In addition to exerting minimal environmental impact, sustainable packaging also must be cost-competitive and functional, according to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
It's no wonder that "packaging people are unsure what sustainable packaging is," says Patricia Enneking, director of global sustainability and environmental affairs at Klöckner Pentaplast Group (Gordonsville, VA). Klöckner makes polyvinyl chloride, polyester, and polylactide film and sheet, laminations, and barrier-coated structures used in packaging. "It's perception versus reality," Enneking explains. People think that if a package is one of the following—recyclable, biodegradable or compostable, derived from a renewable source, or contains recycled content—it's sustainable, but focusing on a single feature may not necessarily result in the best package for the environment.What does consistently result in improved sustainability is weight reduction. Thus, a good rule of thumb is to maximize the product-to-package ratio. Reducing package weight conserves raw materials and energy and reduces discards and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It also lowers freight costs throughout the supply chain.
In fact, weight is such a significant environmental attribute that a lightweight package that isn't recycled may have an advantage over a heavier package with a high recycling rate. For example, the 2007 Packaging Efficiency Study published by the ULS Report shows that coffee drinkers send more pounds of coffee cans than of coffee pouches to the landfill, even though steel coffee cans are recycled at a relatively high rate in the US and pouch packaging is virtually never recycled.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition also advocates looking at the big picture. According to its definition, sustainable packaging has the following characteristics:
Is a recyclable package better than a nonrecyclable package? Maybe. As noted in the coffee-can example, extremely lightweight, nonrecyclable packaging may send less waste to the landfill. Drugmakers should consider a material's recycling rate and recycling infrastructure. If a recyclable package isn't actually collected and recycled, it will have just as much negative impact on the environment as a nonrecyclable package, perhaps more.