Sustainable Packaging What It Really Means

Debunking some myths on environment-friendliness

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In our last issue, we had cited two statements most people believe to be true. These are: – Packaging made from natural and renewable agricultural materials like corn and wood is more environment-friendly.
– Packaging that is biodegradable is more environment-friendly.
We had gone on to say that these are both myths and, based on existing knowledge, incorrect when viewed scientifically. Let us see why this is so.
There are several criteria that contribute to environment-friendliness. In our first issue, we had outlined the various stages of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) – the standard scientific technique that is used to calculate the net effect that any system has on the environment. It was established through case-studies that the one phase in the LCA that has the most profound effect on the bottom line is Phase III (Transportation) since it usually accounts for the maximum amount of energy expended and emissions generated in the entire life cycle. It can be emphatically stated that light-weighting is everything and far outweighs any other consideration in calculating the net burden on the environment.

Lighter-weight materials also produce less post-consumer solid waste. Another very important criterion is energy consumption. The use of energy 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. More energy consumed directly equates to more generation of heat and higher temperatures. It is important to appreciate these phenomena to accurately analyse and comparatively rate competing systems.

Let us now look at myth number one. While it is true that useful packaging materials have been developed from natural (read agricultural) and renewable basic inputs like corn and wood – e.g. paper, cellulosic films and polylactide resins – these materials have two basic handicaps:

– They usually have a higher specific gravity than those of competing materials like synthetic polymers (usually 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.

Therefore, we actually end up using materials that are of a higher weight and this means that their net environmental burden is actually higher! (It is true that, being made from naturally renewable resources, they help greatly in conserving scarce petroleum and natural gas reserves but that is another issue altogether.)

Biodegradatility
The issue of bio-degradability (myth number two) is a little more complex and the situation has changed drastically ever since we have established that the most serious and pressing problem the environment is faced with is that of global warming due to the generation or emission of “greenhouse” gases like CO2, methane, SOx, NOx and sulphur hexafluoride. Not many people realise that, when substances degrade or break down chemically or biologically in nature (called aerobic degradation), the decomposition generates carbon compounds. Again, many materials decompose only over a long period of time; while they may disintegrate into very small particles reasonably quickly, the decomposition process is very slow. When waste like vegetation, food and degradable packaging materials decompose in landfills or compost heaps, the process is anaerobic and they generate methane, a greenhouse gas which is 21 times as deadly as CO2 in terms of warming. In fact, landfills are the most dangerous man-made sources of methane. When we consider that the decomposition process of degradable materials is extremely rapid in the presence of wet organic waste like food scraps in landfills (with the emission of highly potent methane), it becomes imperative that they actually be kept out of landfills; they should ideally be disposed of only in closely managed composting programmes (called industrial composting) and such facilities are very scarce even in places like the USA.

Backyard composting cannot safely handle biodegradable materials. Managed industrial composting systems are designed to provide optimal oxygen, moisture and temperatures (usually much higher than those encountered in backyard composting) and, since the emissions that result are mostly large amounts of carbon dioxide, they cannot be released directly into the atmosphere. Industrially composted output is used for agriculture as the system ensures a carbon-neutral process similar to that of aerobic biodegradation in nature; it provides nutrients that actually beneficially supplement the soil. The latest initiatives in advanced countries are now actually targetted at keeping organic waste out of landfills at any cost. In fact, the latest mantra is – resort to landfills only if no other option (reuse, recycling, recovery, incineration to recover energy) is available, e.g. disposable packaging tainted with food scraps that is not safe or economical to recover.

What is sustainability?
Although Sustainable Packaging has become every organisation’s Holy Grail, there is still a distinct lack of clarity in most people’s minds on what this actually involves. This is probably a good time to try and understand what sustainability is really about. The term sustainability comes from the word “sustain”, which is defined by the dictionary as meaning two things; to strengthen or support, and to keep something going over time or continuously. Sustainability actually does both. In scientific terms, it is the concept of using technology for meeting the needs of “today” without in any way compromising the interests of future generations or the “tomorrow”. So, all sustainable technology (like sustainable packaging) must not impose any burden on the environment or material resources, renewable or non-renewable, and must not cause deterioration in either their quality or availability. (Renewability of resources must be related to practical time-frames e.g. one generation. Fossil fuels, for example, are technically not totally non-renewable but either this does not happen over one lifetime or the rate at which fresh resources are being discovered or replenished is so inadequate as to render them non-renewable for all practical purposes).

