Hurdles for Packaging Sustainability

Packaging sustainability should be pretty straight forward. All packaging is made from a handful of material classes that undergo conversion processes to create the package shape and form needed to protect the product. These materials and processes, including how packaging is treated in the waste stream, can be examined and profiled for environmental performance using life cycle assessment or LCA. Packaging LCA tools exist that can help optimize packaging designs before they enter the market. This begs the question… Why does sustainability for packaging still pose problems and ongoing debate?

As a quick review, the life cycle of any package or product starts with resource extraction and material creation (tree harvest to papermaking). After that the material converted into a package form that gets filed with the product, transported to the retail venue and eventually placed in the solid waste stream by the consumer. Environmental impacts are associated with all stages of a packages life cycle. The packaging designer has influence over the design, manufacture, transport and what may happen when it is discarded. There are a number of hurdles that keep packaging sustainability from becoming a reality, and these five are pervasive.

One: Disproportionate attention on primary packaging during design

The traditional approach to packaging takes cost, performance, aesthetics and possible regulations into consideration. Sustainability asks that those considerations be expanded to include the implications of materials, processes, transportation, use and treatment at the end of the object’s useful life. Yet, for sustainable packaging design, the latter set remains an afterthought. To make matters worse, focus is often solely devoted to the shelf ready primary packages, when in reality, a framework of secondary components, and tertiary packaging structures are needed to deliver the packaged good to the buyer. When the focus remains on the shelf ready package, opportunities for sustainable design may be missed during the ideation and design steps. Instead, packaging designers should embrace a lifecycle approach that encompasses primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging systems.

Two: Applying broad assumption to infer enhanced sustainability (backing up the claims)

Packaging sustainability is commonly used as a distinguishing factor by brands at the shelf. It is used to communicate a brand’s commitment to sustainability and often infers too much without proof. In doing so, materials are often selected with broad stroke assumptions held to be true without data to back up those choices. For example, bio-based polymers, claims of degradation in nature or in compost as a strategic benefit, and inclusion of recycled content are presented as given conditions for improved environmental performance. Yet, more often than not, such claims are not studied in comparison to the default processes. In many cases, LCA shows that broad stroke statements do not always hold true. Some materials have performance barriers to recycled content, others offer benefits only under a narrow set of conditions. Offsetting fossil inputs with bio-based ones may seem like a win, yet without taking a full picture approach, environmental burdens may be shifted. For example, assuming that bio-based building blocks lower the carbon intensity or impact to climate change may result in increased water usage, chemical discharge, or fossil fuel usage during conversion processes. Using LCA as an initial screen to verify changes makes sense and can strengthen brand reputation.

Three: Overwhelming focus on packaging attributes

Walking into any supermarket, one can easily find examples of packaging that claims to be recyclable, compostable, bio-degradable. These end of life aspirations for the packages may be laudable, however material sustainability is more than what happens at the end of use. We must be able to design intelligent packages that minimize life-cycle impacts for the whole system needed to deliver the packaged good. The packaging community needs to focus on reducing specific impact categories, rather than on specific attributes or outcomes. LCA is the only methodology available that allows comprehensive evaluation along multiple, often competing impact categories. Applying LCA to the stage gate design process is made easy via software tools that work as standalone environmental profile generators needed to create a benchmark. These tools can also be integrated into existing product life cycle management (PLM) systems. This empowers companies to implement next generation thinking without altering their traditional design workflows.

Four: Consumer education and infrastructure development are prerequisites

Too often at professional packaging sustainability conferences, we hear that consumer education is essential to getting sustainability right, and that sufficient waste infrastructure is needed to foster innovation and recovery of materials. These assertions are falsehoods. Design is exclusively the purview of the brand. It alone chooses the flow of materials from extraction (cradle) to the consumer and into the waste stream (grave). Therefore, the design should consider today’s realities and innovate around them so that the resulting package dovetails into the existing infrastructure, the access to it by citizens, and its reach into communities. Taking an “outside the system” approach to innovation does not help the citizenry nor the infrastructure’s ability to fulfill the material recovery potential. Insisting on educating the consumer and building more infrastructure postpones what can be done now by all parties involved – the brand, the consumer, and the solid waste infrastructure.

Five: Difficulty of Designing for recovery

Life cycle assessment, particularly the rapid screening version, is a powerful tool that can help the packaging designer to visualize the potential for a given design to be picked up for recovered after use. Such tools empower the brand and harmonize the front end of packaged goods design with the solid waste substructure. Citizens too would be less confused as to what can be done with packaging materials once they no longer need them if packages were designed with recovery process in mind. The industry would certainly improve its sustainability image by designing packages that can be recovered today.

Where do you go from here?

Interested in learning how to work LCA into your design process? Trayak can help. COMPASS is a leading lite LCA tool used to assess packages on consumption metrics, emission metrics, and packaging attributes. COMPASS software puts the power of LCA in the hands of the design professionals so that key environmental performance indicators can be easily incorporated into the concept development and material selection steps of the packaging design process.

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