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Sustainable packaging best practices: Starting them young

Sustainable packaging best practices: Starting them young
Sustainability education will be core learning at Georgia Tech.

Industry is strengthened each year as new, ambitious professionals enter the workforce. Unfortunately, the majority of educational institutions in the United States are not using their curricula to help stimulate a thriving sustainability industry. Sustainable actions by the everyday person are often adopted into routines at a young age, so it’s important for schools to educate in an effective manner and for parents to share appropriate habits with their kids.

Most people learned to recycle at a young age by looking for the small number inside of the chasing arrows symbol, the Resin Identification Codes (RICs). In the packaging industry, we know that RICs are not meant to be used as a consumer communication tool, but rather they are a means of indicating plastic type. Unfortunately, no other recycling guidelines or best practices have been habitualized by consumers, so nowadays RICs are being misinterpreted, resulting in contaminated recycling streams and recyclable materials going to landfill.

Many tools and campaigns—such as the How2Recycle Label and the WRAP campaign—have been working to combat the confusion of RICs and increase recycled material. The How2Recycle Label Program presents consumers with simple on-package recycling instructions that inform them of how to dispose of their packages. Unlike RICs, the How2Recycle Label gives additional recycling information needed to make an informed decision. How2Recycle Labels help answer tough recycling questions as a consumer is physically handling a package through messages such as “Empty and replace cap” on a plastic bottle or “Recycle if clean and dry” on a plastic bag.

Another common U.S. recycling habit is taking grocery bags back to the store. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) is working to expand on this behavior by encouraging consumers to recycle more packaging material along with their grocery bags. ACC has started the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP) campaign to inform the public that other high- and low-density polyethylene films—such as bread bags, newspaper bags, case wraps and packaging air pillows—can be recycled along with plastic bags at grocery and retail store drop-off locations. 

While U.S. households often practice environmentally friendly actions, connecting sustainability to communities is an uncommon feature of education curricula. The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) is planning to change this for its institution, as it recently announced a new core element for its undergraduate studies: Serve-Learn-Sustain. Georgia Tech surveyed its alumni and most new graduates felt technically prepared for future careers; however, they recognized that they were less well prepared to connect their technical skills to environmental and social issues and to support sustainability efforts. The Serve-Learn-Sustain effort will help students understand how their specific discipline can play a role in fostering sustainable communities.

Georgia Tech professor and Sustainable Packaging Coalition executive committee member, Dr. Matthew Realff, states that “focusing on sustainable communities will bring together two exciting educational components of Georgia Tech: sustainability and service learning. This will create context for our curricula subjects and embed the opportunity to bring broader perspective into the classroom and bring learning out of the classroom and into communities at the local, regional and global scales.” Georgia Tech will focus on this effort for the next 10 years and believes this will enhance student learning in a tangible way.

Ideally, the Serve-Learn-Sustain effort will expose the complementary relationship between students’ fields of study and sustainability. As these students graduate, corporations will see an increased trend of the “sustainability” role shifting from one person or one department to being embedded in all departments. This would eliminate the constant internal struggle of emphasizing and defending the business case of sustainability. The value of sustainable practices would instead be highlighted in all aspects of an organization, having a huge influence on corporate decision-making.

Of course, drastic changes cannot be made overnight, so as campaigns and efforts are working to educate the younger generations, we must also focus on the current workforce and older generations. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s Essentials of Sustainable Packaging Course (ESP) is a training tool that delves into the key aspects of the life cycle of packaging. As an introductory course, the ESP helps companies understand how a holistic view of sustainable packaging applies to their organization and how an appropriate balance of tradeoffs on sustainable materials management decisions is essential for success.

Though parents and schools, from the elementary to university level, will always be important in educating new generations, brand owners also play an important consumer-facing role. The SPC has and will continue to help brand owners improve their packaging, tell their sustainability story, avoid greenwashing and educate consumers about what true sustainability really means. Focusing on the importance of sustainable values through education can make a huge impact on the way decisions are made and practices are carried out in both the corporate world and everyday life.

Kelly Lahvic is a project associate with GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For more information about the coalition and the How2Recycle Label, visitwww.sustainablepackaging.org

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