How Does Sustainability Shape Packaging for 2010?

February 23, 2010

How Does Sustainability Shape Packaging for 2010?

by Eric Hartman, Product Ventures VP Technologies and Commercialization 

Priorities, it’s all a Matter of Priorities....

How many times have we all heard that line? As we start out the New Year it’s a good time to take a few steps back and think about consumers’ priorities and see where they will impact sustainability in packaging in 2010.

What priorities will consumers use to select products when they are standing at the shelf making a purchasing decision in the upcoming year? Will the perceived slow improvement in the economy mean that purse strings start to loosen and give way for consumers to spend more on “luxury” brands? Will a shortage of raw materials or resurgence in the price of oil increase raw material costs and lead to enhanced recycling efforts? Will consumers be bombarded with more levels of “greenwashing,” so much so that they start to get sick of hearing about the new corporate mantra of sustainability?

“Core” Packaged Good Trends for 2010:

At Product Ventures, through our consumer insights’ department, we have identified a number of “core” packaged goods trends for 2010. Among them, are a continuing rise in the popularity of products targeted at Gen Y consumers emphasizing simplicity of use and quick and easy results. Health and wellness continue to be important as is a need to know honestly and candidly what a package includes and what the ingredients may contain. There is also a growing importance for corporations to “give back” and to be mindful of their products effect on the environment. Ultimately consumers support companies who are attempting to be a part of the larger global community that initiates true sustainable packaging strategies for this generation and future ones as well.

How These Trends Will Impact Packaging Sustainability:

Let’s take a look at some of the basic tenants of packaging sustainability and see where opportunities lie... Packaging sustainability embraces a hierarchy of actions that brands should consider when implementing sustainable packaging initiatives. Paramount to this is the idea that the best way to make your product more sustainable is not to use a package in the first place. While the idea of no packaging seems to be a throwback to earlier times, the premise that too much packaging can be as bad as no packaging, has a ring of truth to it. Reducing the amount of packaging
that it takes to get a product from the point of origin into the consumers’ hands is one of the simplest things that businesses can do to increase their sustainability index. Unfortunately, there are limits to how far this can be taken and still insure that the products arrive at the point of use in good condition. In addition, there is a certain perceptional reality that manufacturers must face when light-weighting or removing packaging from products. If they go too far the consumer perceives the product to be “cheap” and low quality which impacts the perception of the brand and the importance placed on the inherent value of the package.

The Original 3 “R”s:  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Reducing Packaging:

In December of 2009, Nestle Waters announced its next-generation Eco-Shape bottle, the company’s latest step in an ongoing commitment to reduce plastic consumption across its brand portfolio. Weighing an average of 9.3gms, the bottle contains 25 percent less plastic than its predecessor and 60 percent less plastic than the company’s original, pre-Eco-Shape half-litre PET bottle, introduced in the mid-‘90s.

Reducing bottle weight, decreasing closure size, downsizing labels are all very good strategies to reduce material usage, but they can only go so far. Further reductions in bottle weight and closure size could make the product difficult for the consumer to hold and access, thereby reducing consumer satisfaction with the brand.

Another way of reducing packaging, which could be transparent to the consumer but more sustainable for the environment, could be through a move away from petrochemical derived materials towards bioplastics.

Overall plastic production in the US totaled approximately 101.5 billion pounds in 2008, of which only a small fraction was biobased. To make petrochemical based plastics,
the US uses between 5 and 10% of the oil it consumes, (roughly about 2 million barrels of oil per day). Oil is a finite resource. If functional plastics can be made from alternate raw materials the oil saved could be diverted to other more critical uses. Statements have been made that the development and production of biopolymers detracts from the world’s overall food supply. Currently the production of biopolymers focuses heavily on the use of corn as a feedstock. But the reality is that the amount of corn used for bioplastic production is still less than 1/10th of 1% of the annual global corn crop today.
Significant efforts are under way to utilize other non-food feedstocks for the production of bioplastics, thus eliminating the need to divert potential food sources to the manufacture and supply of packaging materials. We, as a society, need to focus on the development of systems that are derived from renewable resources and not continue to fool ourselves that- prolonging the use of systems based on finite ones is a viable solution to meet our current and future needs.

A second concern with the use of bioplastics comes from the end of life scenarios. It’s understood that currently bioplastics have the potential to contaminate the recycling stream for PET. While this is a valid concern, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. The application of technology to this issue can and will eventually provide a viable solution to material sorting. The reality is that most MRFs (Municipal Recycling Facilities) rely heavily on manual sorting to separate the material streams. As MRFs upgrade their systems to reduce labor costs and increase productivity, new systems incorporating better material differentiation capabilities should be implemented.

