Green Packaging - Leaving No Trace: Sustainable Packaging for a Cleaner World
An ever-increasing awareness of the “footprint” we will leave on this world is driving packaging companies to take a hard look at their practices. There was a time when changing plant operations to create sustainable packaging, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and recycle waste was simply impractical. Today, it is seen as essential by more and more companies—as well as affordable, as demand broadens the supply.
Reincarnation: New Life for Old Materials
Packaging companies have the unique opportunity to help the consumer help the environment. The most obvious and perhaps critical step is the design and use of packaging materials that are created from postconsumer recyclate (PCR), which recycles a material for its second or third life cycle.
Primary packaging with PCR is perhaps the biggest challenge in sustainable packaging. John Delfausse, vice president of global package development and chief environmental officer of Estée Lauder Corporate Packaging, is responsible for monitoring the sustainability of packaging for Clinique, Origins, Estée Lauder, and environmental pioneer Aveda. He admits that quality can be an issue, although his brands boast an impressive amount of PCR—up to 100%.
The issues of durability and performance have been surpassed, whereas consistency and clarity are still challenges designers face when working with PCR. Delfausse has found that the color of a bottle or container can make all the difference and favors dark greens and blues. “Developers need to realize that the perfect package will not always be achievable,” he says, “but that each small step along the road to sustainability is a positive move in the right direction.”
If a material isn’t PCR, the next-best choice is for it to be recyclable so that it can be broken down by the consumer and thrown into the recycling bin rather than the garbage bin. So is reducing the amount of material in a package’s design. Supplier CardPak’s (Solon, OH) two primary products, ClubPak and SustainPak, have been designed to reduce large amounts of plastic in their clamshell designs, while keeping the cost low. The company even encourages customers to forego plastic entirely. The decision on plastic versus paperboard—and whether that paperboard is from a renewable source—“is usually determined by the cost, supply, converting requirements, or backside printing needs,” says CardPak’s president, Tony Petrelli.
Aware that customers have high demands for decoration as well as for the environment, carton supplier Curtis Packaging (Sandy Hook, CT) offers a fully recyclable, biodegradable alternative to foil-laminated paperboard for
its luxury folding cartons. According to senior vice president of marketing Donald R. Droppo, Jr., CurtChrome is actually less expensive than foil-laminated boards, which “are extremely difficult to recycle and almost always end up in a landfill.”
Curtis simulates the look of foil by using UV-curable inks and a uniquely configured printing press. Although the inks are petroleum based, they do not emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere because they are UV-cured. VOCs, such as those emitted with vegetable- and soy-based inks that are not UV-cured, contribute to global warming and are considered a greater threat to the environment than using fossil fuels to create UV inks. According to Droppo, “the UV process dries the ink instantly and we are able to use the waste sheets for subsequent make-readies.” Since January 2005, the company has converted more than 6.5 million sheets to CurtChrome, and has thus saved more than 2000 tons of foil-laminated board from the landfills.
The drive for sustainable packaging has inspired some companies to find ways to let customers reuse packaging. Aveda sizes its holiday gift boxes to fit CDs and photos. Many brands are opting for long-lasting tubes, bottles, and compacts that can be refilled. Packaging supplier Alcan Packaging Beauty (New York City) takes a creative means to produce new objects from its waste. The company is extremely active with associations in Brazil to recycle its laminate tubes into such useful items as boxes, stationery items, and even furniture.
Plants as Plastics
Some progressive packaging companies have replaced oil-based plastics with the plant-based biopolymer polylactide (PLA). This material is made from corn, making it a carbon-neutral, biodegradable substrate that can be composted. It is also suitable for mechanical and chemical hydrolysis and clean incineration. NatureWorks, owned by Cargill and Teijin, produces a family of such polymers using the carbon in simple plant sugars, and markets it worldwide under the NatureWorks and Ingeo brand names. NatureWorks’ manufacturing facility in Blair, NE, produces 300 million pounds of polymer resin a year, the highest volume in the world, satisfying packagers who seek a material free of chemicals that harm the earth.
Not everyone is ready to champion PLA as the ultimate eco-friendly material. Tim Greiner is a consultant on sustainable practices for socially responsible brands through the firm Pure Strategies. Although he recognizes the polymer as a huge step forward, he notes its drawbacks. “The corn isn’t sustainably grown in the United States. Pesticides are put on the land to create it.” In addition, there is fossil fuel input during processing, and, if PLA is integrated into a recycling stream, “it is not easy to segregate and will contaminate the recyclables,” Greiner explains. “When workers are handling materials on a conveyor belt, they can’t visually separate the PLA from the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE).” He supports the work of some organizations trying to build consensus among brands to influence farmers to farm sustainable corn for PLA.
