Sustainability in Packaging – New Market Trends Point to a Greener Future

by Marjorie Steele, Editor at IQS

I’ve been skeptical about the packaging industry’s ability – and willingness – to find valid sustainable solutions for years. Even products touting environmental certifications and logos have seemed dubious and incomplete in their pursuit of “green”. Ok, so this crate of tomatoes is made from 100% recycled materials, but how energy efficient is the plant where it was manufactured? Or, this new flexible-sealed tuna package reduces carbon emissions by reducing shipment weight, but don’t all those foil packages end up in landfills?

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and it appears that more and more manufacturers are viewing sustainable packaging as a necessity (as they should). This has lead to a recent slew of compostable, biodegradable and low-emission innovations across the manufacturing spectrum, and that trend is being picked up by leaders in the packaging industry.

Several months ago my husband and I discovered a great example of packaging innovation in the grocery store while hunting for the perfect bottle of cheap wine. Shunning the section of boxed wines (which actually leave the same carbon footprint glass bottles do), I noticed a display of TetraPak wine bottles. They loudly marketed themselves as environmentally friendly AND cost-efficient, emphasizing that the energy it takes to transport regular used glass bottles is twenty times the energy it takes to transport used TetraPaks, due to glass bottles’ and TetraPaks’ differences in weight. The “30% More Wine!” which came in the bottle was also persuasive – and great marketing.

But glass is more easily recycled, since the facilities required to recycle TetraPaks are unavailable to many consumers. Even so, TetraPak’s website confirms that “despite Tetra Pak cartons having lower recycling rates than either glass or PET containers…still produce lower overall solid wastes on a weight basis.” Isn’t this, at least, an improvement? Certified agencies like Green-e and the Forest Stewardship Council seem to think so, and many other packaging manufacturers are coming up with similar solutions to reducing our “carbon footprint”.

Clean Tech Open’s 2008 competition awarded a few companies for green, sustainable product innovations. Among these products were “BottleStone”, a type of clay tile manufactured with recycled bottle glass. BottleStone is far less brittle than concrete and is being considered for use in earthquake-proof buildings. Also awarded were “ElectraDrive”, an electric car conversion kit available at half the cost of having a custom conversion done; an air conditioner retrofitting service called Viridis Earth which cuts energy consumption by up to thirty percent, and an insanely cheap solar panel roof installation kit dubbed “Focal Point Energy”.

While product manufacturing companies are picking up speed in energy efficiency and recycling, packaging has picked up the pace as well. Packaging items like bio-polymer printing films are being used as compostable tea bag pouches. Several types of corn-based shrink wrap films and shrink sleeves are on the market now, as well as biodegradable cellophane food wrappers and other types of biodegradable flexible packaging. S.C. Johnson’s Ziploc® brand was given the Gold award for Environmental/Sustainable Achievement this year for its new sandwich bag “pouch”. Replacing the virgin cardboard boxes of old are the polyethylene film pouches – not recyclable (yet), but much less wasteful than the alternative.

Other packaging manufacturers have gone green entirely, sourcing large percentages of their raw materials from recycled products, cutting energy costs with solar-powered heat exchangers and more efficient equipment. There are website tools available which allow you to calculate how much savings your company might accrue if it switched from disposable corrugated boxes to reusable containers such as plastic totes. Wal-Mart recently announced its plan to become “packaging neutral” by 2012, promising to recover and reuse as much packaging material as is being produced and sold. As part of their green campaign, the company is pressuring its vendors to use smaller and less wasteful packaging.

Packaging and manufacturing industries are realizing how quickly consumers catch on. Consumer steel can recycling has increased by multiple percentage points all over the globe and continues to rise in PET, HDPE and even Styrofoam recycling. Consumers want to be given the option of buying green, and cutting-edge businesses are rightly capitalizing on this by providing more sustainable packaging, recycling options and environmental education. With the financial benefits and great consumer PR to be reaped from sourcing used materials, the companies which have lagged behind in implementing greener processes are falling quickly out of the race.

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