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What Is Sustainable Packaging Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 3092 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this section I am looking at current views and definitions of the industry on sustainable packaging. An article from the Sustainable Packaging Alliance claims that:

“There is no clear understanding internationally, about what constitutes ‘ sustainable packaging’. Policy initiatives have tended to focus on resource and waste reduction and recycling, for example the current European Packaging Directive.” (Sustainable Packaging Alliance, 2002) This is backed up by the Federal Trade Commission who justifies this with the fact that sustainable packaging is a fairly new factor for the environmental considerations for packaging. (Environmental Marketing Claims, 2011) There are a few approaches here that are worth considering to define sustainable packaging.

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Sustainable packaging is defined by The World Commission on Environment and Development as: “Developments that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) What they are meaning by this is sustainable packaging can only be sustainable if at the last stage of the design cycle when the packaging has fulfilled its primary function the user can reuse the packaging for a secondary function which this in turn will decrease the environmental and ecological footprint.

Jedlicka (2009) believes that you just can’t tunnel vision yourself down to the final product you have to have a look at the whole picture of supply chains; from simple design functions, to marketing and all the way through to the conclusion of its life cycle then back to its rebirth.

The European Commission talks about how “sustainable packaging will require more analysis and documentation to look at the actual package design, the materials that are used and the whole picture of the packaging’s life cycle.” (Environmental Marketing Claims, 2011) Bolyston (2009) has a different view and he belives that sustainable packaging dependant on the amount of sustainable energy used in each stage of the packaging’s life cycle. The term ‘life cycle’ means the product goes through a series of stages that mold and develop the product. The life cycle would consider all of the factors from the raw materials to how its manufactured, leading onto how its distributed which finally guides it to the use and disposal of it. Throughout all of these stages there would be various transport methods used to move the product onto its next stage. To summarize all of these steps and stages is called the life cycle of the product.

It is essential to look at the life cycle of packaging in order to ascertain areas and opportunities in which the packaging’s sustainability can be improved. Figure 8 is a diagram of the packaging’s life cycle from The Sustainable Packaging Coalition; this diagram aims to provide guidelines and principles for the development of sustainable packaging. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition claim that they have set themselves the mission to advocate and communicate a positive robust environmental option for sustainable packaging through functional packaging materials and systems that endorse economic and environmental supply chains.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition characterizes sustainable packaging as follows:

Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy

Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy

Meets market criteria for performance and cost

Maximizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials

Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle

Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and or industrial closed loop cycles

Is made from materials healthy in all probable end of life scenarios

Are manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices.

(Sustainable Packaging Coalition, 2010)

Figure 8. Diagram of packaging product life cycles

The diagram above shows the process and steps involved for packaging. It starts at the raw materials and goes to the end user. Each step in this cycle requires a form of energy but according to Boylston there are ways to cut this and reduce the amounts used. Sustainability relies on lots of different factors involved at each of these stages; these factors need to be identified in order to address them with the correct measures. For example if we look at stewardship, this is vital for helping to safeguard the environment and protecting the employees that are extracting the materials. The less distance the materials can travel in the life cycle the better, because this will mean it has taken less petrol on transportation. If we look at another aspect of using renewable energy at each stage this will add to make the packaging more sustainable. Reusability and recycling systems or compostability of packaging can additionally enhance sustainability. (Boylston, 2009)

Figure 9. Diagram of packaging’s upstream and downstream impacts.

If we take a look at the packaging product life cycle in a linear view we can additionally distinguish between upstream impacts from the extraction of the raw materials until the packaging is passed across to the consumer which is the downstream impacts, these are considered to be the impacts that occur through using the packaging and the steps leading to the end of its life. An example of this is the amounts of energy required for the recycling process at the end of the packaging’s life. The different recycling methods used are composting, littering, and other possibilities are waste-to-energy plants which means energy can be produced again from the waste product.

A life cycle assessment is commonly used as a tool to analyse the life cycle of packaging. The aim of a life cycle assessment is to compare the full range of social and environmental damages, which can be identified to products or services, so least troublesome one, can be selected. There are lots of different types of life cycle assessments know with different scopes. The scope varies from cradle to gate to cradle to cradle approaches and furthermore there are types such as the LCA process that addresses the environmental inputs and outputs compared to other approaches that address the economic inputs and outputs.

