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Sustainability: What's the buzz about?

At presstime, the packaging community is gearing up for the largest biennial event in the industry: PACK EXPO International 2006. A forum for the latest packaging trends and technologies, the show traditionally brings to the fore those topics of greatest urgency to packagers and their machinery and materials suppliers—and this year is no exception. The topic du jour for 2006: Sustainability.

Often associated purely with goodwill efforts in environmentalism, the modern concept of sustainability has been in existence since post World War II, but until now, has had limited application. However, as alternative technologies emerge and proponents of the concept advance the business case for sustainability, momentum is growing for the widespread adoption of this sea-change strategy, as evidenced by the emphasis placed on the topic at PACK EXPO.

But what exactly is sustainability? And, what does sustainable packaging comprise? And, most important, as a packager, what should your response be to this sweeping shift in business practices?

The first formal definition of sustainable development, established in 1987 by the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development, characterized it as development that “meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Today's interpretation, while still at its heart supporting environmental goals, positions sustainable development as a business plan that can enhance a company's bottom line through the innovative utilization of its resources.

In the realm of packaging, this involves a conscious decision by brand owners to evaluate the complete life cycle of each product's packaging—from design and material use through distribution and end-of-life scenarios—to maximize cost-effectiveness, while at the same time minimizing the pack's impact on the environment.

One excellent example of how a traditional product and package was reworked to maximize sustainability is Unilever's introduction last summer of a concentrated laundry detergent, packaged in a compact, 32-oz “mini” bottle. According to the company, it designed the product with input from Wal-Mart to make the bottle “more shelf-friendly and more sustainable.” As Helayna Minsk, director of marketing for Unilever, told PD, “the mini bottle uses less plastic in its packaging, 64-percent less water in its formula than regular detergent and fits into smaller cases, saving on corrugated.” In addition, she said, it takes less fuel to ship these smaller bottles because a larger quantity of product can fit into each truck. According to Unilever's website, this results in an annual savings of almost 500 million gal of water, 26 million gal of diesel fuel, 150 million lb of plastic and 750 million sq ft of corrugated.

Given the obvious economic benefits resulting from such an example, doesn't it make sense for all packagers to evaluate their processes and resources in this light?

The challenge as we move forward is to learn how to implement and measure sustainable packaging programs to meet a variety of product and consumer needs. In the coming months, PD will attempt to further define the concepts of sustainability while providing concrete examples of successful applications. Last month, PD debuted a new Sustainability column. Written by Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the article appears in this issue on p. 49.

For a complete sustainability immersion, mark your calendars for a three-day event (one-day workshop; two-day conference) on Sustainability in Packaging, produced by PIRA International and sponsored by PD. Scheduled for March 6 to 8, 2007, at The Doubletree Castle Hotel in Orlando, the event will include presentations from more than 20 key industry representatives speaking on a range of sustainable packaging topics. For registration and general information, contact PIRA at 207/781-9610 or visit their website at www.intertechpira.com.

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