Sustainability Surprises

Identifying the most sustainable packaging for a product is rarely a simple exercise.
Sep 02, 2008


Hallie Forcinio
Today, everyone wants sustainable packaging. Unfortunately, what's perceived as sustainable may not be the most environmentally friendly choice. Application and geographic location influence the environmental impact of the final package because of variability in the amount and combination of materials used, the availability of raw materials, postconsumer collection and recycling resources, and other factors.

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.

Weighing attributes


Table I: US recycling rates for common packaging materials.
Wal-Mart Stores is widely credited with jumpstarting the thinking on sustainable packaging when it set a goal to cut waste generation to zero by 2025. Its Packaging Scorecard, introduced in November 2006 and implemented in February 2008, requires suppliers to look at their packaging holistically by ranking it according to several criteria such as GHG or carbon-dioxide generation per ton of production, product–package ratio, cube utilization, recycled content, and recovery value.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition also advocates looking at the big picture. According to its definition, sustainable packaging has the following characteristics:

  • Beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
  • Meets market criteria for performance and cost
  • Sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy
  • Maximizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
  • Manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
  • Made from materials that are healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios
  • Physically designed to optimize materials and energy
  • Effectively recovered and used in biological or industrial cradle-to-cradle cycles.

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.