Sustainability: What's the buzz?

April 1, 2007
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Sustainability: What’s The Buzz?
By Aaron L. Brody

If the pundits are to be followed, we’re on the threshold of a sustainable packaging revolution.
But what exactly is sustainability?
In short, it is the concept of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability maximizes the use of renewable and recyclable materials, encourages waste reduction and resource conservation, reduces dependence on non-renewable resources and recovers materials biologically.
Sustainability compels us to look far beyond petroleum energy sources to solar, hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal and wind energy; towards compostable and biodegradable package materials; and to plastics that can be reused forever.
To be sustainable, packaging should use clean production technologies; conserve raw materials, water and energy; eliminate toxins and waste; reduce human health risks; reduce the environmental impact; increase efficiencies and, ultimately, reduce costs.
Such packaging is engineered to optimize materials and energy—supported by the assertion that 70 percent of the impact of the material is determined during the design phase. As such, consideration must be accorded upfront to the lifecycle of the package, and to consumer behavior and their effect on established recovery systems.
This is where brand marketers and their package design and development teams have the opportunity to consider concepts like eco-efficiency, the idea of doing more with less. This concept suggests materials that disintegrate instead of littering the environment, placing the burden of proper disposal on the material itself. This is also the stage where brand teams should consider designing for the environment and for disassembly (to aid recyclability of various material types) and embedding the idea of source reduction in their development strategies.
Sustainable packaging advocates what has become known as a cradle-to-cradle lifecycle, which embraces the notion that all things on this planet are renewable and there should be no waste of energy or mass.
In this theory, package manufacture takes precedence over distribution to retail and consumers who acquire and use the contained product. A spent package is recovered and is inputted into a technical nutrient flow (recycling or reuse) or a biological nutrient flow (composting or resource growth). The output of this recovery effort enters into new raw material processing, which in turn feeds the manufacture of package material—starting the entire cycle again with no losses.
Sustainability fosters the thought that all materials—not just packaging materials—are the object of perpetual reuse and recycling. Advocates suggest that packagers procure “green” package materials: paper from recycling mills; pulp trays from palm fiber; edible starch-based trays and cups; and the newer and more intriguing bio-based plastics.
But a cradle-to-cradle lifecycle also reduces the overall use of finite resources and minimizes waste—with an ultimate goal of zero waste—by using an efficient recovery infrastructure. The entire supply chain includes economically viable systems to incorporate:
• Biological recovery: managed composting to recover the nutrient value of basic biological materials such as paper, paperboard and wood;
• Technical recovery: recycling and reusing, to recapture value of materials such as glass and metal;
• Energy recovery: through waste to energy, to recover value from spent package materials.
These concepts imply that all of us, not just package manufacturers or brand owners, are responsible for eco-efficiency because we all share this planet. Of course, someone must manage the entire system—not the government but, rather, business organizations that initiate the use of mass and energy.
With ecological intelligence, all consumers of energy and materials can be conscious of our obligation to leave the planet the same, if not cleaner and more abundant, than as it was the moment we were born.
Benefits of sustainable packaging:
• Safe and healthy to society
• Meets market criteria for performance and economics
• Maximizes the use of renewable resources
• Physically engineered to optimize materials and energy
• Fosters social equity
• Closes the loop on package materials
• Creates economically viable recovery systems
• Eliminates waste
• Delivers packaging benefits without negative impacts
Dietary Supplement Brand Embraces Sustainability
Highland Laboratories was founded on the premise that it could contribute to good health by producing high-quality dietary food supplements.  Along the way, it adopted the planet Earth. Through the years, Highland has made a number of earth-friendly choices about its products and was first in its industry to use a plastic bottle that is manufactured from corn rather than petroleum.
“Corn is a sustainable natural resource while oil is a finite resource. Converting corn to the plastic resin requires 20 to 30 percent less energy, and it produces only half the carbon dioxide of oil-based plastics,” says Candy Scott, Highland Laboratories president.
Bottles, made from PLA and supplied by TricorBraun (www.tricorbraun.com), are commercially compostable in 75 to 80 days, according to the Biodegradable Products Institute. Within two years, Highland Laboratories reports that it plans to bottle all of its 250 supplements in the corn-derived packaging.
Eco-Friendly Paper Label for Water Bottles
EcoSet label paper was designed in response to brand owner demands for locally produced PET water bottle label paper that offers an ecological alternative to current label materials. The wet-strength paper has been tested through all facets of water bottle label production and offers performance with the sustainable advantages of paper derived from fiber, a renewable raw material. EcoSet is available in basis weights of 43, 46 and 49 lb. The material features good brightness and gloss level along with label opacity when wet.
Green Packaging Concept Reduces Materials Use
EnviroTube from AVC (www.avccorp.com) is a tube-like packaging concept that features a clamshell or thermoformed tray suspended inside, almost as if it were floating within the package.
“We have been working closely with Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club as a member of the Packaging Sustainable Value Network (SVN) for the past two years to help develop more environmentally sustainable packaging solutions,” says Guy Marom, AVC executive vice president.
The package is sealed with end caps made from injection-molded or thermoformed plastic, molded with slits in the center to hold the internal tray or clamshell and keep it suspended within the tube. The entire package uses one type of plastic, which eliminates the issue of cross-contamination in the recycling stream.
Because it’s possible to print directly on the plastic (in up to eight colors), the need for a printed paper insert is eliminated, reducing the number of components and further eliminating cross-contamination.
The author, Aaron L. Brody, Ph.D., is President/CEO of Packaging/Brody Inc., a consultancy in food, packaging technology and marketing. Contact Dr. Brody at 770.613.0991 or aaronbrody@aol.com

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