Ecolutions in packaging: an interview with a sustainable packaging guru

With Earth Day inching its way into the horizon, I am delighted to have the opportunity to write about eco-sustainability in print, and in particular, packaging. I am passionate about print, and I must admit that I get quite frustrated with the negative connotations associated with print and the environment. Packaging specifically has a reputation of being not eco-friendly and producing a lot of landfill waste. Sadly, there is historical truth to the stigma associated with packaging.

In the past decade or so, companies and producers of goods have begun to realize that more thought must be put into the packaging that surrounds their goods, and that consumers are becoming more sensitive to the concerns of wasteful and environmentally unfriendly packaging. There are many initiatives and trends that packagers have been implementing to make packaging more eco-friendly and sustainable, and the number of “ecolutions” for packaging continues to grow.

For this article, I had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing Rachel Morier, someone I respect as an authority on sustainable packaging. Rachel is the Program Manager of PAC NEXT, working closely with project-focused committees to facilitate the convergence of ideas and identify sustainable solutions that lead to A World Without Packaging Waste. Rachel joined PAC upon completing a Master in Environmental Studies at York University, and a Graduate Diploma in Business & the Environment from the Schulich School of Business. In addition to the many ongoing projects she is involved with on a daily basis, Rachel is also a guest speaker and course presenter of the Ultimate Packaging Optimization course. I was delighted that when I reached out to Rachel for an interview she responded with a very enthusiastic yes!

What follows is the question and answer of my interview with Rachel. The resources that Rachel refers to in the interview are referenced at the end of this article.

Jason:     In your opinion, what are the biggest changes to packaging design and production processes that are happening or need to happen to promote eco-sustainability in packaging, and what role does PAC play in this?

Rachel:  When discussing “ecolutions” for packaging, or environmental sustainability solutions for packaging, it is important to understand the concept of the circular economy. In simple terms, the circular economy is used to describe the flow of materials during the production and consumption of goods. Materials flows are divided into two categories – technical and biological. Whereas biological nutrient flows are designed to enter, break down and grow through the natural biological cycle, technical nutrients flows are circulated without entering the environment. Packaging typically consists of technical nutrients, where high quality materials can be re-purposed and made into something new. Circular material flows are also referred to as ‘cradle-to-cradle’ or ‘closing the loop’ and allows for materials to enter a next life.

 

It is an exciting time for packaging, but also the responsibility as an industry, to eliminate the common perception of packaging being wasteful. This is why PAC, Packaging Consortium, created the PAC NEXT initiative with the vision of A World Without Packaging Waste. We promote collaboration across the packaging value chain to explore, evaluate and mobilize end-of-life solutions so that all materials can be recovered and taken into their next life. Re-thinking packaging waste as a valuable resource requires a paradigm shift in thinking where packaging is no longer viewed as wasteful but purposeful and functional.

Jason:     What opportunities exist for the packaging industry today that can improve eco-sustainability for packaging?

Rachel:   Opportunities… Where do you start?

For the packaging industry to address eco-sustainability they first need to understand the part they play in the life cycle of a packaged good. Organizations often work in silos and sustainability tends to be departmentalized and addressed only by those responsible for corporate responsibility and regulation. In the bigger picture, sustainability is much more than being ‘green’, saving trees and cutting carbon emissions. It is about seeing new ways to be more efficient in production processes and incorporating innovative designs to think differently about the relationship between product and package and consumer. To make these changes possible, it requires more than the efforts of one person – sustainability must be embedded within the entire corporate culture with strong leadership support.

A good starting point is to have a conversation with stakeholders along the value chain. Over the years, when collaborating with stakeholders through industry projects and events, I have often heard  “I wasn’t aware of this issue” or “I didn’t think this applied to my business”. There is a lot of mixed messaging that exists and the messaging depends on who you talk to and their geographic location. For example, talking with operators of a material recovery facility (MRF) provides valuable insight on the factors that determine what is considered recyclable for them or not. PAC NEXT collaborated with a diverse group of stakeholders to produce a report titled Top 10 Packaging Challenges for Recycling in a MRF, which aims to provide information and debunk misconceptions about end-of-life challenges for the recycling of packaging materials. Bridging the communication gap between packaging producers and end-of-life managers is critical for not only designing a package to be recyclable, but to also evolve the conversation so that recycling systems can anticipate new packaging entering the marketplace.

For graphic designers and printers of packaging, it is often difficult to understand their immediate relationship to sustainability in the overall packaging life cycle. Some may argue that design briefs come from their client’s marketing team and therefore, they have little say in the process. However, designers have an important role of ensuring key messages are clearly communicated with consumers, especially when involving environmental messaging The messaging must be clear, visible and not misleading. In this information age, consumers demand more transparency and will call out companies that are greenwashing.

From a printing and print management perspective, there are environmental considerations from an operational standpoint as well as solutions offerings. Operational examples include scorecards from clients that seek information to understand where materials are being sourced and transported and what third-party environmental certifications are in place. Electronic approval processes or paperless workflows can decrease  material costs and increase efficiency by reducing wait times. Understanding how ink bleeds on labeled packaging can help prevent concerns from re-processors during the material recovery process, since it affects flake quality for clear plastics.

