Is Your Green Packaging "Eco Obvious"?

By in Sustainable Packaging on July 26, 2009

Is Your Green Packaging "Eco Obvious"? Anyone who knows me will tell you I love a good catch phrase. For example, I am not sure if I can take credit for creating the term "eco-consistency" but I am certain I have made it more popular through repeated use in presentation and writing. I think the concept of being thorough and consistent about one’s commitment to helping preserve the earth is important, regardless of the packaging product and the size of the company using or selling it. 

A good catch phrase can make an idea or concept easier for us to remember and it can communicate a message clearly, and in very few words. Brevity is not one of my gifts so I sincerely appreciate the help. 

What is Eco-Obvious?
Allow me to provide an example of what is NOT eco obvious. I recently wrote an article about glass packaging for Sustainable Is Good. It was about the resurgence of glass primary packaging and how that presented some unique challenges to us who focus on eco friendly secondary packaging. I was somewhat surprised when I received several responses that argued glass is not a sustainable packaging product due to the energy required to make glass, shipping weight, etc. To me, glass is undeniably a green packaging product but to others, it is obviously not that obvious. 

Eco obvious is a product that is green 

• In its design, content and messaging 

• Does not require study or analysis 

• Beyond reasonable debate and cannot inspire a good argument between two green minded, hard headed people. 

Believe it or not, that third point may be the most difficult part of the criteria. 

Eco Perception versus Eco Reality

You see today it is as much about perception as it is about reality from the consumer’s perspective, not from our view point. I am not going to get into the ability or willingness of the average consumer to read tags, labels or data but the old KISS principle certainly applies. If a product is green and does not require the end user to have a degree in chemistry or packaging engineering, it is likely to be more readily understood and accepted than a green product that is less obvious. Perhaps that is not right or the way it is supposed to be but it is the reality when the majority of the population would still be described as “light green” or not green at all. 

Over two years ago I sat in on a presentation by an accomplished writer on the subject who stated that looking green was not enough that you had to really be green. I couldn’t argue with that statement then or even now, but today I would have to add that being really green is also not enough; you have to look obviously green as well. It is indeed a simple, yet complex green world we live in. 

1. Packaging that is Eco Obvious 

• Molded pulp – a favorite of those who want to be green but don’t want to have to think about sustainability.
 
• Paper and paperboard – Most packaging papers have remained unchanged for decades but new eco friendly coatings make them look and perform very well in green applications. 

• Corrugated – there are terrific options available today enabling green companies to virtually “dial in” the appropriate level of greenness for them and their customers 

2. Packaging that is NOT so Eco Obvious 

• PET for all of its recycling benefits is still unfortunately categorized by most people as plastic, “the root of all eco evil." 

• Inflatable cushioning products – now are available in recycled content as well as biodegradable options but their green benefits including incredibly low inbound and outbound shipping weights are often overlooked by a skeptical, untrusting green community. 

• Shrink film helps to reduce the amount of packaging that is required, allows visibility, tamper evidency and is recyclable but rarely is it recycled. Why? Because there is “not enough there to make a difference." I’ve always thought minimal waste by weight AND volume was a good thing.

The Challenge for Plastics

In case you did not notice, the three examples I provided of eco obvious packaging materials are all paper based and the three examples of non-eco obvious products are all plastic based. In my opinion the three products on the no-no list rarely get a fair shake and are greatly undervalued for the environmental good they provide. 

In order to overcome the inaccurate perception about their products, the plastics industry will have to ironically be “more transparent” about their content and recyclability. A plastic product that does not feature a recycled code imprinted on it will be rejected by the green market they are trying to solicit. Telling people their product is green on their website or brochure is also no longer enough. That green message should be very clear and visible on the product itself, for immediate and unflinching acceptance. It pays to be eco obvious and the reward is market share.

