Everyone is talking “green” today and the packaging industry is certainly no exception as it steps up sustainability initiatives at every link of the supply chain. Sustainability encompasses much more than just recyclability; material sourcing, clean production practices, transportation and uses of alternative energy are critical factors as well. Every stage in the packaging development process needs to be focused on reducing environmental impact and ensuring optimal quality of life for present and future generations.
A packaging distributor’s role in all of this is to become thoroughly knowledgeable about their suppliers’ sustainability efforts in order to advise their customers about and drive them to options that meet their own sustainability goals. With consumers continually pushing the envelope to refine the definition of sustainable packaging, distributors need to be on the lookout for ways to help their customers mitigate the negative effects of the packaging production process, both socially and environmentally.
When it comes to containers, glass is highly recyclable because of the earth products (i.e., sand) used to make it in the first place. The fascinating thing about glass is its “cradle-to-cradle” recyclability - glass can be recycled repeatedly, with no effect whatsoever on its quality. However, there are two major problems with glass - consumers have moved away from it because of obvious breakage challenges and freight costs are higher due to its weight.
With plastics, technology has given rise to several sustainable packaging solutions. Chief among them is the ability for lightweight plastic; however, environment-friendly materials have also been introduced to the production process. Biodegradable plastics, for example, contain additives that accelerate container breakdown. Instead of the 1000 - 2000 years required to break down a standard polymer, biodegradable plastics now degrade under proper conditions, in only 5-10 years.
Other environmentally responsible materials used to manufacture plastic containers include additives such as post-consumer regrind (PCR) or recycled plastic, post-industrial regrind (PIR), which is scrap plastic from the manufacturer’s own production processes, and polylactic acid (PLA), a compostable polymer (bioplastic), which uses organic materials, such as cornstarch or sugar, as additives. Bioplastics are typically well suited to products with short life spans as they tend to break down rather quickly and, therefore, are not naturally conducive to liquid products or products that require a longer shelf life.
And, when it comes to “green” packaging, the container itself isn’t the only consideration. What about decorating? It doesn’t do the environment much good when you put a label on a PCR bottle. Labels are often produced from petrochemicals. In addition, the material used to make labels is inconsistent with the material used to make bottles, which hinders recycling efforts. Many distributors believe that the future direction for sustainable decorating is silk screen or offset printing directly onto a container, using soy or vegetable-based inks, which is far more eco-friendly than labeling.
Then there are closures to consider. Similar to plastic bottles, closures on beverage containers have also gone through the lightweighting process, resulting in reduced resin weight and a component cost reduction. But many types of pumps and dispensers present unique challenges because they contain non-recyclable materials, such as silicone valves, or springs, which need to be separated as part of the recycling process.
Another sustainability consideration is reducing the carbon footprint, or the amount of CO2 released, through all phases of the packaging supply chain, from production through transport. Also known as greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide emissions from manufacturing processes, transportation, and energy consumption, both primary (i.e., the distributor’s, the manufacturer’s, etc.) and secondary (any previous link in the supply chain) make up the total carbon footprint. Non-recyclable packaging or an excessive amount of packaging material increases a product's carbon footprint, and many consumers are beginning to consider this when it comes to making purchasing decisions. It makes little sense to use “green” canvas bags at the grocery store when what’s in the bag is packaging “heavy.”
And finally, there are logistics and transportation issues that make up a major part of the packaging sustainability equation. Let’s say a distributor gets a call from a California customer with an order for Boston rounds. It doesn’t make much sense to buy them and ship them from a manufacturer in Maine, even if the cost of the containers is lower. While customers may not factor in freight charges as part of the total unit cost, a distributor would certainly be remiss, from a sustainability standpoint, if it didn’t look to source the order from a supplier closer to the customer. And…utilizing rail transport as an alternative to trucking fuels sustainability initiatives because it requires less energy and produces less pollution.
Let’s face it – sustainable packaging is one of the hottest trends in global packaging today. It’s been a major area of focus at packaging conventions and tradeshows for several years running and it will continue to be as consumers demand greater environmental responsibility and stewardship from product distributors, manufacturers and their entire supply chain.
According to the EPA, packaging comprises one quarter of the landfill waste each year. The entire sustainability initiative is greater than just the sum of its parts. Packaging distributors have a responsibility to stay apprised of their suppliers’ sustainability/eco-friendly initiatives and to educate their sales representatives accordingly. By doing so, they help their customers to increase their own sustainability efforts, decrease their carbon footprints, and add to their bottom lines by reducing expenses. And that way…everyone benefits.