Ask anyone to define what makes a sustainable package, and you are likely to receive a lot of different answers.  There are so many people working on packaging and environmental issues, from sustainability personnel for major corporations, government staff, product designers, engineers, waste management specialists, oceans researchers and public interest advocates. Each one has their own set of criteria, upon which the “sustainability” of a given packaging material or package is assessed.

The most widely held North American definition for what makes a sustainable package was developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), “an industry working group dedicated to a more robust environmental vision for packaging.” According to the SPC, sustainable packaging:

  • Is beneficial, safe and  healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
  • Meets market criteria for both performance and cost;
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
  • Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
  • Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
  • Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle;
  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy;
  • Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.

Before I make the following observation, let me start by saying that the SPC and its coordinating organization GreenBlue do excellent work and are an important set of actors in developing and scaling up more sustainable packaging practices.  Their definition of sustainable packaging, which was developed through a lot of hard work and effective negotiating, covers most of the key environmental objectives and sets an industry standard for where we need to go.

While we understand that this is an aspirational definition, the central problem is that most packaging – developed and utilized by the 200+ SPC companies – does not come close to meeting it.  Beyond the hot-button issues of plastic bags and foam bans, and container deposit legislation, there has been little outside pressure to push these companies to create packaging systems that truly live up to these lofty goals.

When thinking about what makes a sustainable package, you can segment the issue into two types of packaging: 1) packaging made from materials that can readily be reused, recycled or composted (PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastic, steel, aluminum, paper, glass, etc.) and 2) everything else.

For the sake of illustrating a point, let’s assume that producers have reduced packaging as much as is technically feasible (something they should all be doing anyway).  For the first category – recyclable packaging –  the issue becomes how to ensure that at least 90% of the packaging is reused, recycled or composted.  Why 90%?  Because that’s the standard that has already been achieved in jurisdictions with container deposit laws, commonly referred to as bottle bills. These are mostly extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs that require beverage producers to finance the collection of their bottles and cans and use a financial incentive (the deposit) to encourage their consumers to participate.

Most people in the field agree that everything should be done to ensure that recyclable packaging – especially high-value recyclables like aluminum – are not wasted in landfills and incinerators. The issue comes down to how you pay for it, with most companies predictably advocating for government and taxpayers, or garbage ratepayers to foot the bill.  On the other side, you have many local governments and NGOs, and some packaging suppliers and recycling service providers, clamoring for producers to pay their fair share for recycling infrastructure and outreach and/or incentive programs to boost participation and recycling rates.

With the second category – everything else – (foam, plastic films, laminated pouches, etc.), you run into a different problem, namely that these packaging products are quite literally – garbage. Many consumer goods companies have moved some of their products out of more traditional, recyclable packaging materials like paperboard and steel to laminates and other lightweight, mostly plastic-based materials. Engineers conducting life-cycle analyses assert that these packaging products reduce the overall carbon footprint of the product because they are lighter and use less material – and subsequently less natural resources and energy – to package the product.  Some life cycle analyses, mostly conducted by consulting firms working on behalf consumer products companies or packaging suppliers, claim that shifting from a heavier, recyclable package to a lighter-weight, non-recyclable package that is then collected and burned in an incinerator is better for the environment.

This is the easy out for consumer goods companies. It’s cheaper; they can wash their hands of any post-consumer obligations for promoting recycling; and they get to promote “green” packaging. All this, while completely avoiding the real challenge of designing cradle to cradle systems for producing, using and reusing packaging. “Light-weighting” has become the first and last step of “sustainable” packaging.

While it is a good thing that producers are seeking to reduce the amount of packaging material they use and “light-weighting” has its appropriate place, moving away from a recyclable package to one that is essentially garbage violates the SPC’s definition and moves us in the wrong direction. 

Instead, consumer goods companies should redesign all non-recyclable packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable.  This allows us to focus on reusing, recycling and composting all the packaging that is out there, rather than dealing with garbage created by companies not living up to their own standards of what makes a sustainable package.

We can then focus our attention on two things: 1) packaging reduction through eliminating unnecessary packaging and promoting reusable and refillable packaging, and 2) the promotion and adoption of policies that get us to 90%+ utilization of all the reusable, recyclable, and/or compostable packaging that is left.

The question really shouldn’t be: what makes a sustainable package?  It should be: what makes a sustainable packaging system?  PacNext, a Canadian trade association focused on sustainable packaging, has the right vision in their tag line: “a world without packaging waste.”  Here are some quick thoughts for what consumer goods companies can do to achieve it:

1)     Redesign all packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable.

2)     Reduce unnecessary packaging and promote reusable packaging.

3)     Support policies that reuse, recycle or compost 90%+ of the packaging that is left.

I can imagine this world “without packaging waste,” and I think the road will be easier than we thought – if we’re willing to set aside half-measures and do what it takes to get there.