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11 Comments

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Don't forget that using recycled glass reduces energy required in the glass-making process.
This is an excellent article that epitomizes the concept of K.I.S.S. If a "picture is worth a thousand words", then your packaging needs to do the same. Thank you for keeping it simple! Andrew M. Gordon
Thank you Adeline. I tend to agree with you and I believe glass more than makes up for any negatives with overwhelming positives. There are no perfect packaging products so I am an advocate of compromise and doing the best we can with what we have currently available. Thank you for your comment. Dennis
Dear Dennis I applaud your support for glass. And before I say what I am going to say I should admit in the interests of transparency that I work for the container glass industry. With that out of the way, let me just point out that glass is green because it is 100% recyclable over and over again. Because it can use the same material continuously it saves virgin raw materials. It is also reuseable, and refilleable. On top of that it is inert and the only packaging material that does not leach chemicals into the food and drink it is protecting. It is also beautiful. I know I am biased but it is impossible to argue against any of these facts. Adeline Farrelly
Great blog. I've been enjoying it. I have a question/comment. In the July 2009 Packaging Digest under the "Design Trend" section there is an article entitled" Garlic Supplier gets fresh with Flex-Pack" This article is about a change from jars to a re-sealable stand up pouch that is claimed to be 100% recyclable. Later in the article they identify the structure of the pouch as Polyester /Polyethylene. Pet/Pe would be a #7. I have always been under the impression that a #7 is not recyclable. Am I missing something in this article or is #7 recyclable now? Your perspective on this would be appreciated.
Once again I am impressed by the volume and quality of the responses generated by PD readers: Andrew- simple is the only way I am able to do it. As the great, often quoted philosopher Dirty Harry Callahan once said, "a man has to know his limitations. Tom - excellent point on the energy savings of recycled glass. Marny - very valid points on PET and BTW, if we use "eco obvious" often enough, perhaps some packaging product manufacturers will understand why it matters. Dawn - thank you for the kind words. I am not a big fan of multi-layer film structures though I do think when combined they can produce some unique barrier properties and benefits. Unfortunatley, recyclability is not one of those benefits. Recycling code #7 is supposed to be "other" plastics where all the odd ball plastics go to die. The question is not really can it be recycled but who wants them? There are very real limitations on what you can do with code 7 waste, hence a lower demand and a lower market price much like I described for non-woven PP on my previous post on promotional bags. Dennis
Reduce --> Reuse ---> Recycle should be the priority for eco-friendliness for plastics Reduce: have they used lesser amounts of plastic/materials or a less energy intensive process to achieve the same effects? Reuse: Can the container be reused? I reuse a lot of my rigid plastic containers, would use more if they came with a shrink label that can be removed and came with lids. Recycle: it is the most energy intensive option...
Our company, Alpha Packaging, manufactures PET and HDPE bottles and jars, including a growing number of products made from recycled PET. It is interesting that packagers interested in post-consumer resin (PCR) fall into two camps: those who want their recycled bottles to look as good as virgin bottles, and those who embrace the slight imperfections and discolorations common in the PCR resin. Quite a few of our customers in the first camp have elected to use 25% PCR instead of 100%. I applaud their effort to improve the overall carbon footprint of their packaging by any percentage, but ironically they are often left with a bottle that looks so great (ie: clear) that most consumers would never realize that the company had gone to the extra expense of sourcing and using post-consumer materials. I will probably borrow your "eco-obvious" phrase when helping customers decide between the clarity of 25% PCR and the "authenticity" of 100% recycled PET. Marny Bielefeldt, Alpha Packaging, www.alphap.com
There are hundreds variables that influence the ecological impact of any given packaging material. The consumer can simply not know what really is "Green". they have to rely the education that they get from people like yourself. The issue of recycling is especially trick because every packaging material has some potential to be recycled into something. For the recycling to actually happen there must be a processor willing to do the actually recycling and there must be a collection infrastructure to retrieve the material. For Alass, PET, aluminum and Newspaper this clearly exists on a very broad basis. For other materials it is less universal.
Well put Henry. There are no simple answers which is why education is the key but the student must be willing if not eager to learn. Until consumers assume some level of responsibility and do minimal homework, too few are left to try to do the right thing. Dennis
Great article Dennis! If companies are looking for ways to make their packaging "eco obvious," check out www.envirogreenlabels.com. We sell eco friendly printed stock shipping labels that help promote a commitment to green business practices.