Now that I have described the packaging life cycle, we furthermore need to mention that companies such as 3M or Wal-Mart are currently developing their own definition or guide lines that drive sustainable packaging within their supply chain. Wal-Mart claims, its primary target is to be packaging neutral by 2025, this means that all packaging recovered or recycled at their stores will be equal to the amount of packaging used by the products in the shelves. Wal-Mart has introduced a set of guiding principles called the “Seven R’s” to help them achieve their target. These Principles are: Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Renew(able), Recycle(able), Revenue and Read. Relative to this Wal-Mart have introduced a packaging scorecard, this is a measurement tool that “allows suppliers to evaluate themselves relative to other suppliers, based on specific metrics. The metrics in the scorecard evolved from a list of favorable attributes announced earlier this year, known as the “7 R’s of Packaging”. (Wal-Mart, Scorecardmodeling.com, 2009)

3M uses Packaging criteria in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, this is much the same as Wal-Mart. 3M have set minimizing packaging waste as there top aim and they are have now realised that the most waste is coming from unused raw materials, this is not just bad for the environment but is not very economical. 3M began by attempting to eliminate as much waste as possible through pollution prevention, and then the remaining waste was reused, recycled, converted to energy, or incinerated to create new energy.

Regardless of the packaging life cycle assessment, there are related analytical methodologies such as ecological footprint, which is calculated by comparing the biological resources available in a given region to resource demands of a population. The network of users of the Global Footprint Network has developed standards. The standards are available on footprintnetwork.org in order to help to address calculation nuances, including conversions, measure of land/sea parcels, addressing nuclear power, varying data sources, import/export data and biodiversity among others. (Global Footprint Network, 2012) Another well-known footprint is the carbon footprint, which represents a subset of the ecological footprint and of the more comprehensive life cycle assessment.

Laws and Regulations that effect packaging?

Regulations are there to give companies a target or a direction to head towards. There is directive 94/62/EC set by European Commission Environment that is “aimed to harmonize packaging waste, on the one hand trying to stop or prevent the damage of packaging to the environment and on the other hand they don’t want to restrict or distort the competition within the community.

It also contains provisions on the prevention of packaging waste, on the re-use of packaging and on the recovery and recycling of packaging waste.” (European Parliament and Council Directive, 2010) These regulations or directives have focused on waste reduction and resources but they have failed to look at the social impacts of packaging.

Boylston points out that we have a bigger problem to overcome before we more towards more sustainable packaging and that is with today’s companies growing in size there is an inclination towards specializing, this only breaks up the different departments and isolates them. So the different department end up very incoherent with each other so they lose the connectivity between all the sectors. An example of this would be the packaging designer working next to the graphic designer, this is so they can communicate and work as a team.


Sustainable packaging relies upon the correct material choices. I will be conducting an investigation to look at the quantities of packaging waste along with the variety of materials that end up as waste. In addition to this I will expand and do further research on paper and plastics.

Looking at the solid waste report from 2010 from the European Environmental Agency it is clear to me that out of 250 million tons of waste 30% is from containers and packagings and this is before recycling. The second pie chart indicates that paper and plastics biggest supplies to waste.

Figure 10

Figure 11

The recycling and composting of packaging prevented 85.1 million tons of material away from being disposed of 2010, up from 15 million tons in 1980. This prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air this is the equivalent to taking 36 million cars off the road for a whole year! (European Environmental Agency, 2013)

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The consumption of paper on a global scale is more than 350 million tons per year, that is a massive 1 million tons per day and if it takes roughly 17 trees to make one ton of paper. So its not unpredictable that the paper industry are accountable for about 40% of commercial harvesting of wood, and now trying to terrorize the last few rainforests which contain and provide a habitat for the endangered species. Jedlicka states, “The paper industry is the fourth largest greenhouse gas contributor among manufacturers and a huge consumer of energy. Furthermore the paper production is associated with toxic bleaching procedures.” (Jedlicka, 2009)

The benefits far outrun the bad points of paper. Paper is a very versatile material; this is why it is used for packaging. The added benefits for using paper as packaging is its lightweight and easily printed on and yet it can do all this and still be durable and are easily recycled. There are more alternatives for what paper can be made from it doesn’t have to be wood it can be made of hemp, kenaf straw, switch grass and it can be made from a variety or pulped fibers from plants.

