They have developed a set of criteria that could form the basis of a universal acceptance of what is sustainable packaging. According to the SPC, sustainable packaging:

– Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle.
– Meets market criteria for performance and cost.
– Is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy.
– Maximises the use of renewable recycled source 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 optimise materials and energy.
–Is effectively recovered and utilised in biological and/or industrial cradle to cradle cycles.

Hierarchy of options
People have tried to develop a hierarchy of options in packaging design for sustainability and this keeps changing and evolving all the time. For a long time, people used the 3-R (reduce, reuse, recycle) system as the guiding principle and it seemed good enough. However, over the last few years, people have realised that there is more to it than just the three R’s. This has now been modified to 5 R’s. The highest position in the hierarchy is now “remove”. In other words, the first priority is to remove any unnecessary or extraneous components of the packaging and cut down on parts that are not really required, e.g. secondary or tertiary “layers” that are not really needed. The fifth R stands for “renew or recover”. This means that, in case it is not possible to either reuse or recycle the packaging, then it must be renewed or the inputs recovered to either make it suitable for use in a new application or to ensure that some of the input “burden” is negated to the extent possible and some value recovered. This latter option includes incineration to recover energy although one would exercise this option only as a last resort when absolutely nothing else can be done with the waste.

Walmart, one of the leading drivers in the sustainable packaging movement, go even further. They follow what they call their 7-R philosophy, in which they add two more R’s to the five listed above – “revenue” and “read”. The first implies that not only does sustainable packaging help protect the environment and conserve scarce resources, it makes outstanding economic sense as all such measures lead to only one thing – money saved! This is as powerful an incentive as any. They also stress “read” as the way to keep oneself abreast and to educate and share/exchange information with system partners and other people to keep taking the process forward.

Evaluating sustainability
There is no gainsaying the need for evaluating sustainability using a sound scientific and quantitative method. The most basic reason for evaluation is the fact that, while implementing measures to improve sustainability, there is quite often a conflict between the various basic objectives, as explained earlier. Therefore, it is essential to know whether a particular exercise has had a net positive contribution or not when compared with a reference system or with other alternative systems. The evaluation is usually carried out by conducting what is called a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). Originally, the LCA was based on a “cradle-to-grave” approach that studies the system through its whole life cycle from birth to the stage where it “dies” or exhausts its usefulness at disposal. However, the latest concept is that LCA must follow a “cradle-to-cradle” approach because, at the end of a system’s life-cycle, all its components must either be reconverted into a usable form or, if this is not feasible, as much of the inputs must be recovered as possible for reuse.

LCA studies and evaluates the net burden of the whole process or system – materials, resources, energy, emissions and waste – and arrives at the net burden throughout the life cycle. The life cycle itself is broken up into 5 phases as follows:
Phase 1 Production of raw material
Phase 2 Manufacture of containers or converted packaging materials
Phase 3 Transportation
Phase 1 Waste management
Phase 1 Reuse/ recycling/ renewal/ recovery

All systems must ideally be burden-neutral or, if possible, burden-negative.
Many case-studies have established that the one phase in the LCA that generally has the most profound effect on the bottom line is Phase 3 because it usually accounts for the maximum amount of energy expended and emissions generated in the entire life cycle. This phase consists of two parts – transportation of packaging materials (commonly referred to as “packaging miles”) and transportation of packaged product (commonly referred to as “product miles”). This is why factors like the packaging materials, the package form, the weight per package, the distance from which the packaging is sourced, the distance over which the packaged product is distributed and cube utilisation during storage and transportation all play a vital role in the whole process. This is also why it has been generally found that systems like flexible packaging are the most desirable because they are light-weight, offer the best cube utilisation and are eminently suitable for in-house form-fill-seal operations; all this drastically reduces the impact of both packaging and product miles.
It can be emphatically stated that light-weighting is practically everything and far outweighs any other consideration in calculating net burdens. Lighter-weight materials also produce less post-consumer solid waste. Another very important criterion is energy consumption and this can be directly related to the conservation of the environment. By and large, the processes that generate energy or involve its consumption are, by their very nature, sources of warming. Therefore, more energy consumed directly equates to more generation of heat or generation of greenhouse gases. It is very important to appreciate the importance of these two criteria to accurately analyse and comparatively rate competing systems.
The Walmart scorecard, which was developed and announced last year, will be used by them to evaluate vendors and reward suppliers who have helped them to achieve their avowed objective of reducing their packaging. This is a good example of how sustainability of packaging can be measured. In this scorecard, Walmart have ascribed weightages to the various factors involved as follows:
– 15% Greenhouse gas or CO2 per MT of production
– 15% Material value
– 15% Product/package ratio
– 15% Cube utilisation
– 10% Transportation
– 10% Recycled content
– 10% Recovery value
– 5% Renewable energy
– 5% Innovation
As we can see, the two major contributors to Phase 3 of LCA, i.e. cube utilisation and transportation, together make up as much as 25% of the total weightage.

