I joined GreenBlue last fall as the new executive director and Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) director. Now that a year has passed, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on some key industry milestones in 2013 and talk about what we can look forward to in 2014.
"Packaging Design for Sustainability:" 2013 saw the release of the new Packaging Design Guide-a partnership between SPC and Eco Entreprises Quebec (EEQ), and facilitated as a project of PACNEXT. The design guide approaches packaging as a product-package system and considers the life cycle of both. It reflects a recognition that sustainability is about choices and conversations involving the complete life cycle of a package, and recognizes there are multiple ways to approach it.
Life-cycle analysis (LCA) proved that it was an important part of the design process, empowering packaging professionals to incorporate the environmental performance of package designs at the concept stage. GreenBlue released version 3.0 of its LCA tool, COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment)-a simplified, web-based LCA tool to evaluate the environmental impacts of different packaging to assist in product design decisions. Version 3.0 considerably expands the life cycle perspective of packaging by adding tertiary, or transport packaging, to the design options.
Even as LCA use becomes more prevalent, there are still significant misunderstandings about how to effectively use it for decision making. The best use of LCA data is to improve internal decisions by identifying hotspots, evaluating material and design alternatives, benchmarking existing packaging and tracking improvements over time.
Sustainable sourcing is growing in importance for new carbon sources. Much of this has been driven by European biofuels legislation but the conversation has moved to include carbon source materials for bio-plastics and chemical intermediates. A renewed interest in forest cellulosics will add momentum to forest certification. The SPC has a working group looking at the value of certification and how to increase forest certification by understanding the "job" that certification is hired to do by each member of the value chain.
Filling out supplier evaluation forms is a common complaint we hear from the packaging industry. The push to integrate the Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability (GPPS) metrics into the GS1 database should standardize data collection options, but it has not been without challenges. The set of environmental attributes and life cycle indicators within GPPS, when integrated into a global GS1 standard, will provide a consistent platform for submitting and sharing environmental measurements between producers and retailers. This central data sharing will allow ease of communication along the supply chain.
Even so, remember the GS1 only standardizes the reporting and sharing of sustainability indicators related to a package based on its assigned bar code. It does not standardize the methods by which the measurements are calculated, which is another issue in itself.
Also of importance, the Federal Trade Commission released its Green Guides in late 2012, demonstrating its renewed focus on environmental marketing claims and ratcheting up enforcement actions. Consumers want sustainable products, and companies want to accurately market those products to consumers. The SPC's How2Recycle Label, compliant with the Green Guides, moved from pilot to full-scale implementation in 2013, reaching 21 participants by the end of October.
The conversation on end of life continued in 2013. Hot topics include solutions for flexible packaging; the China Green Fence; the impacts of inks, coatings and adhesives on the recycling stream; and compostability.
• Options are increasing for flexible film recovery and there is recognition that viable end-of-life solutions will be increasingly important as the market continues to grow. Challenges include collection, sortation, reprocessing and next-life market development, especially as flexible packaging is typically excluded from municipal collection programs. GreenBlue has partnered with the American Chemistry Council to promote the use of store drop-off through the How2Recycle Label for HDPE and LDPE films. Concurrently, the SPC runs an Industry Leadership Committee that is examining options for other flexible packaging formats.
• Operation Green Fence is an action by several of China's government agencies to increase the quality of scrap paper, plastic and metals shipped to China and tax them appropriately. As a result, North American MRF's have been forced to upgrade the quality of their bales or risk rejection in China. The crackdown on quality of bales was a wake-up call in North America. The China Green Fence forced us to re-examine our dependence on the Asian market to take No. 3 to 7 plastics and start asking how we might develop local markets for these materials. Significant changes to our approach include a renewed focus on better sorting technology for No. 3 to 7 plastics.
• Inks, coatings, adhesives and shrink sleeves have been receiving increased attention in terms of the role they play in the recyclability of the materials that carry them. The Assn. of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) has new guidelines for recyclability with advice and testing protocols to ensure recyclability in the presence of inks, coatings and adhesives.
• Compostable packaging as a vehicle for food waste recovery is increasing nationwide as municipalities recognize the sustainable materials management potential. GreenBlue, in partnership with the IDEAS Center at UNC Charlotte, was awarded a grant from EPA Region IV to scale-up composting in the Charlotte area with the end goal of creating a national model based on the region. The project will collect and analyze the data needed to help municipalities identify, assess and optimize recycling and organics management strategies most suitable for location, size, demographics and waste streams.
The introduction of new materials continues to pose a challenge for integration into end-of-life infrastructure. As such, we need to start planning for emerging materials in our recovery strategies now. New bioplastic materials will continue to emerge. Biopolymer applications will include substitute polymers, drop-in replacement polymers and hybrid polymers with advanced performance. The ability to capture carbon and create materials through sustainable manufacturing pathways provides a positive path forward in our ability to build a regenerative economy.
2014 and beyond
There is an ongoing shift from examining individual materials to considering the entire product and package system. In 2014, we should expect for this lens to become the norm; taking packaging sustainability to the next level.
At the 2013 SPC Fall Meeting, GreenBlue announced a plan to help members move toward this next level by developing a sustainable packaging recognition mark. GreenBlue will develop the mark and associated protocol in collaboration with member companies and key stakeholders. The intent is to recognize and reward companies' sustainable packaging efforts throughout the life cycle-from raw materials through to branded packaging. The recognition mark will draw from the SPC's Definition of Sustainable Packaging, a widely accepted industry definition of sustainable packaging. Criteria for the recognition mark will be transparent and validation options will be developed.
Two packages that look alike and are made with similar materials can have very different journeys. One package could be made with sustainably sourced or recycled raw materials, using renewable energy for manufacturing and transportation, and made or filled in a zero waste to landfill facility. The other package may follow none of these practices.
Materials alone are not enough to determine sustainability; the life cycle journey is important. While there is no silver bullet to sustainability, a multitude of best practices throughout the life cycle of a package are emerging that collectively can make a difference. The recognition mark will be designed to celebrate these multiple paths to sustainability. The mark is not about pitting one package against another, but instead will encourage each package to be the best it can be, rewarding companies for their commitment to sustainability and life cycle thinking-which is exactly where we at the SPC see packaging going in 2014.
Author Nina Goodrich serves a dual role as executive director of GreenBlue and director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). For more information about the SPC, visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.