Sustainable packaging requires yin and yang thinking

Robert Lilienfeld

August 30, 2016

3 Min Read
Sustainable packaging requires yin and yang thinking
Sustainable Materials Management or The Circular Economy? Choose wisely, sustainability manager.

There are two big picture catch phrases competing for the attention of the packaging industry: Sustainable Materials Management and The Circular Economy. Which is better for the environment? Which is better for your bottom line?

Wait, grasshopper. The answer isn’t one or the other. It’s both.

Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) is a framework for minimizing the environmental impacts related to the consumption of products and services. It is based on the concept of lifecycle thinking, whereby the cradle-to-grave chain of inputs, throughputs and outputs of a specific product or service is measured, analyzed, compared and evaluated.

There are two primary aspects to SMM. The first relates to source reduction, in which the goal is to minimize the amount of materials and energy needed to deliver 100% of the value expected from purchased products and services. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, all processes create waste of some sort. Thus, it is always better to conserve resources by not using materials and energy than to figure out how to mitigate the effects of The Second Law.

After source reduction techniques are applied, the key to successful SMM implementation is to:

• Use only the most effective, efficient material and energy resources when creating products and services, and

• Keep those resources operating indefinitely within the economic system.

Doing so requires Circular Economy (CE) thinking, which minimizes disposability and waste while maximizing conservation, reuse and recovery.

When working within both SMM and CE frameworks, it is important to keep a couple of points in mind:

1. Looking at the “big picture” from a lifecycle perspective can produce counter-intuitive, but more effective, actions and results. (This type of holistic thinking is critical to achieving optimal results.)

Example: Mandated recycled content requirements to support recycling efforts can create unintended outcomes. Packaging manufacturers are careful to balance the use of recycled substrates (25% PCR, 50% PCR, 100% PCR, etc.) with packaging weight and product protection.  A good case in point is the effective use of recycled fibers in transport packaging to ensure sufficient protection during shipment; think appliances and electronics. Mandating the amount of recycled content inhibits the flexibility of the manufacturer to create this effective balance with the needs of the product in mind.  

2. Because we haven’t yet invented a perpetual-motion machine, achieving SMM and CE is a journey, not a destination. Over time, innovation and its long-term effects can create the need to augment or modify strategies and tactics.

Example: Flexible pouches have significant source reduction benefits over rigid containers, even when the former are not being recycled. However, as the amount of flexible packaging increases, so does the solid waste and public concern it creates. Through innovation, materials are now being introduced that increase the likelihood of flexible packaging being recycled, both physically and thermally. Such innovation adds to the original source reduction benefits and optimizes the use of resources over the lifecycle.



With its emphasis on science-based decision making and material neutrality, AMERIPEN strongly believes in the yin-and-yang approach of combined lifecycle thinking, sustainable materials management and the circular economy. To ensure a more sustainable packaging supply chain, the organization is working with policymakers, government agencies, and industry to put these concepts to work.

Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld, a marketing and communications consultant to AMERIPEN, has been involved with sustainable packaging for more than 20 years.

Photos courtesy Robert Lilienfeld.

About the Author(s)

Robert Lilienfeld

Robert Lilienfeld Consulting

Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing executive, consultant, strategic planner, editor, writer, and communications expert. He’s President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, working with materials suppliers, converters, trade associations, retailers, and brand owners. He also recently founded SPRING, The Sustainable Packaging Research, Information, and Networking Group. Reach him at [email protected].

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