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No end in sight for the scope of sustainable packaging

Adam Gendell

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
No end in sight for the scope of sustainable packaging

The way we think about sustainability and packaging today has come quite a long way from where it used to be. What started as a simple desire to make a better package transformed into a continual revelation of new linkages with sustainability implications that we never could have imagined. If there used to be a simple belief that an improvement to a package would do its part to improve the sustainability of our material economy, it's long gone. 

We've now gained a more thorough understanding of the consequences of changing a package, and we are becoming more aware of the ripple effects that reach other packages in the system—the product, the process, the people... Suffice it to say that our understanding of sustainable packaging these days is a lot more informed, and our scope keeps expanding with no end in sight.

Remember the good old days when sustainable packaging was all about the primary package? The philosophy held that the challenge lay in the package, with the solution being a better, new-and-improved version of the package. We created an understanding of the unwanted impacts of a package, the changes that could be made to a package and the ways in which those changes would reduce the unwanted impacts of the package. The application of this philosophy still held plenty of challenges, but the understanding was there with simplistic beauty. The simplicity was great while it lasted.

But then we started to become more attuned to the fact that products are delivered by packaging systems, not packages in isolation. What we thought were improvements to a primary package ended up necessitating changes to the other packages in the system, and it was discovered that sometimes the overall change to the packaging system failed to make it more sustainable. The solution, again, was simple: understand the net impacts of the packaging system, identify changes that can be made to the system and reassess the system. Sustainable packaging could still be about packaging; this was good, too, while it lasted.

But then we recognized that the real goal of making packaging more sustainable was to enable a more sustainable delivery of products, and the view of a packaging system suddenly seemed shortsighted. If a change in the packaging system negatively affected the sustainability attributes of a product, then we questioned whether or not the change really made things more sustainable. The solution, however, was still simple: analyze the package-product system, try to understand the true net consequences of changes in packaging and act accordingly.

But, now, once again, we find ourselves questioning the adequacy of our scope. This time? Processes. What if a new package reduces the energy required by the filling process? What if a retail-ready package reduces the risky manual labor required during the stocking process? If we're still trying to understand the net consequences of improving packaging and assess whether or not we're truly making things more sustainable, then we have to understand how changes in packaging affect the sustainability attributes of processes. The solution is no longer so simple.

Our next challenge now lies before us: We must understand how sustainability relates to all of the processes that are linked with creating, using and disposing of packaging. This is going to be tougher.

Fortunately, we at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition enjoy a good challenge. We're always looking for the next tangential relation to packaging that ought to be included in the scope of our work. It's a certainty that the scope will continue to expand, but who knows what will enter the fray? While we work towards the discovery, we just may be tempted to pause and reflect on the good old days. 

Author Adam Gendell is a project manager at GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For more information about the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.



About the Author(s)

Adam Gendell

Adam Gendell is the associate director of GreenBlue’s flagship project, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a membership-based industry collaborative led by the independent non-profit that believes in the power of industry to make packaging more sustainable.

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