The major concerns that need to be addressed are non-renewable resources (fossil fuels, some minerals), other scarce resources (like energy, fresh water), quality of the environment (air/water/soil quality), forest cover, land use, solid waste generation and, most important of all, global warming. We can draw up some basic guidelines such as:

– Preserve quality of the environment.
– Prevent depletion of natural resources.
– Conserve energy/reduce energy consumption.
– Reduce waste.
– Use renewable and recyclable materials.
– Recycle all materials; one must same-cycle or, preferably, up-cycle.
– Use cleaner and greener processes.
– Safely recover materials biologically.
– Avoid or reduce greenhouse emissions.

One glance will tell us that some of these objectives are in conflict with others. That is why it is necessary to work out a system of evaluation or a score-card that takes into account positives and negatives and arrives at a net bottom line. This is done by the process of Life Cycle Analysis (which has again undergone a shift from a cradle-to-grave analysis to a cradle-to-cradle analysis since the process ends only when all source materials/inputs have been rendered suitable for reuse). If useful recovery of the basic materials is not possible, at least the energy used by the system must be recovered by incineration.

A formal definition
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has evolved a formal definition which states that 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 utilized in biological and/or industrial cradle to cradle cycles.

All materials must ideally be reused or recovered either technically (recycling) or biologically (composting) without adversely affecting the ecosystem. If we look at the hierarchy of options, the traditional 3-R approach (reduce, reuse, recycle) has now been modified to a 5-R principle (remove, reduce, reuse, recycle, renew/recover). In fact, WalMart, one of the prime movers in the sustainable packaging movement, follow what they call their 7-R philosophy by adding yet another 2 R’s – revenue and read.

Life Cycle Analysis
LCA studies and evaluates the net burden of the whole process (materials, resources, energy, emissions, waste) and arrives at the net burden throughout the life cycle which is broken up into 5 phases as given below:

– Phase 1 – Production of raw material
– Phase 2 – Manufacture of containers/converted material
– Phase 3 – Transportation
– Phase 4 – Waste management
– Phase 5 – Reuse/recycling/renewal/ recovery

All systems must ideally be burden-neutral or, if possible, burden-negative.
As mentioned earlier, it is Phase 3 that usually plays the most important part. This phase consists of two parts – transportation of packaging materials (commonly referred to as “packaging miles”) and transportation of the 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 packaging is sourced, the distance over which the packaged product is distributed and cube utilisation during storage/transportation play vital roles. This explains why systems like flexible packaging are most desirable – they are lightweight, offer the best cube utilisation and are eminently suitable for in-house form-fill-seal operations (this drastically reduces the impact of packaging miles).

The WalMart Scorecard
WalMart have also developed a formal scorecard that will be used to evaluate vendors in which they 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

Conclusions
To sum up, here are some pointers on how to make packaging sustainable:
– Organisations should take a triple bottom line approach (economic performance, social performance and environmental performance) for integrated sustainability.
– Design lifecycles, not packages.
– Energy consumption is crucial. More energy used = more warming.
– Less is more. Lightweighting is everything (least burden, lowest cost, least solid waste).
– Removal of unnecessary packaging and/or reduction in packaging is the most effective option.
– Use recycled materials and facilitate recycling (e.g. if you are using a PET bottle, use a PETG label and not a paper one).
– Phase 3 (Transportation) requires the most focus – lightweighting, packaging/product miles and cube utilisation have the most profound impact on both energy and emissions.
– ‘Plastics’ is not a dirty word. In fact, they are the lowest-burden options.
– Source of materials is not very relevant – ‘natural’ is not always better.
– Agro sources should be thoroughly evaluated for availability and the impact their diversion will have on the food chain.
– Think out of the box (e.g. increase product concentration of chemicals/liquid detergents etc., increase product:package ratio, design packages that can be reused for other applications, use refill concepts etc.).
– Dissemination of knowledge within the organisation and to system partners (suppliers, consumers, designers etc.) plays a very important part in the process.

And, finally, here is the icing on the cake – not only does sustainable packaging help protect the environment and conserve scarce resources, it makes outstanding economic sense. All the measures that need to be taken (source and material reduction, energy conservation, savings on transportation costs, recovery of materials etc.) lead only to one thing – money saved!