The consumer goods industry is under growing pressure to reduce waste and adopt environmentallly friendly packaging. New paper and plastic materials offer sustainable solutions, but also create new challenges.

Sustainability is a hot buzzword these days. It’s hard to pick up an annual report or read a corporate image ad without seeing the word used somehow. Senior executives love to dangle the word in front of shareholders and financial analysts.

“Sustainability” refers to development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It’s a broad-sweeping term that encompasses environmental issues such as recycling and recovery.

Manufacturers in all industries are eager to portray themselves as being socially responsible today. They are attempting to be environmentally sensitive in every area of their business, especially trendy issues such as conserving energy or harnessing renewable natural power sources like the sun and wind.

Shareholders are keeping a watchful eye on their performance because of listings such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the Chicago Climate Exchange, and organizations such as the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse, which track environmental business practices. As a result, companies are paying closer attention to the way their products are wrapped in paper and plastic. In particular, they are focusing on the pros and cons of packaging items in environmentally friendly materials that can be easily recycled.

“There’s an undeniable shift underway in the world of packaging,” says Malcolm Cohn, market manager for the Americas at Innovia Films Ltd. (Wigton, UK), a leading supplier of biodegradable plastics. “Over 50 percent of packaging is plastic.

“The global packaging industry is facing mounting economic pressures to reduce nonrenewable waste, as more and more nations move to limit the commercial use of oil-based products,” adds Cohn. “America is no exception, and the hot-button action today is to focus on this emerging market for socially responsible packaging. Ecological, flexible packaging has become increasingly important to all who are concerned about the future well-being of our planet.”

“Sustainable packaging has created new opportunities for companies to apply innovative packaging processes, while cutting costs and addressing ever-changing environmental standards,” notes Tom Blanck, manager of packaging solutions at Adalis Corp. (Vancouver, WA), a consulting firm. For instance, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (Bentonville, AR), recently embarked on a landmark green packaging campaign that makes sustainability a strategic business initiative.

“Packaging is where consumers and suppliers come together and can have a real impact both on business efficiency and environmental stewardship,” claims H. Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart. “Even small changes to packaging have a significant ripple effect. Improved packaging means less waste, fewer materials used, and savings on transportation, manufacturing, shipping and storage.”

Sustainable Packaging

Although it’s been receiving a lot of attention, sustainability is not really a new term. According to Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC, Charlottesville, VA), the concept has been around since a United Nations initiative 20 years ago.

“In the past, business and society could share resources and not bump into each other,” explains Johnson. “Today, both sides are competing for the same resources, such as air and water. We’ve reached a state on our planet where human activity affects the molecular activity of life [and something has to be done about it].”

Johnson says most big companies are actively thinking about how to integrate environmental considerations into their operations in a way that aligns with their core business strategy. And, because of its widespread use and visibility, packaging is in the limelight.

“The demand for sustainable packaging solutions has become an important concern for business leaders, marketing managers and professionals across the packaging industry,” notes John Luke Jr., chairman and CEO of MeadWestvaco Corp. (Glen Allen, VA). “Manufacturers are assessing the challenges and opportunities involved with meeting this growing demand for sustainable products and applying the principles of sustainability throughout their businesses.”

Luke’s company has responded by offering a paperboard-based product called Natralock, which replaces traditional plastic clamshell packaging. And, through its AGI/Klearfold subsidiary, MeadWestvaco offers NatureSource visual packaging, which is made from a corn-based polymer.

With many companies throwing around the words “sustainable” and “biodegradable,” some people believe they’re interchangeable. However, that’s not true. In fact, both terms have been misused and misinterpreted.

“Sustainability is the whole package -from idea through production, to shelf, to waste stream and rebirth,” explains Wendy Jedlicka, president of Jedlicka Design Ltd. (Roseville, MN). “It includes materials sourcing, energy use, social impacts, usefulness, end of life, and on and on and on. Biodegradability is only one part of a well-managed system, not a single-end thing.

“There is a lot of debate and confusion around this,” says Jedlicka. “Sustainability means never having to say you’re sorry. That’s really all there is to it.”

According to Jedlicka, too many people “directly equate biodegradability as the easy fix-all for ‘sustainability.’ There are plenty of very sustainable solutions out there that are not biodegradable. Biodegradable is not the magic button that triggers the package at end-of-life to simply go away. Rather, when applied to its best advantage, it’s a tremendously important element of a well-considered plan to manage resources on many levels.”

A Bold New Initiative

Last fall, Wal-Mart dropped a bombshell at the annual Pack Expo trade show in Chicago. The giant retailer announced that it would begin measuring its 60,000 worldwide suppliers on their ability to develop packaging and conserve natural resources. The initiative, scheduled to take affect in 2008, is projected to reduce overall packaging by 5 percent.

In addition to preventing millions of pounds of trash from reaching landfills, the initiative is projected to save 667,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. “This is equal to taking 213,000 trucks off the road annually, and saving 323,800 tons of coal and 66.7 million gallons of diesel fuel from being burned,” claims Matt Kistler, senior vice president of marketing, research and insights for Sam’s Club and captain of Wal-Mart’s packaging sustainability network.

“This initiative will also create $11 billion in savings, just from a 5 percent reduction in 10 percent of the global packaging industry,” Kistler points out. Wal-Mart alone is poised to save more than $3 billion.

