Packaging is both a challenge and opportunity when it comes to sustainability

Adam Gendell

August 7, 2014

3 Min Read
Packaging is both a challenge and opportunity when it comes to sustainability
Adam Gendell

Holding a balanced discussion with both sides of a story can be tricky. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” If that discussion is about an abstract philosophy like sustainability, then “tricky” might be a bit of an understatement.

Yet, the pursuit of sustainability involves both opportunities that packaging must leverage and challenges that packaging needs to overcome. So while it could be easier to solely balk at the challenges or cheerlead the opportunities, the discussion ought to embrace both so that we can work to discover the balance that makes packaging part of a sustainable future.

Conversations in the early days of the sustainability movement were certainly not kind to packaging. In fact, it’s hard to find any industry that was treated particularly well in those conversations. Doom and gloom prevailed, and industry of any type was circled with a skull and crossbones. Packaging was viewed first and foremost as a waste problem that needed to be solved.

But the more the conversation progressed, the worse things got for packaging. In addition to being wasteful, packaging was in the crosshairs for air pollution, resource depletion, greenhouse gas emissions and most other types of environmental impacts. The solution? Reduce packaging. Eliminate it wherever possible. Suffice it to say the negative Nancies were focused only on the challenges of sustainable packaging.

After spending a few years on the defensive front, the packaging community came to the conclusion that it’s okay to talk about the sustainability benefits that packaging can offer. After all, packaging isn’t all doom and gloom. Feeding nine billion people is often touted as one of the most pressing sustainability challenges—so what about all the work that packaging does to preserve freshness, provide shelf stability, show nutritional information, and simplify product transportation?

Expanding the conversation from packaging to packaged products begins to illuminate the sustainability benefits that packaging offers. And it’s not just in food systems that packaging can have a positive impact. Almost every product likely incurs more impacts over its life cycle than its packaging, so if the package protects the product and delivers it in usable condition, then it’s likely to be worth whatever relatively small impacts it incurs.

Yet, even the largest lens through which sustainability can be assessed would still show us that the unwanted impacts of packaging cannot be ignored just because packaging presents a net positive in a world needing packaged products. The fact remains that there are still natural limits to the overall amounts of environmental impacts we incur, and if gains can be made in any facet of human activity, then they need to be made. Packaging should be recognized for its benefits, yes—but it has not earned an exemption.

The point is that the best assessments of packaging sustainability must include the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s not okay to frown on the unwanted impacts of packaging in isolation any more than it is to neglect addressing them in the name of improving product sustainability. The balanced conversation is the only meaningful conversation.

While we have a long way to go before the conversation is as robust as it can be, organizations like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and events like SPC Advance, are helping to move us in that direction. By creating a space where people with diverse material and supply chain perspectives can come together in an open, collaborative environment, we can start to have the balanced conversations that matter most.

Author Adam Gendell is a project manager at GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, where he leads the development of the organization’s fall conference, SPC Advance. For more information about SPC Advance, visit and for more information about the SPC, visit

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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