Debunking some myths
There are some common myths and mistaken notions about sustainability that are, unfortunately, widely prevalent. The first of these is that all packaging made from natural and renewable sources (agricultural materials like corn, starch or wood) are always more environment-friendly. Based on existing knowledge and, when viewed scientifically, this is largely incorrect. While it is true that useful packaging materials have been developed from natural and renewable inputs, e.g. paper, cellulosic films and polylactide (PLA) resins, these generally have two basic handicaps:

– they usually have a higher specific gravity than those of materials like synthetic polymers like commodity plastics, and
– they also have poorer barrier properties, which means we need to use them in higher thicknesses as compared to synthetic polymers to obtain equivalent performance.
In effect, we could actually end up using higher-weight materials and this could mean a higher net environmental burden. There is no denying the fact that, being made from renewable agricultural resources, they greatly help in conserving scarce petroleum or natural gas reserves but that is another issue altogether.

Myth number two is that all bio-degradable packaging is always more environment-friendly. The issue of bio-degradability is very complex and the perspective has undergone a drastic change ever since we have established that arguably the most serious and pressing problem that the environment is faced with is that of global warming. This warming is due to generation or emission of “greenhouse” gases like CO2, methane, Sox, NOx and sulphur hexafluoride. When substances break down chemically or biologically in nature (called aerobic degradation), the decomposition generates carbon compounds. But, in real life, most organic waste like vegetation and food scraps and degradable packaging materials actually land up in land-fills where they undergo anaerobic degradation and they end up generating methane, a greenhouse gas that is some 20 times as potent as CO2 in terms of warming. When we consider the fact that the decomposition process of degradable materials in land-fills is extremely rapid in the presence of wet organic waste like food scraps with the emission of deadly methane, it becomes imperative that they be kept out of land-fills. (Land-fills are the most dangerous man-made sources of methane.) Ideally, degradable materials should be disposed of only in closely managed composting programmes (called industrial composting) that are designed to provide optimal oxygen, moisture and temperatures (usually much higher than those encountered in backyard composting) with controls on emissions to deliver a carbon-neutral process. Such industrial composting facilities are extremely scarce even in places like the USA. Therefore, the latest initiatives in the advanced countries are now actually targeted at keeping organic waste out of land-fills at any cost and the mantra is – resort to land-fills only if no other reuse/recycling/recovery or incineration option is available.

Achieving sustainability
There is no doubt that all corporate organisations need to take a triple bottom line approach (economic performance, social performance and environmental performance) for integrated sustainability and clearly identify it as an over-riding priority. The commitment has to be a key corporate objective and driven top down.

Here are some pointers on how to manage the sustainable packaging process:
– Design lifecycles, not packages.
– Evaluate scientifically, not by instinct
– Always study the whole ‘system’.
– More energy used = more warming.
– Less is more: light-weighting is everything.
– Removal of unnecessary packaging and/or reduction in packaging is the most effective option.
– Use recycled materials and facilitate recycling (e.g. on a PET bottle, use a PETG label and not a paper one).
– Phase 3 of LCA requires the most focus.
– “Plastics” is not a dirty word. In fact, they are the lowest-burden options.
– “Natural” is not always better. Source of materials is not very relevant.
– Agricultural sources should be thoroughly evaluated for availability and the impact their diversion will have on the food chain. (See what is happening when corn is diverted for bio-ethanol for automotive fuel.)
– Think out of the box (e.g. higher product concentrations for liquid detergents/chemicals, higher product/package ratios, packs that can be reused for other applications, refill concepts etc.).
– Dissemination of knowledge within the organisation and to system partners (suppliers, consumers, designers etc.) plays a vital part in the process.

Finally, here is the most powerful reason to go “green” – the icing on the cake is that all the measures that need to be taken viz. source and material reduction, energy conservation, savings on transportation costs, recovery of materials etc. all lead to significant savings and healthier bottom-lines. What better way to create more wealth for oneself and have the world think the world of you?