When we look at greenness of a product, type, extent and material of packaging should also a part of the perspective. While a product could be green, its packaging may not. Packaging accounts for almost 10 % of the environmental impact of anything bought. In estimating the “environmental impact” of the package, we assess the material (i.e. embodied intensity), its biodegradability and recyclability, the label and method of printing (e.g. ink used). Today, increased consumer demand has compelled many companies to make packaging as sustainable as possible. Life cycle thinking and life cycle costing are playing an important role.
In the United States, all the 25-largest Consumer Packaged Goods companies have made commitments to increasing recyclable content, minimizing packaging or reusing material. Eighty percent of those companies are working toward fully recyclable packaging for all their products by 2030 at the latest. Further, environmentally sensitive packaging on a nation-wide basis can help in cutting down Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, thus combating climate change. Organizations like Sustainable Packaging Coalition have come up to demonstrate a collective approach.
Sustainable packaging often leads to innovations. While use of recycled paper and paper made from FSC certified sources is one of the common options, Dell pioneered use of bamboo replacing plastic as early as in 2009. Bamboo is local (hence has less GHG emissions), grows quickly and is strong and durable. Plus, bamboo packaging is biodegradable and can be composted after use.
A very early study in 2011 by ASSOCHAM on Domestic Green Packaging Industry showed that “rising environmental concerns about carbon emissions, dearth of natural resources together with increased health awareness and waste reduction targets” are key drivers of green packaging in India . But has the packaging industry in India responded to the sustainability driver(1).
Over the last decade however, there seems to be a change. The subject of sustainable packaging is now widely discussed in conferences with leadership taken by large companies. Technology and new materials are playing a role. We see now interests on water-based flexible packaging technology that includes state-of-the-art heat seal and oxygen barrier coatings. For example, you notice emergence of non-recyclable polyethylene laminated paper cups substituted by recyclable/repulpable water-based coatings. Smart logistics is helping to reduce the shelf life requirements of food products reducing thereby the intensity of multi-layered packaging. Consumer interest groups are also demanding “lean” and “returnable” packaging.
Plastic bans and Government of India’s regulations on Plastic Waste Management and expectations on Extended Producer Responsibility are also giving a “sustainability push”. Companies are strengthening the collection and processing of used packages from consumers with the help of Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs). These PROs operate dry waste collection centres at important locations to segregate and compact plastic waste before distributing it to co-processing industries and plants.
But then “underpackaging” is also not desirable. A recent report by the Global Packaging Project states that the environmental risks of underpackaging can be greater than excessive packaging. By reducing packaging excessively, products get damaged in transit, requiring re-manufacturing and re-distribution in order to replace the original products. Further, there are costs and liabilities for disposal of off spec, discarded or foul products. Thus, by trying to reduce the environmental impact of packaging, companies may simply be shifting, and potentially increasing, the adverse impact to the environment. So, a careful balance is needed and let us not “overdo” sustainability.
For coming up with a sustainable packaging design therefore, every manufacture must think “out of the box” and yet be “practical”. This is done through clever choice of materials, design and a communiqué that costs, reduces environmental impact and ensure product security. Communicating the benefits of sustainable packaging to the consumer is very important. The consumer will now judge a product in its totality – not just how green it is but in addition how smart and sensible is the packaging.
We got to think Out of the Box!
Reference 1: See http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/industry-and-economy/article2543529.ece?ref=wl_opinion)