As bloylston describes about the massive quantities of paper that out there in the world, all of which require a high level of post-consumer waste (PWC) paper stock choices should entail the biggest priority. Paper can be recycled up to seven times. (Bolyston, 2009)

One tonne of recycled paper will save seventeen trees, seven thousand gallons of water, three cubic metres of landfill space, two barrels of oil and four thousand one hundred kilowatts of electricity. The recycled paper uses sixty percent less energy to produce then ordinary paper; the energy saved would be enough to run the average home for six months. (Statistics from Recycle bank.com, 2013)

In order for there to be more paper packaging, the designers have to support this. The Environmental Protection Agency has made some recommendations which will help to make packaging more sustainable, these recommendations are to use less material, eliminating toxic constituents and making it more readily recyclable (Environmental Protection Agency, 2013)


Plastic packaging plays a huge role in today society, you can see this when walking around supermarkets and the selves are full of plastic containers. The word plastic is the common name given to the synthetic organic polymers. As defined plastics are usually made from high polymer mass’ they can contain other materials to make it cheaper or to improve its performance.

There are two main types of plastic, thermosetting and thermoplastics. Thermosetting plastics can only be heated up and shaped once; because once they go cold they stay solid. Unlike Thermoplastics, which soften and melt when around enough heat, these can be shaped multiple times when heat is applied.

Jedlika says that plastics have many benefits such as it is lightweight, durable, provides a gas and moisture barrier and can sometimes retain its recycling value. (Jedlika, 2009) The reason plastics are so popular is because it’s versatile and easy to manufacture with it is also is unaffected by water. A down side to plastic is the additives used can make the plastic toxic and materials flow is for downcycling instead of true recycling.

The recycling rate of plastic has stabilized at around 25%, but this isn’t an adequate amount compared to the amount that is newly produced. One ton of recycled plastic will save about five thousand seven hundred and seventy four Kilowatt-hours of energy, six hundred and eighty five gallons of oil and about thirty pounds of air pollutants. (Statistics from Recycling Bank, 2013)

There is a new alternative to petrol-based plastics, which is more environmentally friendly plastic called bioplastics. These plastics are biodegradable and are created from renewable sources such as potatoes or beets and corn. Boylston argues, “nevertheless, bioplastics also need the facilities for collection and must not derive from needed food sources” (Boylston, 2009)

There is a huge quantity of materials that could be used for packaging. There is so much information about new packaging materials and the different technologies available that there are dedicated websites and forums full of up to date information and regulations.

To wrap up this section I have come to the conclusion that sustainable packaging is not just about the materials its made from but you have to look at the bigger picture just as Jedlika states ” If a designer just picks a random material out of his or her list of “magic green materials” and doesn’t actually know why the material is environmentally friendly, or even how it is applied correctly, then the replaced material can cause impacts far worse.” (Jedlika, 2009)

Case studies and Primary research

I have selected to do my case studies on these companies because they show how different sized sectors either contribute or counteract sustainable packaging. The aim of this section is not to compare to determine a 100% sustainable packaging but to look how their business delivers profitable value, the environmental improvements and customer satisfaction.

Firstly, Waitrose supermarkets are a food retailer in England; they have been part of The John Lewis Partnership since 1937, the first Waitrose supermarket opened in 1955. Waitrose is one of England’s leading supermarket retailers employing over 37,000 people. Waitrose has a total of 280 branches throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Locations range from high streets to the edge of towns; the stores vary in size too. The company is dedicated to offering quality, value and customer service. In terms of packaging Waitrose has aimed to reduce food packaging by fifty percent by 2016/17, based on like for like usage since 2005. (John Lewis partnership.co.uk, 2012)

Secondly, Innocent is a drinks company based in England and was founded in 1999. The companies main business is from making fruit smoothies, a selection of fruit juices and vegetable pots, all of these products are all sold in a wide range of supermarkets and tearooms nationally. Considering the company started at a music festival, they have grown substantially over the years and are now expanding into the European market. They have set their targets high when trying to be sustainable; they have achieved this by infusing sustainability into the packaging from the beginning. The company also likes to act ethically in all areas of the company. (Innocent drinks, 2012)


Within the argument of this dissertation I have tried to produce an evenhanded discourse on the implications of sustainable packaging with both positive and negative views.

The research has indicated that there is enough evidence for sustainable packaging to be used in companies furthermore it will also benefit the environment and society.

The research question I set out to answer was is sustainable packaging viable given the current economic and political climate.


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