Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor

November 2, 2017

6 Min Read
Balancing the Yin and Yang of sustainable packaging

In the balance of our universe, two opposing sides unite to create a “whole.” This duality is also seen in sustainability today, as the concepts of Sustainable Materials Management and the Circular Economy coexist—at times in concert; other times in conflict.

Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), will discuss (less philosophically) these sustainable theories, along with other sustainable packaging trends, at the upcoming MinnPack show (Nov. 8-9; Minneapolis).

His presentation “The State of Sustainable Packaging” takes place Wed., Nov. 8, from 10:30 to 11:00 a.m. at Center Stage in the Minneapolis Convention Center. Center Stage presentations are free to all expo attendees.

Among the takeaways from his talk, you’ll…

• Learn about the sustainable packaging issues affecting food and beverage companies.

• Understand the concepts of Sustainable Materials Management and the Circular Economy.

• Hear how corporate sustainability goals are addressing packaging.

Gendell answers some questions here as a preview of his session on Nov. 8.

What are the top trends in sustainable packaging today and why?

Gendell: Here are three top trends:

1. The growing shift to ecommerce is a big deal for sustainable packaging. It’s a huge paradigm shift, putting a new set of rules on what packaging must do—and what it no longer needs to do.

In theory, it’s an opportunity to streamline and simplify packaging and rethink the entire design of packaging systems. In practice, though, it’s complicated. Because even though a brand might view ecommerce as the inevitable future, it’s not as though conventional retail sales are disappearing any time soon, and it’s hard to undertake a complete system redesign while protecting the successes that already exists. The great challenge is to make packaging that is optimal for ecommerce but also delivers the functions needed for conventional retail sales.

From a sustainability perspective, it’s a challenge and an opportunity.

2. Marine plastic pollution is not a new trend but the tenor has grown and industry should understand that their social license to use and sell plastic packaging will find itself under real siege if they don’t demonstrate that they’re actively working to be part of the solution. It’s not solely the responsibility of the product and packaging industry, but they are one of the major beneficiaries of plastic packaging and, therefore, the logic follows that they are expected to address the problem.

There are two schools of thought: one advocates outright bans on plastic packaging, the other advocates better recovery systems, following the idea that when waste packaging has value, it will find its way into a value stream instead of a marine environment.

Industry has focused on making packaging that fits in recycling systems, but now there’s a new imperative for industry to take an active role in improving those recycling systems and influencing consumer behavior. The focus must expand from the package if we are to move the needle on marine plastic pollution and avoid outright bans on plastic packaging.

3. Recycling and recyclable packaging continue to be a trend—it’s not as though the volume has diminished—but the next wave is for brands to take a bold stance in committing to use post-consumer recycled content.

The recycling system is a complex series of bottlenecks and interconnected value chain players, and right now it is hurting most at the end of the chain: finding homes for the new feedstocks created by recycling. Industry has provided a “push” by putting out recyclable packaging, but they haven’t provided an equivalent “pull” by demanding post-consumer recycled content be used in the manufacture of new packages and products. It’s become increasingly clear that industry must take an active role in providing that “pull” if they expect to have recycling systems capable of using all the packaging they put into the market.

Why is it critical that packaging professionals understand the concepts of Sustainable Materials Management and the Circular Economy?

Gendell: In the non-profit, government and trade association circles, we talk about Sustainable Materials Management and the Circular Economy quite a bit. They’re big robust philosophical frameworks that influence packaging sustainability and they have far reaching consequences.

Both are important and feature good, solid thinking, but unfortunately they have been oversimplified and pitted against each other in terms of the desired outcome.

Sustainable Materials Management is often boiled down to the idea that the packaging system with the lowest carbon footprint is the most sustainable, whereas Circular Economy thinking is considered to solely place importance on eliminating virgin non-renewable feedstocks and waste—as in, reshaping our linear “take, make, waste” economy to one that’s more regenerative. They can be pitted against each other because it’s hard to find packaging that fits that circular model but also carries the least amount of environmental impacts like greenhouse gas emissions.

It might not be important for every packaging professional to understand the nuanced distinctions between Sustainable Materials Management and the Circular Economy, but it is important for packaging professionals to understand that tradeoffs are everywhere and we are a long way away from discovering any silver bullets.

A low-carbon package might not be recyclable. The recyclable alternative might not be low-carbon. That’s okay. The important thing is that we all recognize the need to work together, innovate, embrace change and pursue the comprehensive suite of desired outcomes. Victory cannot be declared because a package “fits” the Circular Economy model or “fits” the Sustainable Materials Management model. If it doesn’t fit both and win on every front, then we all have more work to do.


What do many food and beverage companies struggle with when it comes to sustainable packaging and why?

Gendell: I'm sure some do struggle, but we see many food and beverage companies taking a solid approach to packaging sustainability. What distinguishes them tends to be a depth of internal knowledge and engagement in the sustainable packaging community.

Issues around packaging sustainability are rarely cut and dry. They’re fluid; there’s constantly new ways of thinking and new developments, new technologies, new market conditions, new pressures and drivers. Without that dedicated internal engagement, it’s understandable that some companies can get lost.

Nobody’s got it all figured out and everybody is still learning—including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies, scientists, consumers, activists and the investment community. And since there’s no silver bullet, the only real criticism of a company’s approach comes when the company can’t demonstrate an understanding of the issues and the impacts of their packaging decisions.

We’re here to help! Our job is to cultivate a better understanding of the issues and ways to address them, and there are many organizations doing great work in the space, so the best advice we can give is to get engaged!

Register now to attend MinnPack and hear Gendell's presentation for free on Wed., Nov. 8, from 10:30 to 11:00 a.m., at Center Stage in the Minneapolis Convention Center.

About the Author(s)

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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