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Mission: Packaging 2016 – Challenge Five: Sustainability in Packaging

by | Jun 16, 2016 | Mission Packaging

Did you celebrate Earth Day on April 22?

Events and celebrations were held worldwide to support the environmental protection of our planet. But really, the Earth is something many people take into consideration every day.

Many businesses are also choosing to do their parts – whether reducing, reusing and/or recycling or simply making better – more sustainable – choices throughout the product life cycle.

Here are a few examples that have caught our attention:

For their fifth challenge, we asked the Mission: Packaging students to go “green,” so to speak. They were challenged to conduct some research, talk to their peers, ask packaging pros in their network, or even look at examples of companies doing it right – or wrong…to determine what sustainability in packaging means to them, to businesses and to our future.

Anna: Changing the Face of the Industry

One of the hottest topics within the packaging industry has been sustainability and it will continue to be a source for discussion for the next several decades until it is engrained in our minds, everyday lives, and cultures. Over the past 15 years, we have seen a significant push for sustainability within the packaging industry as well as other industries. First, what is sustainability and who and what does it include?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, sustainability is defined as “the practice of using products and methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources.” Taking this definition and applying it to the packaging industry requires focusing on the package’s life cycle, from harvesting resources all the way to the recycling facility or landfill. In order to apply true sustainability practices to packaging, we have to look at the bigger picture. Although we can create a package that can be reused over and over again, we run into an issue if we cause damage when harvesting resources or when we can’t recycle or dispose of the packaging due to the material makeup. Another point to keep in mind is the fact that when a product or material is used over and over again, it does lose some of its properties. Having said this, there is a structural concern when we reuse packaging materials because the corrugate box that is fresh off of the production line performs differently than the box that has been in storage for months and is then reused. While the industry is working with several materials and techniques in order to determine an eco-friendly, cost-effective packaging material that provides the structural strength products need, it will take time and money.

The long-term intention of being a company that has a high level of sustainability is a lofty and expensive goal. The capabilities that lead toward being a sustainability company are out there, but it means companies will have to invest either in equipment, technologies, or materials that have high startup costs to them as they are not predominately used or in demand today. The move to a more sustainable industry will be dependent on either one large company or a group of companies that decide to take the impact of investing in the equipment necessary. The companies that do decide to take the leap will feel the pain when looking at their bottom line in the short-term view, but in the long-term, they could change the face of the industry as we know it today.

Garrett: A Current Take on Sustainability

To be honest, I had no real current knowledge on the topic of sustainability in packaging that was within the last 3 or so years. So I asked around.  My peer, Mitch Zurn, with whom I play football and is also in a lot of my packaging classes, just finished up a general elective sustainability class. It was taught by who, he said, was “one of the most intelligent teachers he has ever had.” And who I later interviewed for this challenge.

She is an adjunct professor named Wendy Jedlicka and has quite an extensive rap sheet. Without going into her education, she is a consultant for companies, educator of students, large group speaker, a columnist and an author.

Wendy and I spoke on the phone for an extensive amount of time regarding the very broad topic of sustainability. We touched on topics ranging from the banning of clamshell packaging to self-sustaining countries in the near future. The best part about our conversation was that it all falls under the “sustainability” category.  After all, sustainability is the endurance of systems and processes, including the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture.

On to the topic at hand: what does packaging sustainability mean to me? I think it can all be wrapped up into one long sentence: Packaging sustainability is using both the entire biosphere process and cost benefit analysis in order to best fit both long term and immediate goals for your company; using up-to-date technology, ideas, processes and designs so our kids and grandkids have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe.

In addition to my definition, I wanted to share a few facts that I picked up on during our discussion:

  1. Most design packaging engineers are designing their packages backwards. Starting with protecting the item fully then reducing the material. It should be the other way around – starting with no packaging, then adding materials in order to protect the package.
  2. The original five R’s of sustainable packaging, Wendy said, “should be like showering in the morning.” Laughing to herself, “that is the bare minimum, should come completely natural to the designers.”
  3. People need to position themselves for not only the short term, but also the long term. In not only the design of the packaging, but also the raw materials and the waste.
  4. In general, ideas like 100% self-sustaining populations are not as far-fetched anymore. Cities in Germany and Japan are close when it comes to reusable energy.  Packaging will be shortly behind.

Eric: Sustainability is a Hot Topic

Sustainability and the impact we have as consumers on our environment have become increasingly important topics in our society – and world. How our choices affect the environment has engaged individuals, universities, corporate executives, and national leaders in lively discussions.

With respect to product packaging, there has been a significant spotlight around “green” packaging or, in other words, packaging that is environmentally friendly or minimally impactful on the environment. How we as individuals, as well as organizations, respond to the growing number and significance of sustainability efforts will impact our environmental footprint in the coming decades.

In 2006, Wal-Mart released a packaging scorecard to suppliers in an effort to reduce packaging on a global scale. “Wal-Mart’s packaging scorecard 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:’ Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Renew, Revenue, and Read.”

  • Remove refers to eliminating all unnecessary packaging.
  • Reduce refers to utilizing material strength and reducing the overall size and footprint of a package.
  • Creating packaging that can be Reused, including packaging components such as pallets and containers, accounts for the third R.
  • Recycling materials after their life cycle is an important fourth aspect of this scorecard.
  • Renew refers to renewable materials, when possible, to be used in packaging.
  • Revenue relates to the cost saving aspect involved with packaging sustainability efforts.
  • The last R, Read, is often seen as the most important. Becoming and staying educated on sustainability efforts, opportunities, and how you can be a part of the solution is a key role in the continuous effort toward improved sustainability.

In order to make a package sustainable, its entire life cycle has to be analyzed. This applies to raw materials sourcing, manufacturing, the end of the package life options, and everything in-between. OftenEric Missiontimes, the manufacturing of raw materials can have a greater environmental impact than the disposal of a package and brings up questions about renewable vs. nonrenewable resources.

Once raw materials are obtained, the next step is the manufacturing of the package. Looking into the package’s design, amount of material used, and efficiency during the manufacturing process are all areas that require assessment and attention.

Examining a package’s end of life potential can further impact a package’s image. Is it recyclable or reusable, does it create solid waste, or is it biodegradable or compostable are a few of the many questions that are brought up when considering a package’s life-after-use.

Some companies have even begun marketing alternative creative uses to their packages once the primary purpose has been served.

Mankind’s effect on the global environment has never been greater, which has proven that going “green” should no longer be an idea, but rather a reality. As today’s societies and growing populations have stressed global resources more than ever before, it is imperative that sustainability solutions are implemented.

The packaging industry is uniquely positioned today to play a leading role in demonstrating to the world that “green” is no longer a fad, but a necessity for future generations.



Wal-Mart Unveils “Packaging Scorecard” to Suppliers. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., n.d. Web. Accessed: 31 May 2016

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