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Design and technical resources for sustainability

As recently as five years ago, very little information was available to package developers with regard to how to create a so-called sustainable package.

Shortly after it was founded in 2004, GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) began producing a steady series of reports, research, and software tools designed to allow package developers to make informed and responsible decisions. Here’s an overview of some of the most important reports. All are priced at less than $225 for nonmembers, and are free for members.

1. Design Guidelines for Sustainable Packaging. These guidelines are a great crash course in getting started in sustainable package design and development, covering the four sustainable design objectives: optimizing resources, responsible sourcing, material health, and resource recovery. For each design objective, the Design Guidelines walk the reader through a series of key questions and examples of design strategies, sparking ideas and leading designers to think about packaging in a fresh way. This 104-page publication is considered the gold standard for understanding how to incorporate sustainability objectives into packages at the point of creation, and is written specifically for package development engineers and package designers. Debuting in May 2013, a new interactive Web site featuring the most up-to-date thinking on designing sustainable packaging will be released by the SPC and Éco Entreprises Quebec in an initiative facilitated by PAC NEXT.

2. Closing the Loop: Design for Recovery Guidelines. Expanding on the SPC’s Design Guidelines, the Design for Recovery Guidelines for Aluminum, Glass, Paper, and Steel Packaging takes a deeper dive into how to design packaging to address one specific design objective: resource recovery. The suite of four reports provides packaging designers with information about how different treatments to, or components of, packaging added during the design phase affect their package’s recyclability, and in the case of paper, compostability. The Design for Recovery Guidelines were inspired by and intended to complement the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers’ Design for Recyclability Guidelines for plastic bottles.

3. Guidelines for Using Recycled Content in Packaging. Increasing recycled content in packaging has long been a key sustainability strategy by many packagers who want to close the recycling loop. However, packagers and converters must grapple with the technical, regulatory, and aesthetic challenges that come from incorporating recycled content into plastic and paper packaging. These two reports, one focused on plastics and the other focused on paper and paperboard, look at the use of recycled content in high-volume packaging applications and include pragmatic solutions for many of the barriers to the use of recycled content.

4. “How2Recycle” Packaging Recovery Label System. Sustainable packaging design includes on-package messaging for recycling. The proliferation of unclear labeling and inaccurate recycling claims creates confusion and makes recycling a challenge. The SPC’s How2Recycle label provides clear and consistent on-package recycling information to consumers. The voluntary label system was developed through broad stakeholder input, and supported by data gathered in accordance with Federal Trade Commission guidance. How2Recycle enables companies to easily comply with the FTC Green Guides. For more information, including a list of brand owners using the label, see

5. COMPASS. COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment) is an online software tool for packaging designers and engineers to assess the human and environmental impacts of their packaging designs, from manufacture to end of life. COMPASS generates comparative profiles of packaging design options, based on metrics such as fossil fuel consumption, water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and human and aquatic toxicity. COMPASS uses standardized, production-weighted, industry-average data to develop the environmental profile of packaging alternatives and accounts for components that make up primary and secondary packaging. Later in 2013, COMPASS will introduce a tertiary packaging model that will profile packaging such as pallets, crates, slip sheets, etc. COMPASS is aptly named, as it provides design guidance to answer “what if” questions and optimize environmental performance during the early concept stages of packaging development. For more, see

6. Assessing the Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Biodegradation in Landfills. If biodegradation of packaging is a good thing, and if landfills can capture and utilize the methane from biodegrading waste, it follows that biodegradation of waste in landfills is in fact a good thing for the environment, right? Not so, according to this research study. Assessing the Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Biodegradation in Landfills explores the generation of greenhouse gases in landfills and the natural and engineered strategies used to mitigate their effects. The report was intended to present the latest understanding on how materials behave in landfill environments and the mechanisms that influence biodegradation, and to provide an objective comparison of the greenhouse gas benefits of energy recovery relative to the harm of unavoidable landfill emissions. It’s also an informative introduction to carbon accounting and the role of the naturally occurring biogenic carbon cycle.

7. Compostable Packaging: The Reality on the Ground. A growing number of companies, especially in the foodservice sector, make and use packaging designed to be compostable. But what really happens to this packaging when it reaches industrial composting facilities? Can composting truly be considered a beneficial end-of-life option for packaging? This report reveals survey results about the fate of compostable packaging from 40 U.S. composting facilities that accept food waste. It’s a must-have for any packager contemplating compostable packaging.

8. Environmental Technical Briefs of Common Packaging Materials. No designer should be without a clear understanding of the environmental impact of all the major packaging materials, including impacts on human health and other relevant issues associated with the production, use, and end of life of materials used in packaging. To meet this need, the SPC publishes an objective series of profiles of each major packaging material. Each material profile describes the predominant manufacturing processes in North America, resource inputs, and associated cradle-to-gate emissions. Key production data include energy intensity, greenhouse gas, water consumption, emissions to air and water, and solid waste. In addition, each technical brief reviews the material’s sustainability profile based on use and the potential end-of-life patterns. To date, the SPC has produced briefs on fiber-based materials (corrugated and boxboard), glass, steel, aluminum, and polymers (PP, HDPE, LDPE, PET, PS, PVC, and PLA).

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