Exploring the Trade-Offs of Sustainable Packaging
By Julie Rice Suggs, Ph.D., and Alli Keigley
November 13, 2023
Innovative, sustainable packaging solutions seem to hit the market daily and are popular among large corporations, fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers, and packaging suppliers. These entities are proactively making bold commitments to improve the sustainability of their packaging while fundamentally rethinking their packaging systems.But we all know that saying is much easier than doing. Making shifts toward sustainable packaging will require significant changes in the way an organization conducts business. So, it is best that you involve the right people to evaluate a prospective process or technology.
Since we’re talking about sustainable packaging at its core, it’s important to first understand how it’s defined. We at the Packaging School have a three-step definition for sustainability: 1) The ideal package is made completely from post-consumer recycled materials; if that’s not possible, then 2) the package is made completely from materials that are easily recycled by the consumer; and if that’s not possible, then 3) the packaging reduces food/product waste. But how do you arrive at one or all of these packaging implementations? You need to start with the people, processes, and technologies that come into play when working sustainable packaging solutions into your current packaging system.
Creating sustainable packaging that aims to increase environmental efficiency without compromising functionality (e.g., preservation, protection, communication) is by no means a solo endeavor—it is a collaborative process that involves multiple stakeholders.
Clear communication needs to exist among product development, quality, your clients, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and ultimately, your end users. Keep in mind that most people are reluctant to embrace change. So, instead of stating and defending your idea, ask as many questions as possible to fully uncover liabilities, issues, and reluctance. Try to embrace resistance to fully tease out where issues exist. Once you have a better understanding of the speed bumps ahead, you can begin to optimize your path to deployment.
By leveraging collective expertise, creativity, and insights from your stakeholders, solutions can be crafted that are not only environmentally friendly but also commercially viable and technically feasible.
We could talk for hours about the processes required to make the change to sustainable packaging materials. At a high level, it’s important to think about material usage (reduce, reuse, recycle), energy, and waste, all while aiming to maximize the performance, functionality, and appeal of the updated packaged system. As far as materials are concerned, let’s walk through an example highlighting common material trade-offs for corrugated board.
When comparing virgin with recycled containers, it’s important to note that corrugated containers containing zero recycled content are very rare. When corrugated containers are said to be 100% virgin fiber, this typically refers to the facings of the board. The corrugated medium most often has some recycled content. Regardless, you should know what differentiates these two types of material.
Virgin fibers are longer than recycled fibers, and the longest of these fibers are produced by chemical pulping. In chemical pulping, chemicals are used to “cook” the fibers out of the wood (in contrast to mechanical pulping, which grinds the wood). Longer fibers interweave better, allowing for higher strength. Recycled fibers cannot completely duplicate the functional and aesthetic properties of virgin fibers because their fibers are shorter; however, numerous applications lend themselves to corrugated containers made from recycled content. Virgin material can be repulped after it has been disposed of—up to seven times before the fibers can no longer be reused. However, as you might imagine, repulping produces fibers that are shorter and weaker than those in the original material.
Naturally, using either type of corrugated presents its own set of benefits and limitations. So, let’s first take a look at a few of the benefits of recycled corrugated, then virgin corrugated.
Benefits of recycled corrugated:
- Environmentally friendly—reduces deforestation.
- Recycled—reused versus going to a landfill.
- Fills the consumer desire for sustainable materials.
Benefits of virgin corrugated:
- Fibers are longer and stronger than recycled counterparts.
- Holds up better against heat and moisture compared with recycled corrugated.
- Can be recycled by the end user after its first use.
As noted, both recycled and virgin corrugated also have limitations. Let’s take a look.
Limitations of recycled corrugated:
- Weaker than virgin material, which means it’s more susceptible to warping or crushing.
- Tape selection is more difficult—not all tapes adhere as well (and you can’t interweave as easily with shorter fibers).
- Inks may bleed or fail to penetrate when printed on.
Limitations of virgin corrugated:
- Not as eco-friendly as recycled—requires more deforestation.
When laid out in this fashion, it’s easier to see the trade-offs when choosing one material over another. Overall, it is the responsibility of the end user to decide whether virgin or recycled works best for their business.
Any new material should be tested for product protection. The International Safe Transit Association developed a sustainable packaging process guideline, which provides rationale for sustainable packaging, recommended sustainable packaging metrics, and a standardized process guidance (including recommended templates) for organizing and documenting a complete sustainable packaging development program.
When it comes to processes, sustainable packaging optimization is not linear but dynamic and iterative. When investigating new processes within your organization, it’s important to stay ahead of regulations, prototype and test your ideas, collect as much data as possible, and communicate changes internally and externally.
Technology plays a key role in helping us achieve a more sustainable future. We believe it is reasonable to assume that new materials will have lower supply and higher cost compared with traditional packaging materials. So when considering a new packaging technology, anticipate who might also benefit from the investment. Seek out internal and external stakeholders who have sustainability goals. For example, it’s possible someone in the marketing department has a budget to offset the difference in price if the environmental benefit has a marketable impact.
Technologies such as artificial intelligence are being used to reduce energy consumption, helping businesses make more informed decisions about their energy use. Many companies are also looking into modular machine concepts, which allow for flexible systems that can be tailored to the desired customer specifications. Packaging is ubiquitous—we interact with it constantly. As new technologies and tools become available for seemingly unrelated topics, take a moment to connect the dots between your project and emerging tech to find inspiration and resources.
And remember, it’s always best practice to collaborate. Because packaging touches everything and everyone, it’s wise to be proactive and lead the conversation versus reacting as your project evolves. Align with material and supply chain experts, quality control, and even line operators to develop solutions that are both machine-compatible and environmentally friendly. Moreover, it is important to take into account the full view of the packaging supply chain to be able to quantify your footprint—recognizing direct and indirect carbon impacts and weighing the pros and cons associated with each material choice or change.
Julie Rice Suggs, Ph.D., is academic director at the Packaging School. She can be reached at 330-774-8542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alli Keigley is production coordinator at the Packaging School. She can be reached at email@example.com.