Emerging technologies such as printed electronics can also enhance sustainability attributes of packaging by not only providing product information on storage and use, but also recycling and return-to-retail options.  These new innovative solutions are exciting and we have yet to see the full potential of their applications.

Jason:     What are the five biggest trends/solutions that you see as significant in the advancement of sustainable packaging right now and why?

Rachel:   I would say five of the latest trends that are shaping sustainability solutions for packaging would be packaging optimization versus reduction, flexible plastic packaging, Ecommerce, Bioplastics and packaging to prevent food waste.

Around five years ago, the industry discussion was still greatly focused on packaging reduction. However, packaging can only be reduced to a point until the product in which the packaging protects becomes compromised. Product loss poses a greater environmental and economical cost than packaging itself. It has been generally accepted that packaging only accounts for 5-10% of the environmental impact while the product itself accounts for up to 95%.[1] The realization then is that packaging should be optimized using a holistic approach so that both the product and the function of the package are maintained. Using life cycle assessment (LCA) tools are useful to understand environmental impacts throughout a product’s entire life cycle. This is also helpful when considering end-of-life options when selecting packaging materials.

Flexible multi-layer laminated packaging has been increasing in the marketplace due to its benefits such as proven barrier properties, option for reclose functionality, shelf stability and appeal. It also provides a lighter option in comparison to conventional packaging like cans and glass jars which results in fuel savings and a lower carbon footprint during transportation. This packaging category has significant forecasted growth over the next several years with US demand for pouches growing approximately 7% annually to reach almost 24 billion units in 2018.[2] Despite these benefits, however, this packaging category has yet to find a widespread solution so that the material can be recovered at end-of-life. This packaging type is currently not recyclable because it is comprised of multiple plastic resins as well as foil in some cases. There is potential for specialty end markets for this packaging such as engineered fuel, lumber core, fuel substitution in cement kilns, and other industrial uses. Finally, this packaging can be diverted from landfill by using energy recovery but the debate regarding energy-from-waste and whether it counts as diversion is ongoing across the provinces and municipalities in Canada.

Ecommerce is another significant trend that is impacting the packaging sector. Numerous research studies have projected growth in the online retail sector for both Canada and the US. For Canada, the overall online retail sales is currently 6% and is expected to grow to 10% within five years.[3] I think the fact that Amazon certifies its packaging to be “Frustration-Free” indicates the need to address what that has been viewed as a less than perfect user experience in the past for ecommerce packaging.  As consumers are continually striving for convenience and ease of use, it is critical to provide clear instructions to consumers on how to open and dispose of their packaging. It is also an opportunity for optimized packaging – to ensure product protection, avoid excessive packaging, and use recyclable and recycled content where possible. PAC NEXT released Ecommerce Packaging Optimization Guidelines to provide industry with a simple and easy reference guide for ecommerce packaging.

Bioplastic is not new but is currently re-emerging as it reaches its second decade of commercial production in the global market. The bioplastics production capacity is estimated to increase from approximately 1.6 million tonnes in 2013 to 6.7 million tonnes by 2018.[4] Bioplastics are becoming increasingly recognized as another plastic resin with environmental sustainability advantages. For example, bio-based Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is used for Coke’s PlantBottle®. This material is chemically similar to its petroleum counterpart except that it is typically derived from corn or sugar cane. Therefore, it should be recycled and not composted. Polylactic Acid (PLA) is plastic resin type that is also bio-based but can be both recycled or composted by industrial composters that can handle shorter process times (45- to 60-day). As PLA applications grow, PLA will need to be sorted separately from other resins with focused attention on recycling rather than composting.

While there is still some confusion that exists on the properties of bioplastics, especially regarding terminology such as bio-based, biodegradable and compostable, there are third-party certification systems in place to back-up claims. The US Federal Trade Commission and Canada’s Competition Bureau also act to prevent misleading claims. With greater education of bioplastics in the packaging industry, growing knowledge of its performance characteristics and environmental attributes, there is an expectation that the marketplace presence of bioplastics will be more prevalent in the near future.

Another trend that has emerged is packaging designed to reduce food waste. Whereas sustainable packaging has historically focused on end-of-life solutions, increased discussion on packaging optimization has shifted attention to reducing environmental impacts throughout the entire life cycle of a product. As I mentioned before, packaging only accounts for 5-10% of the environmental impact and thus, packaging can reduce the overall carbon footprint of a product when preventing food waste. It is now common fact that a third of all food produced globally is wasted. PAC created PAC FOOD WASTE and joined the Save Food Initiative because we saw the opportunity and growth potential for packaging solutions to reduce food waste. For example, portion-packaging and single-serve packaging helps to reduce food waste because there is often a mismatch of the amount of food packaged and the needs of the consumer. Studies on North American demographics reveal a growing number of smaller households so we are seeing more brand owners downsizing their products. New food packaging innovations such as barrier and coating technologies ensure food contact safety but also extend shelf life. Smart labels with temperature sensors provide cold chain monitoring capabilities and can also inform consumers how to properly store food. In this sense, packaging sustainability is about balancing all areas of a product’s life cycle – from start of life, throughout life and into next life.

