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The endless pursuit of sustainability and the mythical universal metric

The pursuit of sustainable packaging is one complicated endeavor. The philosophy of sustainability encompasses all things related to the environment, the economy and social well-being—so pretty much everything under the sun for any given package is related to its sustainability. 

These relationships are numerous and often convoluted, so a lot of well-intentioned efforts can go awry. Efforts to make a package more economically preferable can result in a package that is less environmentally preferable. Attempting to reduce an unwanted environmental impact can result in an increase to another unwanted environmental impact. A lot of actions aimed at improving sustainability end up resulting in a reshuffling of benefits and drawbacks. So how does one know if they have actually created more sustainable packaging? 

The seemingly obvious answer is that a universal sustainability evaluation system is needed—one that can compare every aspect of packaging in a standardized manner and tell us unequivocally whether or not we have improved or reduced the sustainability of a package using a universal metric. I like to call it the mythical "sustain-o-pack-o-matic." Oh, how wonderful this would be. We would finally know if that increase in cost is worth the environmental savings. Not sure how to evaluate the social impacts of packaging? Fear not, for the sustain-o-pack-o-matic will do it for you. Do you lay awake at night wondering if beer should be packaged in bottles or cans? Just run them both through the sustain-o-pack-o-matic, and hold your breath as it churns through countless variables. Oh, and the tiresome paper vs plastic debate? Finally solved. Thank you, sustain-o-pack-o-matic.

Unfortunately, this invention is a long ways away from becoming reality. There's a good reason that the paper vs plastic debate rages on. Nobody knows how to assess absolute sustainability. Which is more preferable, the lower water consumption incurred by a plastic bag or the lower non-renewable resource depletion incurred by a paper bag? 

Quite a few obstacles stand between us and finding the universal sustainability metric. In some water-scarce regions, it might be argued that lowering water consumption is more important than say, reducing emissions of particulate matter. In smog-covered Mexico City though, it could be the emissions of particulate matter that merit the most attention. Any one rule is always subject to change.

The relative importance of environmental, economic and social attributes are also confounding. Think about pharmaceutical packaging as an example. If our goal is to keep medicine affordable to lower-income individuals (a clear benefit to social well-being), then packaging cost reductions might be the most important effort to be made in the name of sustainability. Now how do we compare delivering medicine to delivering beer? Determining preferability always involves a judgment call. I know that beer must have a social benefit, but I'm not sure how it relates to the prioritizing of the cost and environmental attributes of its packaging.

Fortunately for all of us, a lot of meaning can be found in the pursuit of sustainability. Our understanding of the actions necessary to achieve sustainable packaging is constantly evolving, and the end-goal of sustainability remains a moving target. The more we learn about sustainability though, the closer we chase that moving target. It's not likely that we'll ever create the sustain-o-pack-o-matic, and we'll probably keep relying on theories, inexact modeling and educated guesses. The endless pursuit of sustainability will remain complicated, and only those who continually strive to learn will get closer to achieving it. 

Author Adam Gendell is a project manager at GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For additional information about the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, visit



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