An advantage to some bioplastics that is not naturally present in petrochemical based systems is the ability for the materials to degrade via natural processes in a timely manner. Composting, more prevalent in Europe than the US, provides an alternative end of life option for packaging produced from some bioplastics.

Reuse and Transporting Water:

In the hierarchy of packaging sustainability, the reuse of a package is the second priority after all options to remove materials from the overall package system have been explored and/or exploited.

Many forms of packaging outlive the products that they contain. And even if they are made from sustainable materials they are still perfectly functional when their contents have been exhausted. The current trend in cleaning products towards 2x and 3x concentrates is a great step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. The reality is that even for these concentrated products, one of the major constituents is still water. It makes no sense for us to continue to waste resources moving water around in numerous product forms when viable sources of water exist for reconstitution of concentrated products, especially in the developed countries of the world where potable water is delivered directly into the home by a huge and growing, functional infrastructure. According to an August 2004 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, “Across the developing world, some 700 million people have gained a household connection to drinking water since 1990 - and helped the world reach a crucial tipping point. Now for the first time, more than half the globe’s people have drinking water piped into their homes”.

Refillable Keepsake Packages:

The development of refillable keepsake packages and concentrate refills should be a key component of a sustainable business strategy for a wide variety of products and brands. One of the current issues with refill packs is that they tend to be awkward to handle or require too many steps for the consumer to use. Given that Gen Y consumers are all about simplicity and ease of use, brand owners should focus on the development of convenient and intuitive refill “systems,” where the primary pack and the refill interface seamlessly and the consumer can begin to embrace the concept of refill-ability, as has been the case with the development of razors and replacement blade cartridges.

The development of keepsake articles or packages that seamlessly integrate with refill systems, save on resources required to manufacture and distribute and dispose of the packaging is where more sustainable development efforts are still required. The promotion and proliferation of these types of products can score big wins in sustainability for consumers, brand owners and the environment.

Recycling, the 3rd R, and the Most Misunderstood:

Recycling is the 3rd R in the hierarchy of sustainability and probably the one that has been most widely pursued but also most grossly misunderstood by the common consumer.

When brand owners have reduced all of the packaging materials that they can, and have developed systems that constitute refillable packs and concentrates, something still needs to be done with the package at the end of its functional life. Providing opportunities to recycle the empty container into either a replacement pack or into an alternative article is the choice for an appropriate end of life scenario in a sustainable packaging strategy.

Here in the US most consumers are familiar with the infamous “blue bin” and according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Association of Post- Consumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), consumers threw more than 2.4 billion pounds of recyclable plastic bottles into those “blue bins” during 2008. Unfortunately what consumers don’t know is that only a portion of what goes into single stream recycling programs using those “blue bins” actually gets recycled.

As noted earlier, most MRFs rely heavily on some type of manual sorting system, so only bottles or packages that are easily identifiable, sortable, have a critical mass, and, a viable commercial value are pulled from the recycling stream at the MRFs. The remaining materials are either landfilled or incinerated. The reality is that recycling is a business and like any “for profit” business, unless there is a financial value to be gained from providing a good or service, the business cannot continue to operate at a deficit before having to close down. The worldwide financial downturn starting in the fall of 2008 resulted in plummeting product prices for all recyclable post-consumer commodities (paper, plastics, steel, etc.). Plastics recyclers experienced severely reduced demand, excessive inventory, and liquidity issues. Not uniquely, plastic bottle recycling was severely impacted with export demand plunging and disrupted commercial relationships, resulting in a steep decline in prices for bales of bottles for both PET and HDPE. Plastic bottle recycling is not just a local or even domestic industry, but an international one with bales being imported and exported to meet commercial needs.

In December of 2008, the New York Times published an article; Back at Junk Value, Recyclables Are Piling Up, which pointed out that the economic downturn had decimated the market for recycled materials like cardboard, plastic, newspaper and metals. It noted that across the country, this junk was accumulating by the ton in the yards and warehouses of recycling contractors, which were unable to find buyers or were unwilling to sell at rock- bottom prices.

The scrap market, in general, is closely tied to economic conditions because demand for some recyclables tracks closely with markets for new products. One reason prices slid so rapidly was that demand from China, the biggest export market for recyclables from the United States, quickly dried up as the global economy slowed. China’s influence is so great that in recent years recyclables have been worth much less in areas of the United States that lack easy access to ports that can ship product direct to China. The downturn offered some insight into the forces behind the recycling boom of recent years. Environmentally conscious consumers have been able to pat themselves on the back and feel good about sorting their recycling and putting it on the curb. But most recycling programs have been driven as much by raw economics as by activism.