Jason:     Have there been any recent policy changes in Canada and/or the U.S. that indicate greater pressure by policy makers towards better eco-sustainability for packaging?

Rachel:   Policy certainly plays a critical role in shaping the packaging sustainability landscape. In Canada, Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, means that brand owners of packaged goods must pay a fee to have their products managed at end-of-life. This regulation varies from province to province. For example, in Ontario, producers are required to pay 50% of waste management costs whereas producers pay 100% of the costs in British Columbia. In May of 2014, the Multi-Material BC (MMBC) program was launched that provides greater accessibility and flexibility for consumer recycling across the province. The packaging community is watching closely to see how this policy affects material recovery rates. What is also interesting about the BC recycling program is that accepted materials are the same across multiple communities. This means consumer communication and messaging is more consistent and helps to reduce confusion regarding what materials are recyclable or not. Residents in the USA may be able to recycle one material, such as polystyrene foam, in one municipality but not another.

The Canada-Wide Action Plan for EPR from the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) is still in progress with Nova Scotia revisiting their solid waste strategy and the most recent launch of the MMSW program in Saskatchewan. There are also challenges when measuring the amount of materials recovered annually for these programs. For example, reducing packaging weight, or lightweighting,  affects the measurement of materials recovered since results might show that less materials were recovered by weight when it might actually be the same volume (or number of pieces) of materials collected.

Jason:     How does Canada stack up against the U.S and the rest of the world when it comes to our commitment to environmentally responsible packaging?

Rachel:   This is difficult to say as commitments to environmentally responsible packaging can be reflected in a number of ways with policy being just one of them. Canada is  not the first, nor the last, to implement EPR policy.  Some European countries such as Austria, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have been practicing 100% Extended Producer Responsibility  for a number of years. There is currently no EPR legislation in the US for packaging and printed paper, but a number of states are in the early stages of investigating this type of policy. However, it is important to note that lack of policy does not mean that there are no commitments in place. Just in April 2014, Fortune 100 consumer goods companies and retailers stepped up to announce their commitment to increase recycling through infrastructure development in America by investing in the Closed Loop Fund. The packaging industry is becoming more proactive in addressing environmental issues and will not necessarily wait for policy to dictate how their products should be managed at end-of-life. This is what makes environmental solutions for packaging particularly interesting and exciting because the time to become engaged and make change is now.

Conclusion

As a print and packaging enthusiast, I am truly pleased to know that there are significant efforts underway to promote eco-friendly and sustainable packaging options around the world. While Canada may not be as advanced in its policy as some of the European regions, I am glad that we are starting to catch up.

What is perhaps more significant than government policies, however, is the global trend of consumers to be more aware of packaging and environmentally conscious. From the humble beginnings of elementary school eco-clubs, to general public awareness, to major organizations like PAC, the world is becoming more educated and sensitive to the need for sustainability. This in turn challenges companies to develop packaging “ecolutions”.

During my conversations with Rachel, I was inspired by how enthusiastic she is about the future of packaging and the concept of achieving zero waste.  It is great to see organizations such as PAC working with packaging manufacturers to help them to develop their own “ecolutions”. Combined with better government regulations, I am optimistic that packaging can become the environmentally friendly, sustainable solution it needs to be, and will someday overcome the wasteful overindulgence stigma it has had to carry for so many years.

Resources:

For more information about PAC:

http://pac.ca

For more information on PAC NEXT:

http://pac.ca/pac-next.html

You can access the report Top 10 Packaging Challenges for Recycling in a MRF here:

http://pac.ca/assets/pac-next_top10mrf-finalcompressed.pdf

You can access the PAC Next Ecommerce Packaging Optimization Guidelines report here:

http://pac.ca/assets/ecommerce-document-online-version.pdf

To learn more about PAC FOOD WASTE, you can visit:

http://pac.ca/pacsecure.html

To learn more about the Save Food Initiative, you can visit:

http://www.save-food.org

For more information about Multi-Material BC:

http://recyclinginbc.ca/mmbc/

For more information about the Closed Loop Fund:

http://www.closedloopfund.com/

[1] http://www.use-less-stuff.com/Archive/ULS-Report-V12N1.pdf

[2] “The US Market for Stand-Up Pouches to 2018”, PCI Films Consulting Ltd. as cited in http://www.plasticstoday.com/articles/us-stand-pouches-continuing-growth-path

[3] Forrester Research, as cited in http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/e-commerce-explosion-coming-for-2014-holiday-shopping-dianne-buckner-1.2818640

[4] European Plastics and Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (IfBB) as cited in http://www.greenerpackage.com/bioplastics/data_predict_significant_growth_bioplastics_2018

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