Packaged Sustainability

The stuff that envelopes all our products is getting eco-friendly.

Eric Schneider

Octobber 2009


Packaging—it’s not something most of us think about much, but it surrounds just about everything we buy. Whether in a bag, bottle, box, can or jar, nearly every product comes in some form of container. And that’s only the immediate packaging—those containers were, in all likelihood, shipped in at least one larger package. According to a 2007 document published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), accumulated packaging material accounts for 31% of all municipal solid waste in the United States.

With nearly a third of the country’s entire waste stream clogged by packing materials, it’s no surprise that the packaging industry has been working on ways to make the products that contain products more eco-friendly. So in terms of reducing a container’s ecological footprint, what is the best packaging?

Working from Zero

“I assume that zero packaging is what I want, and then I try to work backwards from there. How can I do the most with the least?” says Wendy Jedlicka, a Minnesota-based packaging designer and author of Packaging Sustainability (Wiley).

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (www.sustainablepackaging.org) defines eco-friendly packaging as “beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its lifecycle.” That also means such packaging must be sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy, such as solar power, and make the most use of renewable or recycled source materials.

Among these new materials are bioplastics, including polylactic acid (PLA), a plant-based substance. “Though designed with compostabil­ity as a feature, before you get to that point you can collect PLA, recycle it and make PLA again—over and over and over—which is beautiful,” notes Jedlicka. One of the most common materials is recycled post-consumer waste paper. “Here in Minnesota,” Jedlicka says, “we can go from a virgin tree to a box in six weeks. We can also go from stuff collected on the curbside to a box in six weeks.” By making boxes from refuse fewer trees are cut down, and items that would have been added to the waste stream get reused instead.

Bottom Line Benefits

One factor that has substantially encouraged the shift towards sustainable packaging has less to do with what environmentalists call “current solar income” and more to do with plain old income. Many major companies, including some of the world’s largest retailers, have discovered that using eco-friendly packaging and applying a sustainability framework to their entire business model can increase profitability, in addition to providing invaluable publicity and goodwill.

Some of these companies now require that their suppliers follow suit and green up as well. That trickle-down effect has lead to a forecast that sustainable packaging will make up 32% of the entire global packaging market by 2014 (Environmental Leader 5/19/09).

Although not visible to the consumer, the supply chain is integral to supporting packaging sustainability. For example, companies that use paper, paperboard, or wood for their packaging can create ties with green organizations such as Forest Steward­ship Council (www.fscus.org) which ensures that responsible forestry practices are maintained through independent third-party certification. “I can make a package way more eco, and never change the thing on the store shelf,” Jedlicka says. “That has everything to do with the supply chain.”

Green Distribution

A key part of a company’s supply chain is distributing the product, and doing this often requires plenty of protective packaging. In past decades, this was primarily accomplished with expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, more commonly known as Styrofoam. However, since polystyrene has long been branded an environmental hazard, alternatives are increasingly being used.

FP International of Redwood City, California (www.fpintl.com) offers recycled polystyrene packaging that you can toss into your garden. The packaging, called Biodegradable Super 8 Loosefill, takes 86% less energy to produce than crumpled or padded paper that is sometimes used as packaging, FP International says, and emits 93% less greenhouse gas emissions in its production.

Going with eco-friendly packaging makes good business sense, too. The product is 64% lighter than paper, meaning lower shipping costs. And, unlike other packaging materials, the Super 8 product is not attractive to rodents and its performance is not affected by humidity.

Nor will paper degrade as readily, if at all, FP International says. The company’s product degrades in aerobic, meaning with air, and anaerobic, without air, conditions. After biodegradation, the company says, the resulting material transforms into carbon dioxide, water and inert-humus soil with no heavy metals or harmful chemicals.

Ecovative Design of Green Island, New York (www.ecovativedesign.com) is eyeing biodegradable packaging. Ecovative is preparing to launch EcoCradle, an organic packaging product made from agricultural waste. “Our material, made of seed husks and mushroom roots, fits directly into nature’s recycling system, no preprocessing or industrial composters needed,” says Eben Bayer, Ecovative’s chief executive—meaning you can compost it or use it as mulch.

With such eco-friendly products on the horizon and business embracing green advances, it’s fitting that Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) now offers the Sustainable Design Certificate Program. The program challenges students to think anew, says Jedlicka, a faculty member. “We have the opportunity to literally remake everything we do, but get it right this time,” she says. “How amazing is that?”

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