Sustainable packaging doesn't exist

January 29, 2014

2 Min Read
Sustainable packaging doesn't exist




I find it dismaying to read articles about the uncertainty of capitalizing on “sustainable packaging” because there isn't a clear definition. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) does offer a clear definition but it's not about a specific package.

The SPC definition of sustainable packaging goes beyond the package and into some of the challenges inherent in moving toward more sustainable production systems. Why?

“One Planet Living” is the tag line of World Wildlife Fund ( and a good reminder of what we ultimately seek. The organization cites that if we all lived like North Americans do today, it would take five planets to meet our needs. And the denominator for One Planet Living goes up with each child born.

According to the Global Footprint Network (, human demand for bio-based resources eventually will exceed the earth's biocapacity by 40 percent. The think tank also says that the trajectory of this deficit grows dramatically each year as population, consumption and economic development expands.

As long as the production of materials or goods incurs significant and measurable environmental impacts, true sustainability will remain elusive. The best we are likely to do is communicate specific environmental improvements using clear standards and measures.

There is a lot of work being done to this end in the Global Packaging Project and in the new ISO Packaging and the Environment committee. Much of this work is based on life-cycle analysis (LCA). When done well and with representative data, LCA is a tool that can quantify select environmental improvements. However, it does not answer larger questions about whether we are transforming systems. To fundamentally transform the most impactful systems of how we make and consume products, packaging operations should look at the energy systems used in production; the waste management systems that landfill resource-intensive materials; and the management of minerals, oil and bio-based source materials.

Perhaps we should recognize that specific environmental improvements are indeed beneficial, but in the marketplace it may be more accurate to describe the resulting package as environmentally improved or environmentally preferable, but not an example of sustainable packaging. There just is no such thing as a “sustainable package.”

Incremental environmental improvements in packaging are critical, though. When these improvements come with a sound business case, as is the often the case with lightweighting or source reduction, they can facilitate widespread adoption. It is in the collective that these positive changes may reach a magnitude that really makes a difference.

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