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Where We're Going and How We Get There
By: Paul Gertin
From paper straws to plastic bag fees at the grocery store, calls for more sustainable packaging solutions are everywhere today. Countries like China and India are closing their doors to waste from other countries, and environmental groups are lobbying for faster and greater change. These are just the beginning of a much larger effort to achieve a fully sustainable economy.
As more and more single use plastics are eliminated from everyday use to be replaced by more sustainable options, we will increasingly see consumers and manufacturers alike looking for environmentally conscious solutions.
Three Pillars of Sustainability
Manufacturers are scrambling now to meet new sustainability demands, quotas, and targets; the European Union has a common target for recycling 70% of packaging waste by 2030, and other countries like the UK and Australia have made similar commitments. Regardless of their individual goals however, three core pillars of sustainability guide each country’s framework: economy, society, and environment.
From an economic perspective, it is important to consider the end consumer as well as the company when designing or testing new, sustainable packaging alternatives. From the consumer’s perspective, the new packaging must remain affordable and relatively low-cost. Sustainable packaging should not require a price increase of the final product that might dissuade a customer from making a purchase.
At the same time, the pricing structure of a product using the new packaging must remain profitable for the company, which means the packaging should only make up a fraction of the total product cost.
The societal approach to sustainability asks, from a logistics perspective, how the packaging will be treated once it is manufactured. Is it easy to transport? Store? Empty? Sort properly when it comes to disposal? The packaging should be straightforward and easy to use by the consumer. You don’t want bulky packaging that is difficult to carry and store on a shelf, let alone difficult to dispose of when the time comes.
The environmental pillar of sustainability is probably the first one that comes to mind when you hear the word. This approach considers how to lower the overall environmental footprint, and includes measures of impact such as eutrophication, acidification, carbon footprint, and circularity. The goal is to examine environmental impact holistically to avoid activities and products that shift environmental burden from one impact to another (for example, packaging that reduces a product’s carbon footprint but increases acidification, still leading to increased – yet different – environmental harm).
Circularity and the Circular Economy
The term “circularity” is used to describe an ideal production system in which there is no waste, as every material is kept within the system for future use. It’s all about trying to keep materials in use for as long as possible by recovering and regenerating – with the greatest level of efficiency – every piece at the end of its service life. Many manufacturers are now approaching design and production of packaging with the goal of circularity in mind.
How to Achieve Sustainability
Achieving 100% sustainability is more easily said than done.
Perfect circularity is a long way away, if it is feasible at all. However, it is still worthwhile to keep this goal in mind when designing and manufacturing packaging. Considering usability of the materials you use within each phase of the circular economy will ultimately result in a product better suited to be recycled and reused
Many of the factors that determine how sustainable a piece of packaging is – and particularly how reusable it is – come about during the design phase. When designing a package, it is important to consider how the consumer is likely to interact with it from purchase to opening to disposal.
Is there a way that the packaging can be designed such that it is not torn apart when opened, and can be reused after the package is open? If you are designing packaging with recyclability in mind, make sure that it is packaging that is easy to work with, and easy to recycle.
While it is the job of the designer to make the packaging appeal to consumers, and easy to reuse, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to utilize materials and processes that reduce overall environmental impact. Some strategies that companies are employing in the manufacturing of packaging include:
- Replacing plastic with bioplastic;
- Replacing plastic with paper;
- Using more recycled material in packaging;
- Using mono-materials instead of composite materials;
- Using flexible packaging wherever it is feasible; and
- Reducing the total amount of packaging required.
The European organization Ecoembes – a packaging sustainability-focused NGO based in Spain – offers an excellent tip sheet on how to manufacture packaging that is environmentally sustainable.
Click here to download Ecoembes’ tip sheet.
While the Circular Economy isn’t quite here yet, forward-thinking governments, companies, and consumers are starting to shift towards sustainable packaging now. In Canada, even though the federal government has no formal packaging sustainability targets, industry associations like the Canadian Plastic Industry Association (CPIA) have made their own commitments; the CPIA aims to reach 100% plastic packaging sustainability by 2040.
But, don’t let the lofty sustainability goals frighten you – with great change comes great opportunity. For years survey data has shown a consumer desire for more environmentally friendly products, but a study from NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business released earlier this year found that sustainable products accounted for 50% of growth in consumer-packaged goods (CPG) from 2013 to 2018. It’s not all talk from consumers, they’re ready to put their money where their mouths are.
At Gertex, we support the vision of a sustainable future for the packaging industry. We offer a full line of sustainable packaging options for our customers - from paper void fill machines to gummed paper tape dispensers, we have a sustainable packaging option that fits the needs of your operation.
Contact us today for a free assessment, and to find out how your packaging and fulfillment workflows can be made more sustainable.
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