Cities and their contractors made recycling easy in part because there was money to be made. Businesses too— like grocery chains and other retailers — profited by recycling thousands of tons of materials like cardboard each month. But the drop in prices made the profits shrink, or even disappear, undermining one rationale for recycling programs and their costly infrastructure. Because of this economic reality, it is important that companies or governments make efforts to insure an ongoing market for, and a consistent source of supply of, recycled materials

Corporate Responsibility for Sustainable Packaging Strategies:

On the corporate responsibility front, both Coca-Cola and Aveda have set up programs to insure that there will be an ongoing supply of recycled materials for them to use as part of their sustainable packaging strategies. In January 2009, the Coca-Cola Company and United Resource Recovery Corporation (URRC) joined government leaders and environmental experts to celebrate the grand opening of the world’s largest plastic bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in Spartanburg, S.C. As part of the celebration, Coca-Cola announced the launch of a multi-million dollar marketing effort supporting recycling called “Give it Back.” Not only did this campaign help to educate consumers further about recycling, it helped Coke to insure that it would have a stable and secure supply of recycled material for use in sustainable packaging efforts for years to come.

In 2008, Aveda launched the Aveda Vintage Clove Shampoo container using a closure made from 100% PCR Polypropylene. When Aveda decided to create new caps from the old ones,
it had to start its own recycling program since a good infrastructure for PP recycling does not exist here in the US.

Today, more than 600 schools and youth organizations nationwide, along with a number of Aveda salons and Experience Center retail stores, are enrolled in the company’s Cap Collection Program. Since 2008, the program has collected more than 150,000 lb of plastic, or roughly 17 million closures, which have been cleaned, ground, and processed into new caps.

Governmental Responsibility to Contribute to the 3 “R”s:

In addition to the actions that corporations can take to recycle material, governments must play a greater role in divorcing the success of recycling from economics and in funding the development of technology to aid in the collection and sorting of a wider variety of materials. If we depend on market forces alone to drive sustainability through recycling we will never be successful. If governments can support transportation infrastructures like Amtrak or national airlines, then they must make the same type of investments in supporting the development of the technology and the infrastructure to insure that minimal packaging material actually gets thrown “away”. Disposal of materials essentially translates into a waste of resources that could be converted into viable economic goods at a lower economic and environmental cost than production of the materials constituted in the first place. And, in the end the materials never really go “away”.

Adding 2 “C”s to 3 “R”s:
Consumer Communication

In addition to embracing the hierarchy of the 3R’s when developing a sustainable packaging strategy, there are two very large “C”s that brands need to consider in order to convince the consumer at the shelf to choose their product over a competitor. This fourth tenant is embracing honesty in communicating to the consumer what is and is not sustainable about the brand and the product.

According to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media, including TV, internet, sales promotions and direct marketing; complaints about the misuse of green terminology in advertisements increased dramatically in recent years. In 2006, the ASA received 117 complaints about environmental claims in 83 advertisements. In 2007 there were 561 complaints about 410 different advertisements! The most common claims being challenged were those that referred to carbon reduction, cradle to grave lifecycle scenarios and green energy sources. In a recent study by the Shelton Group, an advertising agency in Knoxville, Tennessee, there was a significant jump in the number of people who said they’d both stop buying a product and lobby friends and family to do the same, if they were told something was green that turned out not to be. Unfortunately this creates a bit of a quandary for the average consumer: The Shelton Group’s studies have shown that shoppers really don’t know how to define what a green product is. They don’t trust manufacturers to tell the truth about how green their products are, but they are turning to manufacturers because they don’t really have anyone else to turn to. Thus, they’re trusting people that they don’t particularly want to, and they are ready to pounce if that trust is violated. But, this does create an opportunity for manufacturers. Those who really do insure that they build sustainability into their business practices and their packaging have nothing to fear when they make sustainable claims. In fact, it’s in their best interest, to treat their customers honestly and promote their environmental stewardship.

Consumers today are looking for brands that care about them and about the environment. They want simplicity, but they still want functionality and convenience. They want to know that the products they are using are not wasteful and that when they are done with the package that the products comes in it is not going to be entombed in a landfill or end up floating in the ocean somewhere as a part of an island of trash. They want truth in messaging and they want companies to stand up and take responsibility for the packaging they create and its fate.

As a Brand owner, embracing sustainability is no longer a choice, it’s a reality and a growing component of a successful brand strategy. Sustainability requires vision and commitment, to not only chose the right materials but to help develop the infrastructure to produce them or insure their ongoing supply. Brand owners and corporations must also push government to establish standards and incentivize sustainable system development. Sustainability is not a quick win; it’s a commitment for the long term health of society and of our planet.

At the end of the day it still all comes down to priorities. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Communicate- Honestly!


Eric Hartman is the Director of Packaging Technologies and Commercialization for Product Ventures.
Contact Eric at 203.319.1119 or

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