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Watch list for 2011: More packaging reduction, renewable materials, sustainability metrics and EPR

Coming out of the economically dismal 2009, it was unclear what 2010 would bring regarding investment and progress toward sustainability and packaging. Surprisingly, it's clear that sustainability is no longer a "bolt-on" activity for many businesses. More than ever, sustainability is embedded into core business strategies, as evidenced by the following trends from 2010.

 

Reduce
In recent months, short- and long-term targets have been announced from the likes of major CPG companies, including Procter & Gamble and Unilever. 


Using 2010 as a baseline, P&G announced that it will replace 25 percent of its petroleum-based materials with renewably sourced materials and reduce packaging per consumer use by 20 percent. Its 10-year sustainability goals include increasing its share of renewable energy to 30 percent in production plants, cutting production waste by 5 percent and reducing truck transportation by 20 percent. 


The corporate priorities driving these targets are: 100 percent renewable energy for all production facilities, employ 100 percent renewable or recycled materials for all their products and packaging, deliver zero consumer and manufacturing waste to landfills and design products that suit consumer's taste while maximizing resource conservation. 


Not to be outdone, Unilever announced in November 2010 ambitious and precedent-setting plans to decouple corporate growth from its environmental footprint. Its packaging goal is an absolute reduction of 33 percent by 2020. It also committed to source all of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020.

 

Renew
A longstanding trend that is clearly articulated in some of these targets is the interest in renewable materials. From feedstock substitutions in traditional polymers to new and novel bio-based materials, renewable materials are seen as a path to more sustainable packaging and an energetic area of innovation. 


Given some of the consumer feedback on the word "renewable," let's hope that comments on the proposed revisions to the Green Guides will convince the Federal Trade Commission that it is monitoring a rapidly growing and ever more complex landscape of environmental claims. In 2011, the FTC needs to figure out how to adapt to meet the level of scientific credibility and consistency of claims that consumers need to make informed choices.

 

Record
All these targets drive a need for clear measurements, definitions and methodologies. The Global Packaging Project set out in 2008 with these ends in mind and piloted an extensive palette of metrics related to sustainability and packaging in the fall of 2010. With the project scheduled to wrap up in the first quarter of the new year, the goal is to make these metrics available so that the packaging supply chain can use them to support their efforts to measure and report. 


Led by the Consumer Goods Forum and supported by some of the largest companies in the world, this project has the potential to establish harmonized, global standards for packaging sustainability metrics—provided they are meaningful and practical to implement. We won't truly know the answer to this until the metrics are tested within the marketplace. However, one thing this effort will undoubtedly drive is the demand for more and better data.

 

Regulate
Policymakers also have an agenda for the coming year related to packaging and sustainability. Sustainable materials management is a framework that many developed countries are using to form policy approaches and objectives for the management of post-use materials. Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging is one of these policy approaches and it is gaining support in the U.S. as communities are increasingly challenged to figure out to manage and pay for an increasingly complex palette of post-consumer products and materials.


Any industry effort addressing sustainability and packaging should be cognizant of the governmental and societal expectations around the management of end-of-life materials and recognize that lifecycle analysis can completely overlook the larger system imperative of sustainable materials management. 


Because of its material intensity and the obligation it places on consumers and communities, packaging has moved toward the top of the list for consideration for Extended Producer Responsibility regulations due to the burden it places on communities, both in terms of near term waste management costs and in the longer term the capital investments required for materials recovery facilities (MRFs), landfills, closure, environmental monitoring, management and clean up. 


The level of misinformation about EPR is high at the moment, and significant work needs to be done to ensure that any approaches are thoughtful and harmonized. Likewise, it needs to be clear that under the current waste management system, packaging places an unfunded and long-term mandate on individuals and communities, and industry shares a responsibility to ensure it is managed well and for future generations.

 

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

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