Judging by the Cover: The Importance of Sustainable Packaging

Packaging is one of the many aspects of running a sustainable business, with some sustainable businesses even manufacturing products that are packaged unsustainably. Many household products — toothpaste tubes, pizza boxes, shampoo bottles — are often made from unrecyclable materials.

Unsustainable packaging can be detrimental to a company’s sustainability reputation. Packaging is the first thing that consumers see and can influence their buying behavior. Unsustainable packaging can make environmentally-conscious consumers decide against even the most sustainable products.

Why do companies fail to package their products sustainably? When it comes to packaging, companies usually have two questions to consider. First, how will it attract consumers to their product? Second, how much will it cost? Attractive and economical packaging is not always sustainable. Styrofoam containers, cellophane wrappers and blister packs may be convenient and inexpensive, but may also be resource-intensive and wasteful.

Why Implement Sustainable Packaging?

Sustainable packaging may seem to be an additional expense. If the actual product is sustainable, why should the packaging also be sustainable? Following are benefits of sustainable packaging:

Resource Conversion

Conventional packaging materials can be resource-intensive and wasteful. Plastic production made up about 2.7% (equal to roughly 191 million barrels of HGL) of the US’ total petroleum consumption in 2010 . Producing a single cubic foot of Styrofoam requires about 1.5 liters of petroleum . This is the same amount a 20-mpg car needs to travel 8 miles.

In sharp contrast, sustainable packaging maximizes the use of recycled materials and low-impact production processes, thereby conserving raw materials. Conserving raw materials, in turn, preserves natural resources for future generations.

Human Health and Safety

Conventional packaging materials pose several health and safety risks unlike materials used in sustainable packaging. Exposure to Styrofoam can cause health problems for workers, such as skin and eye irritation, respiratory ailments, headache, fatigue, depression and kidney failure . Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic used to store beverages, contains antimony , a toxic metalloid. Antimony exposure can lead to nausea, diarrhea and stomach ulcers .

On the other hand, sustainable packaging minimizes exposure to potentially toxic and hazardous chemicals. Packaging crates made out of agricultural waste (rice hull, corn fiber, straw, etc.) are safer than Styrofoam crates. Food packaging made from unbleached natural paper offers reduced exposure to bleach, inks and dyes. Healthy and safe workers and consumers equate to greater profitability, with reduced work-related illnesses and injuries, and greater customer loyalty.

Business Continuity

Companies need raw materials in order to produce goods and services. Factories need clean water to operate and, to thrive, farms need arable land to till. Given their resource-intensive nature, conventional packaging materials are known to rapidly deplete natural resources. This depletion results in fewer raw materials for future products and services. Since sustainable packaging conserves natural resources, it ensures more raw materials for future products and services, leading to improved business continuity and a sustainable business.

Qualities of Sustainable Packaging

Some consumers support companies because of their reputation for sustainable products and services. They may not realize that packaging is a vital component in that product’s sustainability. Hence, it is extremely important that consumers are aware of the qualities of genuinely sustainable packaging. A company that is truly committed to sustainability will make sure that its sustainable products are also packaged sustainably.

Ensures Individual and Community Health and Safety

Sustainable packaging minimizes exposure to potentially toxic and hazardous chemicals. ConAgra Foods, Inc. announced in July 2015 that its US and Canada facilities are no longer using BPA-lined cans . Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that is used in manufacturing polycarbonate plastics (water and infant bottles, medical devices, CDs) and epoxy resins (bottle tops, food cans and water supply pipes). Studies show that human exposure to BPA increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, miscarriage, breast and prostate cancer, and psychological disorders in children .

After extensive research and testing, ConAgra was able to develop a suitable alternative. In 2015, it partnered with the Ardagh Group to develop non-BPA cans that have polyester and acrylic coating systems. This innovation promotes sustainable packaging by eliminating a carcinogenic substance which, in the long run, can help reduce the US cancer rate.

Utilizes Recycled Materials

Sustainable packaging aims to reduce a company’s carbon footprint and resource consumption. One way is by using recycled materials. In 2014, personal care products giant Colgate-Palmolive engaged in a dialogue with shareholder advocacy group As You Sow (AYS) regarding sustainable packaging. In the same year, Colgate-Palmolive committed to make the packaging of three of four of its product categories 100% recyclable by 2020 . To achieve this goal, the company agreed to increase the amount of recycled versions of key packaging materials (PET, polypropylene and paper pulp) in its products by 50% .

Employs Sustainable Business Practices

In addition to ensuring sustainable packaging, the packaging materials must also be produced sustainably. This means clean technologies and best practices are maximized, and appropriate safety controls are implemented throughout the production process.

An example is HP’s straw-based packaging , which is also manufactured sustainably. Compared with traditional manufacturing methods, its production consumes 40% less energy and 90% less water, and emits 25% less carbon dioxide . Straw-based packaging is also lighter than conventional wood-based molded pulp, so shipping costs are cheaper.

Most notably, HP’s straw-based packaging has become a sustainable source of livelihood for Chinese farmers . They view straw waste as a cash crop rather than refuse that should be burned to make way for the next harvest.

Realizes Manufacturers’ Needs for Performance and Cost

Focusing on sustainable packaging should not be at the expense of product quality and cost. A particular food product may be packaged sustainably, but how can one reconcile this with the packaging breaking easily or being too expensive? Fragile packaging can make food more susceptible to the elements including contamination (increasing the risk of food-borne diseases) and damage (increasing the risk of food waste). If packaging is too expensive, the manufacturer might opt to use conventional packaging instead.

In 2011, Austrian packaging company Mayr-Melnhof Karton (MM Karton) introduced FOODBOARD , a barrier cardboard that can protect food from contamination and mineral oil migration. FOODBOARD is made from recovered fibers, which renders it more environmentally-friendly than its virgin fiber-based counterparts. This kind of innovation promotes the use of sustainable packaging as a sustainable business practice.

In addition to viewing packaging as a means to cut down operational costs, manufacturers should use it as a means to promote the sustainability of their product. When it comes to revenues and customer patronage, first impressions do matter.

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS) is a leading sustainability solutions provider with expertise in carbon management . FCS works with clients to identify and implement sustainable business practices that will reduce their environmental impact and improve their bottom line.