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Packaging and Sustainability

September 6, 2013


Manufacturers and retailers know that packaging serves a number of functions. Good packaging protects the products they contain, attracts the eye of potential buyers, and optimizes retail shelf space. More and more, however, you read about the importance of so-called “green” packaging. The challenge for designers and engineers is to develop packaging that provides all of packaging’s traditional functions while being environmentally friendly. Each type of packaging material (e.g., metal, glass, plastic, and paper) comes with its own set of unique challenges. Most consumers don’t really give much thought to packaging. Fortunately, professionals involved with packaging do. That’s because billions of dollars are spent packaging consumer goods each year. Nevertheless, Dennis Salazar, President & Co-founder of Salazar Packaging, believes there is plenty of room for innovation in the packaging sector. After attending a couple of recent packaging conventions, he concluded that, “not a whole lot” was taking place “in terms of innovation.” On the other hand, he asserts that there is a lot of activity “in terms of approach.” [“What’s New in Green Packaging?,” Environmental Leader, 16 May 2013] I’ll discuss those approaches later.


Rory Christian, a Consultant with Cambashi, points out that the “perfect package,” if there is such a thing, isn’t the work of a lone genius sitting at a design table. He asserts that it requires “input from an array of geographically-dispersed stakeholders, including: multi-disciplinary design teams, packaging manufacturers, logistics operators, retailers and, of course, the consumers themselves.” [“The Promise of Great Packaging at Retail,” Consumer Goods Technology, 7 May 2013] Each of those stakeholders views packaging from a different perspective and, therefore, each stakeholder provides valuable insight about its development. Christian believes, however, that too often valuable inputs from stakeholders are received sequentially and the result is less than optimum packaging. He explains:

“Companies have tended to operate a sequential process for packaging design, with each team impressing their input onto the product one stage after another. The issues that arise when, for example, space needed for labeling is cannibalized by the brand logo during a preceding process, often lead to conflict, unexpected re-work, extra cost and wasted opportunity.”

When sustainability factors are added in, the complexity of the packaging challenge increases. Paul Tasner, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of PulpWorks, Inc., believes that sustainable packaging refers to “packaging that does more good than harm. It is packaging that will not be a burden on our planet or for future generations, as opposed to the packaging that continues to be such a burden on the environment.” [“Sustainable Packaging,” Dustin Mattison’s Blog, 14 August 2012] Tasner adds that one of the challenges associated with sustainable packages is cost. He explains:

“In many cases the sustainable packaging choice is not the economical choice. There may be a cost difference. It is obviously pennies, but pennies are important to many companies. They don’t consider sustainable packaging to be an important factor in their supply chains. In fact, many companies see the cost barriers as an issue.”

Salazar notes that there have been some attempts to adopt innovative materials ( such as, “seaweed, mushrooms or concepts that make new packaging out of waste such as marine plastic:); but, he laments, these products have not proven to be “game changers” that are “capable of being produced, economically for large volume, commercial use.” Ron Romanik, Contributing Editor at Packaging World, believes that even during economically challenging times that manufacturers should pursue innovative packaging solutions. [“How packaging innovators tear down walls while planning ahead,” 26 April 2013] He provides ten “tips to help jump-start—or rejuvenate—your leadership in managing a new package innovation.”


1. Break down walls. You don’t need X-ray spectacles to see that information shouldn’t be hidden behind departmental barriers or organizational ‘walls.’ …

2. Work hard to work together. … Engineers and technical R&D professionals may suspect that marketing doesn’t understand what is or isn’t possible, while marketing pros may feel that tech teams are stuck in the proverbial mud.

3. Define the common goal. … Packaging innovation design doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

4. Empower engineers. … Don’t be afraid to empower engineers and make available to them packaging-specific data to drive to the right solution. … Consumer behaviors, wants, and needs influence the solution. But engineers need the data to justify the solutions they offer.

