Sustainable packaging is the development and use of packaging which results in improved sustainability. This involves increased use of life cycle inventory (LCI) and life cycle assessment (LCA) to help guide the use of packaging which reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint. It includes a look at the whole of the supply chain: from basic function, to marketing, and then through to end of life (LCA) and rebirth. Additionally, an eco-cost to value ratio can be useful The goals are to improve the long term viability and quality of life for humans and the longevity of natural ecosystems. Sustainable packaging must meet the functional and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability is not necessarily an end state but is a continuing process of improvement.
Sustainable packaging is a relatively new addition to the environmental considerations for packaging (see Packaging and labeling). It requires more analysis and documentation to look at the package design, choice of materials, processing, and life-cycle. This is not just the vague "green movement" that many businesses and companies have been trying to include over the past years. Companies implementing these eco-friendly actions are reducing their carbon footprint, using more recycled materials and reusing more package components. They often encourage suppliers, contract packagers, and distributors to do likewise.
For example, researchers at the Agricultural Research Service are looking into using dairy-based films as an alternative to petroleum-based packaging.  Instead of being made of synthetic polymers, these dairy-based films would be composed of proteins such as casein and whey, which are found in milk. The films would be biodegradable and offer better oxygen barriers than synthetic, chemical-based films. More research must be done to improve the water barrier quality of the dairy-based film, but advances in sustainable packaging are actively being pursued.
Environmental marketing claims on packages need to be made (and read) with caution. Ambiguous greenwashing titles such as green packaging and environmentally friendly can be confusing without specific definition. Some regulators, such as the US Federal Trade Commission, are providing guidance to packagers
Companies have long been reusing and recycling packaging when economically viable. Using minimal packaging has also been a common goal to help reduce costs. Recent years have accelerated these efforts based on social movements, consumer pressure, and regulation. All phases of packaging, distribution, and logistics are included.
Sustainable packaging is no longer focused on just recycling. Just as packaging is not the only eco target, although it is still top of mind for many. Right or wrong, packaging is frequently scrutinized and used as the measure of a company's overall sustainability, even though it may contribute only a small percentage to the total eco impact compared to other things, such as transportation, and water and energy use.
The criteria for ranking and comparing packaging based on their sustainability is an active area of development. General guidance, metrics, checklists, and scorecards are being published by several groups.
Government,standards organizations, consumers, retailers, and packagers are considering several types of criteria.
Each organization words the goals and targets a little differently. In general, the broad goals of sustainable packaging are:
- Functional - product protection, safety, regulatory compliance, etc.
- Cost effective - if it is too expensive, it is unlikely to be used
- Support long-term human and ecological health
Specific factors for sustainable design of packaging may include:
- Use of minimal materials - reduced packaging, reduced layers of packaging, lower mass (product to packaging ratio), lower volume, etc.
- Logistics efficiency (through complete life cycle) - cube utilization, tare weight, enablement of efficient transportation, etc.,
- Energy efficiency, total energy content and usage, use of renewable energy, etc.
- Recycled content - as available and functional. For food contact materials, there are special safety considerations, particularly for use of recycled plastics and paper. Regulations are published by each country or region.
- Recyclability - recovery value, use of materials which are frequently and easily recycled, reduction of materials which hinder recyclability of major components, etc.
- Reusable packaging - repeated reuse of package, reuse for other purposes, etc.
- Use of renewable resources in packaging
- Use of biodegradable and compostable materials - when appropriate and do not cause contamination of the recycling stream
- Avoid the use of materials toxic to humans or the environment
- Effects on atmosphere/climate - ozone layer, greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane), volatile organic compounds, etc.
- Water use, reuse, treatment, waste, etc.
- Worker impact: occupational health, safety, clean technology, etc.
- Made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle
- Physically designed to optimize materials and energy
- Use integral design to reduce the use of materials
- Follow the requirements of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference
The chosen criteria are often used best as a basis of comparison for two or more similar packaging designs; not as an absolute success or failure. Such a multi-variable comparison is often presented as a radar chart (spider chart, star chart, etc.).
Some aspects of environmentally sound packaging are required by regulators while others are decisions made by each packager. Investors, employees, management, and customers can influence corporate decisions and help set policies. When investors seek to purchase stock, companies known for their positive environmental policy can be attractive. Potential stockholders and investors see this as a solid decision: lower environmental risks lead to more capital at cheaper rates. Companies that highlight their environmental status to consumers, can boost sales as well as product reputation. Going green is often a sound investment that can pay off.
The process of engineering more environmentally acceptable packages can include consideration of the costs. Some companies claim that their environmental packaging program is cost effective. Some alternative materials that are recycled/recyclable and/or less damaging to the environment can lead to companies incurring increased costs. Though this is common when any product begins to carry the true cost of its production (producer pays, producer responsibility laws, take-back laws). There may be an expensive and lengthy process before the new forms of packaging are deemed safe to the public, and approval may take up to two years. It is important to note here, that for most of the developed world, tightening legislation, and changes in major retailer demand (Walmart's Sustainable Packaging Scorecard for example) the question is no longer "if" products and packaging should become more sustainable, but how-to and how-soon to do it.
Efforts toward "greener" packaging are supported in the sustainability community, however, these are often viewed only as incremental steps and not as an end. Some picture a true sustainable steady state economy that may be very different from today's: greatly reduced energy usage, minimal ecological footprint, fewer consumer packaged goods, local purchasing with short food supply chains, little processed foods, etc. Less packaging would be needed in a sustainable carbon neutral economy; fewer packaging options would exist; simpler packaging forms may be necessary.
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