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Sustainable Packaging

Looking Toward a Completely Sustainable Packaging Future

Todd Bukowski, the principal packaging consultant with PTIS, provides in-depth answers and explanations to some of the most pressing questions facing sustainable packaging today.

Todd Bukowski

Principal Packaging Consultant, PTIS

How have you seen the packaging industry shift in the last few years toward more sustainable options?

Sustainability has moved from a “nice to have” to a “must have” packaging consideration for most brand owners. Nearly every brand owner we talk to has set sustainability goals. Some are tied to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy (all packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025) while others use those principles as inspiration. This is not just happening in the United States, but is largely a global movement. As with many things sustainability, it started in Europe but has gone more mainstream.

The industry also seems to have evolved from a Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) mindset, where the focus was on light-weighting and efficiency of packaging materials to a more “circular economy” approach where recycling, reusability, sustainable sourcing, and sometimes composting are driving future design. Ultimately, I think we want to be in a place where we are both extremely resource efficient while also enabling collection and recovery. So, we will see a merging of both SMM and circular economy principles. This will be particularly important for the plastic sector, which has seen more attention due to the low recycling rates of plastics around the globe.

There has also been a realization that to be successful in hitting these goals and enabling a circular economy, we need to consider the entire value chain, not just one step ahead or behind where a company resides. We need to consider 1) design, 2) collection, 3)sortation, 4) reprocessing, and 5) end markets. If there are things we can do as packaging developers to foster better sortation or higher end market values at the design phase, we should be doing that. Of course, no one company can drive the entire recovery chain, so that’s where we are seeing a lot more pre-competitive collaboration to drive recovery. Groups like The Recycling Partnership or the different global Plastics Pacts are examples of these types of collaborations that are generating a lot more action-oriented goals today.

Finally, we are seeing many groups in the packaging industry such as Ameripen, the Flexible Packaging Association, and the Consumer Brands Association, that have publicly expressed support for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws. EPR laws help fund the recovery infrastructure through fees assessed on different packaging. The pandemic further highlighted the need for investment in packaging recovery, at a time when municipalities and states do not have adequate funding to invest in modernized equipment at material recovery facilities.

What trends have you seen become the new normal for many companies?

I think that sustainability as a whole is a primary consideration today for many leading brands. These companies want to be thought of as being good environmental stewards and have products and packages that resonate with consumers, particularly younger consumers, that value sustainability. They are also looking for packaging supply partners that align with their goals, so we are seeing more converters look to develop packages that have a sustainability component to them.

Now, that doesn’t mean that brands are necessarily willing to pay for adding sustainability on every package, but there are more showcase projects out now than in the past, such as using ocean and beach plastic, store drop-off recyclable pouches, and paper-based structures replacing plastic. Many of these brands have goals for their packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, so they are testing which initiatives work well while also being cost-effective before changing their entire product line.

While the packaging industry has many subsections, what advice do you have for a company looking to take the first step toward a more sustainable future?

It’s a bit difficult because every product has its own challenges. Medical packaging has much different needs than a food package or something in personal care, but there are certain principles to keep in mind.

It really starts with understanding what the product is that you are protecting. What is its expected shelf life, how valuable is the product, what features enable the consumer to use the product, and of course sustainability considerations. Understanding material and sustainability tradeoff is critical as well. A paper package, for instance, may be highly recyclable but often has a higher carbon footprint and water-use than a plastic flexible package, which is does not have a high recycling rate. Both have their uses in specific cases. Packaging is usually less than 10 percent of the carbon footprint for a food product (much less for other products), so it’s still vital that the product and 90 percent or more of the resources that went into that product are protected and not wasted.

Food waste is a major contributor to GHG emissions, so there’s a positive role packaging can play in reducing food waste through extending the shelf life, but while still finding systems and materials that can be recycled. 

It is also important to think about sustainability at the design stage, because once you have selected the packaging material, most of the packaging carbon footprint is already determined. Other phases of transportation, consumption, and end-of-use have a much smaller impact. More companies are using life-cycle assessment tools early in the process to understand these types of considerations. A package designer really needs to understand the pros and cons of each material and how its end-of-use fits in a circular system.

Can you elaborate on how sustainable packaging fits in the circular economy?

In order for a package to be truly circular, it needs to consider all elements of the value chain: From design to collection to sortation to reprocessing to end markets. For too long, package developers focused on design without much consideration for the other elements. That is changing, however, as we see more collaboration and awareness of the critical need to address collection, sortation, reprocessing, and robust end markets for materials to have any chance of hitting industry sustainability goals.

Key components for package circularity include not only that a package be recycled, but that the materials were sourced sustainably.  For instance forest practices should be certified by watchdog organizations such as FSC or PEFC, to ensure best practices are followed and that the recycled materials can be reused for another package or as a feedstock for another product. This is where Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) content comes in that has been collected through recycling systems. Without good collection, sortation, and reprocessing, the circularity chain breaks and we do not get enough PCR back into a package to truly foster circularity.

Reuse is another component we are starting to see gain traction as brands look for a more robust package that can be used many times, and perhaps refilled with another package. One new method making its way into food and beverage is the Loop program, a new program run by TerraCycle. Consumers buy a product that comes in a robust container (usually a metal or rigid plastic package) that they then return for cleaning and reuse. Reuse has been in place for some time for products like hand soap refills, where the bottle can be refilled with a soap in a bulk bottle or pouch, but we are starting to see more movement into other product categories.

These are all examples of how we are starting to see greater package circularity.

Is a completely sustainable future possible for the packaging industry?

Yes, packaging can be completely sustainable, but it will take time. Unfortunately, there is no “magic material” that we can use for all applications that will meet the performance, cost, protection, shelf life, and sustainability needs of many products, or we’d be using it today! The ultimate goal is to eliminate packaging as waste and have it viewed as a valuable resource that protects products, and can be used as a resource for the creation of new packaging or products at its end of use.

As technologies enable better packaging recovery and sortation, we will have more PCR content that can go back into packaging. This will also need to be supplemented with some element of biobased sources to completely decouple plastic production from fossil-fuel based resources. Even paper, which has a high recycling rate, needs new virgin fiber as paper can only be recycled a certain number of times before the fibers are too short to have strength to hold together.

Technologies like advanced or chemical recycling (which can turn plastic back into its original monomer so it can be used just like new plastic), digital watermarks (which are hidden in the packaging graphics but can be scanned at recycling centers for much better sorting), high levels of PCR, biobased packaging (made from plants), compostable packaging, robotic sortation at recycling centers, and new reuse models, will all be required to get us to this future.

So, yes, it is possible to have a truly sustainable packaging future, but not without infrastructure investment, technology breakthroughs, elements of policy or regulations, education, consumer participation, and even changes in our habits as consumers in the case of reusable packaging.

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