Packaging professionals still struggle with setting ‘sustainable’ strategies

By Lisa McTigue Pierce in Sustainable Packaging on December 04, 2014

When it comes to sustainable packaging, the big picture is sometimes the hardest to paint.

Packaging Digest introduced the circular economy concept in an October 2014 article. Defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is “an industrial economy that is restorative by intention; aims to rely on renewable energy; minimizes, tracks and hopefully eliminates the use of toxic chemicals; and eradicates waste through careful design.”

We were interested to see how this newer model was resonating with the packaging community, especially compared to the more established eco-efficiency philosophy, which is described as practices that have a quantifiably lower environmental footprint today, but not necessarily in the long term. So we asked about each strategy in the Packaging Digest 2014 Sustainable Packaging Study (see chart 1).

Survey respondents who are members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) were more likely to have heard about the circular efficiency model than non-members, 38% versus 21% respectively (see chart 2). But, still, a large percentage of total participants were unfamiliar with the concept (77%).

This could be why a majority (56%) of survey takers don’t know if their company’s sustainable packaging strategy is more aligned with the eco-efficiency approach or the circular economy approach (see chart 3). Of the ones who did know, three times as many chose eco-efficiency than did circular economy (33% versus 11%). It’ll be interesting to see how these percentages may change over time as more discussions take place on this topic, including at the thought-leading SustPack 2015 conference scheduled for March 31-April 2 in Orlando. The event is organized by Smithers Pira in partnership with Packaging Digest and the SPC.

When we asked participants what their overall sustainable strategy was, more than 500 people told us. Many say they either don’t have one or, if they do, they don’t know what it is. Again, this probably contributed to the numbers of people who chose “Don’t know” in the question above.

Of the ones who do have a strategy, eliminating product waste came up often, especially for food; and extending shelf life with barrier packaging was cited as one way of doing that.

A lot of respondents say costs weigh heavily in their decisions—a familiar concern in our earlier sustainable packaging studies, too.

A popular strategy was to reduce first and then make sure what is left is recyclable or uses recycled-content.

Some policies are broad; some focused. Here’s a taste—perhaps you might see an idea here worth pursuing yourself:

“We intend to make every package more sustainable by one attribute. It is a lofty goal, but one we believe we can achieve. It also allows us to make small changes that affect large groups of packages at once.”

“Goal is to achieve sustainability in steps. It is more economical and easier to see going the eco-efficiency route.”

“System level product/process optimization.”

“Our sustainable packaging strategy is a sustainable business strategy.”

“Recovery is key + prevention of used packaging going to landfill. This is not about closing the loop. It is about resource optimization. Very easy to justify. There is no point going for a closed-loop solution if it uses more resources than it creates.”

 “The goal is to develop the most sustainable, efficient packaging from the start, and to look at old designs to see where improvements can be made. Honestly, the sustainability initiative tends to fall in parallel with cost savings projects.”

“Print what is needed, dramatic waste reduction and dramatic inventory and destruction cost/impact reduction.”

“Reduce, reuse, recycle and rightsiz[e].”

“Our decisions are based on my sustainability criteria: If a material or process supports life, it is sustainable. If it harms life, it isn't sustainable.”

“Set key goals that can be measured; reduce packaging size, use sustainable materials, track EOL [end of life]. It’s what we can measure and have an impact. It's difficult because materials are generally more expensive.”

“It's an open strategy. We are always looking and open to materials that are sustainable as long as they are functional, reliable and cost effective.”

“It's been challenging to justify some decisions because there's not always a good balance between people, planet and profit payoffs.”

Some replies were specific to the topics of circular economy and eco-efficiency:

“We consult for companies in the value chain, so educate them on both options. Usually they are more aligned with eco-efficiency since costs can be more easily tracked—an easy metric everyone understands.”

“We understand your reasoning, but think creating an artificial dichotomy between circular economy and eco-efficiency is extremely counterproductive for the packaging sector. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive.”

Definitely a lot to consider.

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