5. Plan for the good and the bad. … Companies must remain flexible—from the business processes to packaging line designs and layouts.

6. Anticipate the future, systematically. … Continually research new package ideas to meet present and future needs. …

7. Be a true believer. Leading packaging professionals believe that innovative packaging is good for the company as well as society at large. …

8. Retain educated leaders. The best packaging R&D groups include leaders who are experienced and educated specifically in packaging. …

9. Roll up your sleeves. Even managers should have the experience and capability to execute in order to lead a packaging project from concept to market, to work with engineering, manufacturing, and external material and machinery suppliers.

10. Measure to improve. Measure brand performance with consumers. …”


Deciding what metrics to use is important. As noted earlier, if cost is the most important metric for a company, then some innovative sustainable solutions may never be considered. Additionally, a focus on cost may result in corporate myopia that prohibits a company from looking at the broader picture. That brings us back to the point that Salazar made earlier about new approaches to green packaging. He writes:

“What I find most encouraging is the change of attitude that is more back to basics; packaging design that is green by default. Don’t misunderstand, I am not at all critical of this approach, in fact I am convinced it is the only way we can drive positive, long term change. It will be successful because it is based in economics, not guilt and because in most cases the savings they produce are immediate with minimal upfront investment. Even though this economically driven change may not have the green banner on it, the results happen to be basic in regards to sustainability. Many of the products I now see being promoted can easily and accurately be categorized in the three basics R’s of sustainability.”

The three R’s to which Salazar refers are: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. None of these R’s requires the use of new innovative materials — and that’s Salazar’s point. Concerning reducing packaging material, he writes:

“The new focus is on thinner, stronger materials able to do the same job with less material. This is consistent not only in paper products but especially in plastics after another turbulent year of resin prices, negatively impacting all forms of transparent, flexible packaging, and non-film products like plastic strapping, and carton sealing tapes. We are most definitely using less, not necessarily for the sake of the planet but for the sake of the bottom line.”

Anyone who drinks a lot of bottled water has noticed how caps have gotten smaller and bottles have become thinner over the past few years. Thinner material is good for some purposes (like holding water), but thinner material also offers less protection for more vulnerable products. Concerning the reuse of packaging material, Salazar writes:

“I see a lot more products that permit or encourage their reuse. Paper products such as boxes with specialty coatings designed to extend life and the increased popularity of returnable, reusable packaging such as totes, mailers, and other containers designed for multiple reuse. Companies love the economics of packaging that is not designed to be used and tossed, and they are taking full advantage of closed loop or internal return/reuse capabilities.”

Somewhere between the topics of Reuse and recycle is the topic of repurposing. Repurposing involves finding a new use for an old product without having to modify it significantly. Unfortunately, for most manufacturers, repurposing really isn’t an option. Finally, on the topic of recycling, Salazar writes:

“If there is a long term positive impact to what appears to be for many companies a short term interest in sustainability, it is in this most important area. More products than ever before are being made with a large percentage of recycled content and even more are able to be easily recycled and are labeled as such. I would also say that most of the manufacturers I know use recycled materials because it saves them money and allows them to minimize the impact of multiple price increases on new or virgin materials.”

In past posts concerning sustainability, I have stressed that the only sustainability initiatives that will have legs are those for which a business case can be made. Salazar agrees. He concludes:

“The other really positive, long lasting change I see is an increased interest in sustainable design incorporating the three techniques above. The end result of an application audit is almost always an immediate savings because so often companies are basically using the wrong product, or in some cases the product design they are using is simply outdated. Imagine being able to use less packaging, that is 50% recycled content and is 100% recyclable after many repeated uses? Those types of goals are being met every day and that is good for the bottom line and for the environment. The best eco friendly packaging solutions are those that are appealing to the company or consumer using them and also make economic sense.”

The topic of sustainable packaging is only going to gain more attention in the years ahead. It will be interesting to see what kinds of innovative solutions companies come up with to meet the myriad functions that packaging involves.

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