Starting next year, the world’s largest retailer will carefully measure and monitor its supply base. Manufacturers will be encouraged to use less packaging, utilize more effective materials in packaging, and source these materials more efficiently. They have been issued a “packaging scorecard” measurement tool that will allow them to evaluate themselves relative to other suppliers, based on specific metrics.

According to Kistler, the metrics in the scorecard evolved from a list of favorable attributes known as the Seven Rs of Packaging: Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Renew, Revenue and Read. It evaluates the sustainability of product packaging based on greenhouse gas emissions related to production, material value, product-to-packaging ratio, cube utilization, recycled content usage, innovation, the amount of renewable energy used to manufacture the packaging, the recovery value of the raw materials, and emissions related to transportation of the packaging materials.

“These criteria are valuable tools for suppliers to determine how their packaging innovations, environmental standards, energy-efficiencies and use of materials match up against those of their peers,” says Kistler. “Suppliers will receive an overall score relative to other suppliers, as well as relative scores in each category.”

However, Wal-Mart is not the only retailer jumping on the green bandwagon. Other companies, such as Costco Wholesale Corp. (Issaquah, WA), are paying more attention to biodegradable packaging. For example, the company recently began replacing plastic clamshells with a paperboard-blister hybrid package that can be easily recycled. The new packaging uses printed paperboard and recycled polyester thermoforms.

Many large consumer goods manufacturers have already stepped up to the plate. For instance, Johnson & Johnson (New Brunswick, NJ) has set a goal to eliminate polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in primary packaging, and is actively engaged with suppliers to identify alternatives. The company claims that it will reduce its use of PVC packaging by 70 percent before the end of this year.

Many computer and electronics companies, such as Apple Inc. (Cupertino, CA), Hewlett-Packard Co. (Palo Alto, CA), IBM Corp. (Armonk, NY) and Texas Instruments Inc. (Dallas), are also ahead of the curve when it comes to green packaging. For example, IBM’s worldwide packaging engineering team strives to “use materials with recycled content and common shipping methods to help optimize the sustainability of packaging materials.”

Market Reaction

With all the buzz created by Wal-Mart recently, many producers of paper and plastic material used in consumer packaging are scrambling to develop environmentally friendly products. Most R&D efforts are focused in the plastics industry.

“A huge variety [of paper products] are biodegradable just by the fact that they’re made from a plant and are still in a recognizable plant matter state,” says Jedlicka. “Paper is very, very recyclable, and should stay in that stream.”

The bigger challenge is how to turn bio resins, such as polyactic acid (PLA), into environmentally friendly packaging. Because it’s biodegradable, PLA appeals to the packaging industry. It is derived from the fermentation of agricultural products such as corn. However, PLA-based packaging has been hindered by performance deficiencies that include brittleness and decreased durability when compared to traditional petroleum-derived plastics.

“These newer materials face a much higher hurdle when it comes to wide market acceptance,” says SPC’s Johnson. “Because they’re still relatively new, they don’t have the same performance characteristics.”

“For the most part, the industry is turning the corner on these hurdles,” claims Innovia’s Cohn. “And reasons for change are becoming more evident because of high petroleum prices, scarcity of supply and negative environmental impact.

“The move might be slow to bio-based [packaging], but undoubtedly, the rate of change will be largely dependent on the cost and availability of oil-based resins that are currently used for the majority of flexible packaging films like polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate.

“Consumers, in general, like the basic concept of compostable products,” adds Cohn. “The added cost per individual pack is normally fairly small and more than likely acceptable to the consumer if they can easily dispose of the packaging within the waste stream with reduced disposal costs.”

While the industry still has a long way to go, Johnson says she is encouraged by recent developments. For instance, the plastics field has stepped up its efforts to develop bio-based materials that reduce petroleum use, life-cycle carbon emissions and overall weight. Unlike plastic made from petroleum, bioplastics are made from natural resins found in bamboo, coconut, corn, sugar cane and other plants.

“Some may believe that bio-based plastics perform poorly when compared to petroleum-based plastics, but with new technology, these issues have mostly been addressed,” claims Brian Igoe, vice president and chief brand officer at Metabolix Inc. (Cambridge, MA). The company markets a family of biodegradable plastics called Mirel. “For instance, heat resistance has long been an issue with biodegradable plastics, but the properties of Mirel overcome this, enabling it to withstand boiling water and use in microwaves.”

Even big players, such as Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, MI) and DuPont (Wilmington, DE), are actively pursing new plastics for use in packaging applications. For instance, Dow recently announced that it is building a facility in Brazil that will produce polyethylene from sugar cane. The company claims that the sugar cane-based polyethylene “will be fully recyclable using existing infrastructure.”

Demand for biodegradable plastic is expected to increase 20 percent annually between now and the end of this decade, according to a recent study conducted by the Freedonia Group Inc. (Cleveland). And, it will increase from 420 million pounds in 2010 to 844 million pounds by 2015.

Most experts claim that the new biomaterials will not affect traditional automated packaging equipment, such as blister packers, cartoners, case packers, palletizers, sealers and wrappers. “Our equipment should not have any problems handling biodegradable paper, provided it meets the normal voluntary industry standards,” says Bill Buck, marketing and applications project engineer at Schneider Packaging Equipment Co. (Brewerton, NY).