Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor

March 24, 2017

6 Min Read
What bounty comes from the sustainable packaging tree?

Sustainability in packaging is like a tree. No, not because it connects to the environment. And no, not because most trees are also “green.” But because, over the decades, it has (metaphorically speaking) branched out into new areas and established an anchoring root system.

Sustainability in packaging is more sophisticated now, more complex. And it is also making a bigger impact on so many levels.

Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), guides us on this nature trail and points out how sustainability in packaging is continuing to grow.


Adam Gendell

Why does sustainability in packaging continue to grow organically like a tree, with its multiple branch formations and subterranean root system?

Gendell: The sustainable packaging community is always learning, while packaging is always changing. The entire notion of sustainable packaging is fairly young, too. Many of the concepts in our field are less than 20 years old. An area like responsible fiber sourcing, for instance, has become fairly mature and created a good understanding of responsible forestry practices, but more interest is building around use of alternative fibers for paper and novel biomaterials for plastics.

Do the lessons learned from forestry practices translate to cover the growth and harvest of other plants? Some concepts, maybe—but at a macro level, no. New work is needed. As one branch matures, another sprouts.

Continuing with this metaphor, what is it that best represents the trunk? That is, what is the solid foundation of sustainability in packaging?

Gendell: I’m going to go with public expectations of corporate responsibility from brands. Here’s my thinking: other factors change—regulations, legal risk, costs of feedstocks, activist group activity—but companies must always operate with a firm understanding of what the consumers expect from brands, and in 2017, a brand is expected to operate with a compelling sustainability story. I don’t see that changing.

Once a company makes a promise to make decisions with sustainability in mind, it can’t renege. It takes something colossal—the metaphorical equivalent of a lightning strike or forest fire—to bring this down.

What new nodes (areas of interest) have sprouted recently and why?

Gendell: The most interesting conversation today, in my opinion, is the question “what’s the ultimate goal of making packaging more sustainable?”

One way of thinking says it’s most important that we strive for circularity, recovering a maximum amount of the environmental investment embodied in packaging at its end-of-life and creating new packages using only recycled and/or biobased inputs.

Another way of thinking says it’s most important that we drive down measurable environmental impacts like greenhouse gas emissions, water emissions and solid waste. The two lines of thought have more similarities than differences, but for today’s decision-making, they are often at odds, because it’s hard to do both.

Packages with the lowest impacts are often made from virgin materials and not recyclable, while the more recyclable packages usually can’t offer the lowest environmental impacts. Which is more important? There’s no clear answer. It’s a fascinating question.

Any pruning needed? If so, where and why?

Gendell: Sure, though usually more reprioritization and rebalancing of concepts as opposed to wholesale dismissal of past ways of thinking.

Lightweighting is the classic example. Reducing packaging used to be viewed as the chief pursuit, but then product protection suffered and it became clear that it had been taken too far.

Now, we have very compelling narratives on the relative importance of food waste and the ability of packaging to prevent that, so there’s even more reason not to go overboard with packaging reduction. It doesn’t mean that it’s totally lost its importance, but the context of weight optimization has become more robust.

Two more candidates for evolution: fiber certification and recyclability.

For fiber certification, we’re working with our members and the American Forest Foundation to understand why more forests aren’t certified, and we’ve learned that many uncertified woodlands are being operated with responsible practices but the family ownership is unlikely to pursue certification. So we’re working to uncover new ways of providing assurance of responsible forest management. Certified fiber will always have its rightful home in sustainability conversations, but the conversation will be augmented.

Recyclability has confused everyone. Ever since the Federal Trade Commission first developed language around what can and cannot be considered recyclable, the discussion has hinged on “access” (that being shorthand for the FTC’s now infamous phrase “access to facilities that recycle the item”), and the understanding of “access” has hinged on whether or not recycling programs say that they take the item. This is an insufficient view of recycling.

Today, we recognize that recycling is a sequence of elements: collection, sortation, reprocessing and finally use in the manufacture of a new product or package to offset the use of virgin material. It matters much more whether the package in question has a substantial likelihood of completing each stage of recycling—that is, to know that if it’s put in the recycling bin, it will get recycled. We’re still curious to know what communities tell consumers to put in the recycling bin, but it’s now viewed as a less substantial piece of the puzzle.

The partnerships we’ve seen develop over the years across the supply chain represents, to me, a strong base, like the root system of a tree. What more needs to be done to nourish sustainability in packaging?

Gendell: Partnerships are crucial, and not just across the supply chain—NGOs [non-governmental organizations], government agencies, communities…industry has the capability to engage in meaningful and constructive collaboration with many different stakeholder groups that touch packaging in consequential ways. We’re seeing a lot more of this.

Our brand members’ engagement with family forest owners is a partnership that will help both parties. Our respected colleagues at The Recycling Partnership are connecting industry resources with on-the-ground community practices, giving industry the means to enable forward progress in recycling. The Carton Council has done a wonderful job of working with paper mills, recyclers and communities to further carton recycling.

The 21st century has connected us all and the packaging industry has leveraged that to its advantage. At the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, we consider our organization to be a hub for collaboration—a sort of mothership with many docking ports (if you’ll forgive the straying from our tree analogy). We want to help industry connect with more distant stakeholders and foster dialogue!

Speaking of supply chain, the program for the upcoming SustPack 2017 conference (Apr. 24-26; Scottsdale, AZ) focuses on the Inputs, Outputs and Impacts of Packaging in Supply Chain Sustainability. What new sprouts might come from the sessions and/or networking at this leading event?

Gendell: There will be a whole bunch of sprouts.

One of my favorite aspects of SPC conferences—and what I feel makes SPC conferences unique—is that wide range of subject matter touched by our sessions. Aluminum sourcing, streamlined life cycle assessment, restricted substance lists, food waste prevention, bioplastics, design-for-recycling…the list goes on.

It’s safe to say that every single attendee will not only learn something new, but have their existing knowledge challenged. Our tree will grow!

I’ve got more for our analogy: cross-pollination. We often hear that the presentations and panel discussions are helpful, but it’s the interactions with other attendees that provide the most indelible takeaways. Whether it’s across value chain positions, product sectors, areas of expertise or primary materials, our audience is diverse in many dimensions, and it’s a venue for discussion unlike any other. We hope you’ll join us!

Photo credit: Designed by Freepik


See a host of new ideas in packaging machinery, materials and more at the new Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland event (Mar. 29-30; Cleveland, OH). Register today!

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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