I recently attended the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) Spring event in Seattle Washington April 1st to April 4th 2019.   The SPC website (www.sustainablepackaging.org) describes itself as follows: 

“A membership-based collaborative that believe in the power of industry to make packaging more sustainable.  We are the leading voice on sustainable packaging and we are passionate about creating packaging that is good for people and the environment”.

The event was a mix of interactive educational topics to off-site day trips to lectures on sustainable packaging.   750 attendees from business, government, non-government organizations (NGO’s) and education gathered to push the sustainability narrative beyond being reactive to being more proactive as new information emerges.  Multiple opportunities to learn and experience things were presented and allowed each attendee to set their own agenda for the most applicable experience.   Below are some of my key takeaways from the week.

Reusable, Recyclable or Compostable.   These three words were at the forefront of virtually every session I attended.  Ultimately, the goal is to move towards a circular economy where waste from one process turns into a feedstock for another.   Simply stated for packaging, we need to do all we can to divert packages away from landfills.  In so doing, the package at the end of life becomes a feedstock for a new package.   The diversion from landfill can take three general forms:

  • Reuse: Designing packages that can be reused over and over.
  • Recycle:  Designing the package from the start to be able to be recycled at the end of life.  For example, using multiple disparate materials in the same package makes that package very difficult to recycle.
  • Compost:  Designing products out of compostable materials to allow end of life to follow an organic waste stream.  

Which option above is best?  As you may think, it depends.  For packages where a reusable option could replace a disposable one, albeit with inconvenience for some, reusable packages seem a good option.    Where access to compostable facilities does exist for food related packaging, composting becomes a viable option.   For most other packages, recycling is likely the best end-of-life option.   

Don’t Sacrifice Positive for Perfect.   Finding perfect solutions is a challenge.   While some package solutions from design to manufacture to end of life present optimal paths to circularity, there are trade-offs for most every package.   At the heart of the tradeoff is low carbon footprint in production (Ex flexible packaging excels) and good end of life options / recyclability (Ex aluminum cans excel).   The tradeoffs vary by product need, by distribution network, by availability of raw materials and by access to end of life waste stream options.   Moving toward positive change is the goal.  We should not avoid acting in a positive direction at the risk of not having a perfect solution.

Literacy / Communicate.     The literacy around sustainability in packaging is in its infancy in many ways. With many terms and options, consumer confusion creeps in as to what they are actually buying and what to do with a package once finished.   The consumer is flooded with sustainability terms, claims and marketing messages.  The takeaway from the conference was to make our own message as authentic as possible.  Tell a story and communicate the message of the package in a way that connects with people yet does not lead them to falsities or mis-representations.    Authentic, clear messaging is needed in a young and changing marketplace.

Focus on Demand.   To create a more circular flow of materials and divert packaging out of landfills,  we must request recycled content in packages to “pull” the need for recycling through the system.  Brands, consumers or manufacturers of packaging need to request recycled content.  When they do,  processors, raw material suppliers and recyclers will have a market for their recyclables.  With no demand, there is no incentive to collect, sort and re-make packaging from existing waste.    While presently the overall quality of recycled content flexibles is not equivalent to virgin materials, there are a lot of applications where recycled content is a viable option.     As demand grows, so will the processes and the technologies to create better and better recycled content materials.  The goal is someday to have recycled content material be a substitute for virgin material. 

Some quick points experienced at the conference: 

  • Micro-plastic is a complex issue and is a very “young” science.  Small organisms (Ex plankton) have been found ingesting micro-plastics and thereby infecting the whole food chain.  Sources of micro-plastics comes from clothing, fibers, bottles, packaging and any other source of plastics open to degrade in the environment.   The key is to attack the source to prevent it from entering the environment.
  • 8,000,000 tons of plastic enters the ocean each year.
  • How2Recycle® labeling systems is growing to help the end user know how to recycle (or not) the package at the end of life.  Over 100 labels are issued every day.
  • Packaging is not going away.  Packaging is expected to double in next 20 years.  Flexible packaging is the best way to keep things fresh, transport goods, store goods, relay contents of goods and provides the lowest carbon footprint.
  • There is a strong feeling that mandated recycled content standards for packaging are coming
  • Three steps:  Own the problem then Go further then Be seen doing it.
  • Waste is not the problem.   Behavior is the problem.
  • As of now, store drop-off is the best way to recycle polybags. 
  • 4 stages of defining recyclability: Collection, Sortation, Reprocessing, Finding end markets
  • Innovations of materials in use are happening faster than innovations of recovery.
  • Post-consumer recycled content material provides a path to participate in a circular economy, a path to combat ocean plastics thru waste diversion and a path to lower emissions.         
  • Bioplastics is a broad term that addresses two independent concepts:  Biobased (Beginning of life) and Biodegradable/Compostable (End of life).  
  • Goal:  100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025  (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

I look forward to our continued involvement with the SPC.  The conference shed light on so many parts of the sustainability movement.  Applying the information for each of the attendees will take a different form but all moving toward a more sustainable packaging future.

If you are interested in moving your package in a more sustainable direction, please contact us at 800 458 7153 or send us an email (sales@clearviewbag.com).  We have developed a sustainability design guide that acts as a checklist of things to think about in designing for sustainability.  For the Design Guide, go to http://www.clearviewbag.com/sustainability/, scroll to “Design Guide” and click the hyperlink in the green box.

Thanks for reading!

Trent Romer    

Written by David Pugliese