A different view of how to approach sustainability in packaging is emerging some five years after Wal-Mart brought packaging sustainability to the consciousness of corporate America and to consumers.
The new consensus: it is time to look at how to improve packaging sustainability by looking at how packaging impacts the total system. What's more, a number of plastic materials companies, processors, designers and others believe that a continued focus on the package as a separate entity and just reducing its size and weight could do the industry a disservice.
There also is greater awareness of the need to design the package and product together to most effectively reduce total waste. There also is an increasing concern that product safety could be compromised if reducing the size and weight of the package is the only design driver.
Image in trouble
For the past five years, we've had a singular focus as a nation to only think about the sustainability of the package, and that has just added support to the notion that packaging is bad, said Patty Enneking, group director of global sustainability and environmental affairs for rigid film and sheet manufacturer KlÃ¶ckner Pentaplast Group, based in Gordonsville, Va.
We know that packaging is good, Enneking told those in attendance at the Sustainable Plastics Packaging 2010 conference in Atlanta, organized by Plastics News Global Group. But one of the first things that comes to mind when consumers think about packaging is waste, and when you tell them about the benefits, they say, 'Oh, yeah.'
Consumers have opinions about packaging, but they are seldom positive, Enneking said. They think products are over-packaged to [get them] to think they are getting more product, that there is too much of it, that it is a waste of resources and bad for the environment, and that it is difficult and expensive to get rid of.
We have to go beyond talking about just the packaging and start talking more about the benefits of packaging, she said.
You have to design in total sustainability from the start, added Barbara McCutchan, a senior associate at Packaging & Technology Integrated Solutions LLC in Shelbyville, Mich. Because if you don't pay attention to all the other environmental and social impacts, packaging is a problem.
Terry Swack, CEO of Sustainable Minds LLC in Cambridge, Mass., agreed. We need to design product and packaging together for a total systems cost reduction and total waste reduction because 75 percent of manufacturing costs are committed by the end of the concept phase.
It is in that early stage that critical decisions are made on materials, energy requirements, recyclability and longevity all of which determine the life-cycle performance of the product, she said. We need to rethink how we provide benefits from packaging.
Rethinking how to provide benefits from packaging also includes making sure that packaging is not under-designed because of the continuing pressure from consumers to limit the amount of packaging and waste generated from packaging.
The goal of reducing packaging has been widely adopted, and when we make weight reductions and those weight reductions don't compromise the strength of the package, it is a win for all, said Enneking. You use less resources and save money.
But what if you go too far and reduce the package too much and compromise package strength and product protection? she asked. Then you risk increasing total system waste, and it is far worse for the environment to under-design a package than over-design it because if you under-design it, you have to discard the package and the product and it takes 10-15 times more material and energy to produce a product than it takes to produce a package.
Companies have to keep in mind the main role of packaging is product protection, said Scott Steele, vice president of global analytical labs and global training and enterprise projects at Plastic Technologies Inc. Plastic Technologies is a Holland, Ohio, company that uses its blow molding and technology experience to help consumer-product companies develop performs and plastic bottle and container packaging applications.
We are almost to the place with plastic bottles that more lightweighting could create problems, said Steele. Some of the things that I see in the retail environment give me some concerns about where we're going with plastics packaging.
You have to remember that the role of packaging is to safety and efficiently get the package from where it is made to the consumer, he said. So when you start looking at light-weighting, you have to go through all the steps that take a product from the production floor to the consumer. And if you compromise the product integrity, or the brand equity is put in jeopardy, you have not done your customer any good and you've done a disservice to the manufacturers.
We shouldn't apologize because we use packaging to protect a product and get it from [manufacturing] to the customer, said David Clark, director of sustainability for Amcor Rigid Plastics in Ann Arbor, Mich. We have to help people keep things in perspective and explain to them the benefits of sustainable packaging and what that means. Sustainability involves a number of tradeoffs. You can't just look at the package.
But clearly, because of consumer perceptions, companies will have to do a better job of explaining the role of packaging and why lightweighting a package isn't always the best solution.
Packaging is really under attack by the consumers because they see all of these phrases out there the great garbage patch, wrap rage [and they] incite the consumers against product packaging, said JoAnn Hines, who founded and heads www.packag ingdiva.com in Kennesaw, Ga. They see [packaging as] a total waste because they don't truly understand the role of product packaging.
She said that companies have to get consumers to truly understand the role packaging plays in their lives.
Using phrases such as compostable or biodegradable only confuse the consumer if they don't truly understand what those words mean, said Hines. What has caused a lot of failure of the existing products that are out there [is that] the consumer understands one thing and the reality is something else.
One of the best examples of a sustainable product and sustainable packaging is the Kodak single-use disposable camera which first appeared on retail shelves in 1987 long before sustainability came into consumer consciousness, said Mark Dziersk, vice president of industrial design for Brandimage-Desgrippes & Laga, a global grand design firm with offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
Since its inception, Kodak has taken back more than 1.5 billion single-use cameras, which are first reused and ultimately reground into plastic resin that is blended with 10 percent virgin resin to make more one-time-use cameras.
We need more examples like that that are role models for us to follow, said Dziersk.
But it requires companies to think out-of-the-box.
That's exactly and literally what Klockner Pentaplast is doing with several U.S. companies that want to develop a more sustainable package than the cardboard box they currently use to package the fresh pizzas they sell to big-box and grocery stores.
Paper is collected in the majority of municipal recycling programs, but many [waste-recycling] companies don't want pizza boxes because of the food contamination, said Enneking. So we helped them think outside the box to develop a system that minimizes total system waste.
The end result: a gas-flushed thermoformed plastic tray, made from the company's Pentaform SmartCycle PET film that contains 50 percent recycled content, combined with plastic lidding that protects the pizza.
It extends the shelf life of the pizza from five to 15 days and allows the customer to extend its geographic [distribution] reach and reduce spoilage, said Enneking. She said the company's European operations are already selling the film to several customers in Europe who convert it in plastic pizza trays.
Based on unit sales of 5 million, she said the plastic pizza trays would divert 290 tons of packaging from landfills each year, improve the product-to-package ratio from 82-18 to 94-6, use 2,022 fewer barrels of oil per year, conserve enough water21.2 million gallonsfor 1,548 people to shower daily for a year, and reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by emissions by 1,794 tons of C02, which is the equivalent of emissions from driving 343 cars/year.
This package tests conventional wisdom, and has challenged the customer's preconception that a renewable and recyclable package would rank superior, said Enneking. This product isn't there yet [in the United States], but the total systems approach shows that the new design would reap substantial savings and it has opened the eyes of the customer to think what about what they should do to make the entire package sustainable.