By Nina Goodrich, director, Sustainable Packaging Coalition
I am writing this article having just seen a number of sobering pictures of Hurricane Sandy's destructive power. Sea levels are rising, the ocean is warming and our weather is becoming more radical. As the Arctic ice melts, the currents and wind in the North Atlantic are pushing this water towards the East Coast of the United States, causing the sea level to rise four times faster than the global average. This will continue to threaten shoreline communities. What's more, the surface temperature of the sea off our East Coast is 2.8 degrees C. above normal. Warmer waters have been linked to increased storm intensity, which may have led to Sandy's increase in power just before landfall.
Given these devastating impacts of climate change that we are already experiencing, it is clear that we need to accelerate our transition to a more sustainable future. While this transition will be a complex process, packaging has a big role to play in sustainability strategy. Because packaging is visible and something we interact with on a daily basis, it should be considered a leading-edge opportunity to help educate the world about the broader aspects of sustainability and how we can implement sustainable solutions.
With guidance from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) and other similar organizations, the packaging industry has worked together to create a common language and a shared understanding of what sustainable packaging is and how to measure it. This type of collaboration has been critical to educating the supply chain participants on their respective roles and what they can do to improve packaging sustainability.
Everyone along the supply chain has embraced the material and energy drivers of packaging sustainability, especially as they relate to cost reduction. However, the next steps get trickier. As an industry, we use the word "optimization" when referring to packaging to take into consideration the function it performs in protecting the product. We have all learned that the footprint of the product is larger than the footprint of the package. There is an opportunity to transfer some of the learnings on packaging sustainability to the broader goal of making products more sustainable.
Packaging has played a big role in educating consumers about sustainability. A great example of this comes from Ontario, Canada, where plastic shopping bags have cost five-cents since 2009. The five-cent fee, agreed to by retailers, was to be reinvested into initiatives that help promote environmental sustainability and raise consumer awareness. Shoppers in the community now think about sustainability every time they go to the grocery store, whether or not they remember to bring their reusable bags. They think about the sustainability of what they are about to purchase, how it is packaged and how it will be disposed of. It's not the cost of the bag that's important, but rather it's the opportunity it provides to encourage consumers to think about sustainability.
Disposal of packaging is another opportunity to educate consumers about sustainability. Many consumers struggle to understand what is and is not recyclable in their communities. It is an important point of engagement and an opportunity for industry to connect consumers to the larger sustainability conversation. Also in Ontario, in the town of Hamilton, residents are allowed to place unlimited amounts of recyclable materials at the curb, but only one bag of "trash." When the one bag limit was initially enacted, there was an outcry that led to education about broader sustainability issues within the community. Most residents have now learned how to recycle more and landfill less and feel good about doing it.
The SPC and its members have played a key role in bringing industry together and creating a common language and framework for packaging sustainability. It's time to leverage the power of packaging to tackle some of the more difficult questions about how we can achieve a sustainable future. Packaging provides a huge opportunity to engage the broader community in discussion around sustainable solutions. It's hard not to ask the question "Can we actually make a difference?" Let's keep in mind what Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Author Nina Goodrich is director of GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For additional information about the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.