Sustainable packaging--what's next?

Sustainable packaging continues to build momentum. If this concept is to solidify its hold on packaging and influence the way packaging professionals operate beyond the short term, a certain amount of balance is going to be needed where the three so-called “pillars” are concerned.

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The pillars, of course, are economic return, societal impact, and environmental impact. If these are not all in balance, then the long-term viability of sustainability is questionable. It seems to me that too much emphasis is currently placed on economic return.

Consumer demand certainly isn’t driving the spread of sustainable packaging, at least not enough to make revolutionary change necessary. Only about one in ten customers are reportedly demanding sustainable packaging. The outcome from this lukewarm consumer interest in sustainable packaging has been understandable. Industry has been looking at the easy solutions that, from a marketing and consumer perception viewpoint, garner the most return.

More than 50% of companies say that they have sustainable guidelines in place either formally or informally, and the vast majority of companies say that sustainability is considered in the package design process. However, most also say that sustainability does not play a major role in decision making. One look at store shelves and it seems pretty obvious that the bulk of these “innovations” are mostly examples of weight reductions, the inclusion of recycled content, and the use of more energy efficient processes.

Renewable materials are starting to make in-roads, but barrier property and re-processing issues are slowing acceptance. New development is needed. In other words, acceptance of sustainability thus far at the industry level has been to go after the traditional solutions and heavily market the benefits of them.

In order for sustainability to make a difference and have a lasting presence, we need to move past the easy, traditional solutions and take a chance with innovative options. It’s time to stop relying so heavily on economic justification and consider the other two pillars as well. Soon all the “low hanging fruit” will have been picked and the long-term success of sustainability will depend upon this more balanced approach.

Industry models need to be re-thought. Do we need the current packaging standards seen in such industries as cosmetics and electronics? Are all current renewable options sustainable when societal impacts are considered? Can we change the current processes or materials because they are not environmentally sound choices even though it will add cost? Are the current reasons justifying the use of the unpopular clamshell really valid and unquestionable?

Questions like these need to be asked. The answers will affect the future direction and staying power of sustainability in the packaging arena.

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