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Green efforts can be hampered by nonstandard terminology

Green efforts can be hampered by nonstandard terminology
Sustainability, sustainable packaging, sustainable packaging coalition

pdxxspc_logo_elogic.jpgAs systems thinking permeates the discourse on how to evaluate environmental benefits, we run into potential conflicts between optimizing subsystems versus the need to optimize the total system. This comes into play with packaging, as stakeholders can be focused on specific materials or parts of the supply chain, rather than addressing the limitations of our packaging and recovery systems as a whole.

As the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has worked with our member companies and other stakeholders, we have continually heard the feedback that communication needs to improve throughout the packaging supply chain if we are truly to develop more sustainable packaging systems. One of the barriers to this communication has been a language gap: Quite simply, a recycler speaks a different language than a consumer or a packaging engineer, and as a result, all understand less about the limitations and opportunities of each other's role. For example, while an engineer speaks about corrugated board, a recycler refers to OCC and the general public continues to ask where they can recycle a “cardboard box.” A consumer might understand “milk jug” but an engineer works with “HDPE,” and recyclers want “#2 bottles.” How can we ensure we are recovering as much packaging material as possible when our vocabularies are so different?

GreenBlue recently took on this issue by developing A Guide to Packaging Material Flows and Terminology, which provides a common framework for communication along the supply chain, including a glossary of major packaging materials. The guide also includes graphic representations of the flow of different packaging materials through production, use, collection, sorting and disposal/recovery. The graphics dramatically reveal how far we have to go to close the loop for effective recovery systems.

In the U.S., our recycling system has been built on the development of independent, material-based subsystems like the collection and recovery of aluminum or the collection and recovery of plastic or glass. Even within materials, we often find even more specific subsystems focused around certain shapes or applications, such as PET bottles, but not PET clamshells.

This fragmented recovery approach makes it difficult to adjust to collecting new shapes, colors or materials (including organic waste) at a meaningful scale. The inflexibility reinforces our default action of sending all materials that do not currently have well-established end markets to a landfill.

The fragmented recycling system is just one piece in a patchwork waste-management system, including composting, that's not well-coordinated or consistent from one locality to another.

Consensus seems to be growing that we need to improve material recovery rates in the U.S. There's recognition that our piecemeal approach to recycling isn't effective, and we need to look to more integrated and comprehensive systems of materials recovery, as exemplified by the impressive results of some of the extended producer responsibility systems seen in Europe. We see a shift away from waste management toward resource management and more systemic thinking.

The recovery end of the packaging supply chain is every bit as complex as the production side of the value chain, and perhaps even more so, as it requires active public participation and a blend of the public and private entities working across a variety of materials. If we want to improve recovery, there needs to be better coordination between the various part of the value chain.

We hope the guide (available at will be a first step in enabling better communication along the packaging and recovery value chains.

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