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New ISO global packaging standards answer the call for global harmonization

In May 2012, the International Standards Organization (ISO) approved new global standards on packaging and the environment, which were set to be published by the end of 2012.

Victor Bell is President of Environmental Packaging International.
Victor Bell is President of Environmental Packaging International.

In May 2012, the International Standards Organization (ISO) approved new global standards on packaging and the environment, which were set to be published by the end of 2012.  These standards will interest many packaging professionals and are sure to be a topic of discussion among IoPP’s technical committees, whose work focuses on technical issues within specific industries to improve communication between IoPP members and the larger packaging community.

Work on the standards began in 2009, when ISO formed a subcommittee on packaging and the environment to develop voluntary standards that would harmonize localized approaches to minimizing the environmental impact of packaging by offering packaging suppliers, brand owners, and retailers a common set of requirements for compliance.

With input from a mix of representatives from 26 countries throughout the world, the Packaging and the Environment Subcommittee developed six standards that are aligned with the European CEN standards to promote responsible packaging development:

• The umbrella standard, which discusses the general requirements for the use of the standards
• Optimization of the packaging system, including minimization of heavy metals and hazardous substances
• Reuse
• Material recovery
• Energy recovery
• Organic recovery

But while voluntary, the standards are prescriptive. In other words, if a company claims to meet one standard, then it must be able to demonstrate that it took reasonable steps to comply with all of the requirements. In their design decisions, companies must also take into account how the standards work together, both before and after a package’s use.

The ISO standards are intended to meet the growing need for clear, unified guidelines that companies can integrate into their package design decisions. Two in particular, ISO 18602 and ISO 18604,  bear further discussion because they are likely to have the most impact on readers of Packaging World.


ISO 18602: Optimization of the Packaging System

While based on CEN, one notable change from the European standards is what a company now needs to consider when it comes to source reduction, or what the new ISO standards refer to as “optimization of the packaging system.” This standard, 18602, aims to advise companies on the amount of optimal packaging used in designs that will still allow a package to function effectively by taking into account a number of criteria.

For example, the standard considers the protection of goods, so over-packing may, in fact, be less harmful overall to the environment, because under-packing could result in more waste from damaged goods. This recognition underscores the value of packaging and the sentiment that not all of it is bad.


ISO 18604: Material Recycling

The new standards also give guidance on which packaging can be classified as recoverable by material recycling under standard 18604. To assist companies in applying the standard, a technical report titled “Packaging Recoverable by Material Recycling—Report on Substances and Materials Which May Impede Recycling” includes an overview of the main packaging substances, materials, and components that could create problems in collecting and sorting prior to recycling or in the recycling process itself, or that negatively influence the quality of the recycled material.

The impact of this standard is already being seen in the emergence of disruptor materials in Ontario, Canada, and in France, where an additional 50% to 100% fee is charged for their use. 

The new ISO standards will offer cohesive guidance and environmentally responsible approaches to packaging production, use and post-use management throughout the supply chain. They will be available for any interested organization involved in packaging—designers, manufacturers, retailers, brand owners, packaging suppliers—that want to require compliance with the standards. The idea is that by having universal standards to look to, companies can implement them in their production and management system to ensure their package’s acceptance across borders, eliminating a possible barrier to trade and duplication of work.

Whether countries enact legislation requiring compliance, similar to the European Packaging Directive’s Essential Requirements, remains to be seen. But the hope is that the ISO standards will end the fragmented approach by jurisdictions and accomplish what all of the previous standards were intended to do: reduce the environmental impact of packaging. 

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