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Sustainable sourcing of renewable materials

When people talk about sustainable packaging, they typically default to renewable materials as the sustainable solution. But like most things having to do with sustainability, the issue is more complex. The sustainability of renewable materials has as much to do with understanding and managing the systems associated with them, as well as the intrinsic, "renewable" characteristics of the material itself. There are a number of concepts related to renewable resources that are important to understand, and we will explore some of them in the next few columns.

Renewable materials and sustainability

There are a range of misperceptions and a lack of solid definitions when we get down to the nitty gritty of what we mean by the term, "renewable resources," or "renewable materials." Solar energy, water, air and trees are all considered renewable resources. However, when we are talking about packaging, we are generally referring to fiber and other bio-based, renewable materials.

Renewable is defined in Merriam-Webster as "capable of being replaced by natural, ecological cycles or sound management practices." This definition leaves the door wide open for what a renewable material might mean. GreenBlue’s definition of renewable materials is more precise: "Renewable materials are derived from biological systems and can be biodegraded and readily re-incorporated into the biosphere where they provide nutrients for a new cycle of biological production."

It is worth noting, however, that just because a material is "natural" or renewable does not by default mean it is sustainable. Sustainability implies a balance in a system—between the quality and capacity of an ecosystem to generate materials and the rate with which materials and nutrients are removed from that system.

Renewable materials and the productivity of ecosystems

The sustainability of a renewable material depends ultimately on the productivity of the ecosystem from which it originates. Some agricultural-based societies have cultivated the same plot of land for a thousand years and understand that sustainable yields depend on the productivity of the soil ecosystem. Forests are no different. Recognition of this critical connection between renewable materials and their foundation in ecological and soil sources is reflected in the forest products and agricultural sectors by certification systems that have been established to promote best practices for the production and extraction of materials with the goal of ensuring the health of the underlying ecosystems.

Extractive-materials industries, by their nature, generate significant environmental impacts, and to date, the forest products and agricultural sectors are some of the first to have recognized and respected certification systems as a way to promote the sustainable sourcing of renewable materials. Certification systems provide an additional measure through which users of renewable materials can support and encourage the use of sustainable practices and materials. This is an important element to consider when using renewable materials. Other extractive industries lag significantly in this regard.

For more information on sustainable sourcing of renewable materials, including forest and fiber products, as well as agricultural products, visit

Anne Johnson is the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue ( For additional information, email [email protected].

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