Problems can arise in PLA-based products, including stability and shelf life. NatureWorks offers technical and brand support to those who take advantage of its biopolymers. The company admits that PLA “is not suitable for all plastic product applications—otherwise there wouldn’t be so many choices: PET, polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), etc.” The company relies on the interest of packagers to “elevate their environmental profile” and show consumers that they are interested in meeting demands for sustainable packaging. There are many such interested parties.
Whether or not a company chooses to use recycled or recyclable materials, there are other sustainable practices that can reduce the packaging industry’s footprint on the earth. Folding cartons used to ship products out can be shipped unassembled and flat to facilities, reducing the amount of space needed to deliver them and thus the number of delivery vehicles. Fewer delivery vehicles means less fossil fuel to operate them, fewer emissions released into the atmosphere during transport, and fewer dollars needed to fill up their tanks. Going green can mean saving green.
Dispenser supplier MeadWestvaco Calmar (Grandview, MO) makes its Evolution2 setup-box-replacement product with 30% recycled fiber, and it can be shipped flat. According to director of public relations Alison von Puschendorf, “Up to three times as many Evolution2 cartons can fit in a truck, compared with the same size [conventional] setup box. In addition, empty Evolution2 boxes require far less warehouse space for storage.” The boxes are easily assembled by hand or by tray-forming equipment.
A client of packaging supplier Eyelematic Manufacturing Co. (Watertown, CT) receives the company’s containers in cartons that it then reuses to ship products to its own customers. The result is that half as many cartons are used—half as much cardboard needed from harvested trees. Cartons aren’t the only thing being repurposed at Eyelematic. Vice president of sales and marketing Peter W. Philip cites the company’s eco-friendly relationship that its customer L’Oréal initiated: “L’Oréal has, for many years, used a system in which it reuses the plastic trays that its closures are packed into. We load the trays; the trays are automated into their filling line, emptied, and returned to us for filling again.”
Beyond the Package: The Business of Going Green
Such conscientious moves to go green often extend to every aspect of a company’s business practices. At the forefront of this concept since the late 19th century has been paper supplier Monadnock Paper Mills (Bennington, NH). Five hydroelectric turbines located beside the mill along the Contocook River create 49% of the company’s renewable electrical energy. The company uses low-impact generators and a carbon-neutral manufacturing process for its packaging-grade papers.
Other alternatives to fossil-fuel-dependent energy sources include a combination of steam and electricity (cogeneration), as practiced by MeadWestvaco Calmar. Wind energy is used at the Aveda factory for all of its operations. The Estée Lauder plant in Oakland, NJ, taps solar energy with panels that feed its electric operations. Still another route is to purchase renewable-energy credits that offset the use of standard electricity. Millions of kilowatt-hours of wind and hydroelectric energy are available for purchase from such third-party-run initiatives as the Green-e Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Product Certification Program.
Waste is a huge area of concern for all manufacturers, and packagers are no exception. Finding ways to reuse scrap during manufacture, or simply creating a recycling stream for general business waste, are steps in the right direction. Liquid solutions from presses can be filtered and recycled, saving gallons per week and reducing the amount of hazardous materials needing disposal. Fiber waste from paperboard manufacturers can be collected and recycled, as can aluminum, plastic, and corrugate scrap.
At Monadnock, a screw press was added to the wastewater treatment facility that dewaters short paper fiber byproduct in order to compost it. The fiber is now used as a topsoil amendment and as animal bedding at local farms. Another paper supplier, Mohawk Paper Mills (Cohoes, NY), makes use of “anything that can be recovered for reuse,” says George Milner, senior vice president of energy, environmental, and governmental affairs. “Office wastepaper, toner cartridges, batteries of every type, and waste oils” are among the list of recyclables. Eyelematic has gone so far as to capture extra heat generated by one of its compressors, directing it to other parts of the plant and reducing the cost of heating bills.
If you take into consideration all of the other steps that packaging companies are taking in order to help the environment, the rest of them seem obvious. If a company recycles the paper it prints memos on, it might also consider replacing all of the lighting in its buildings with more-efficient fixtures. If boxes that products are shipped in are reused to ship products out again, the boxes can also be ones that are stamped with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo, which indicates that the trees harvested to make the box are from sustainable forests. If fewer trucks are sent out for delivery to save fuel, why not participate in carbon mitigation projects? Or a landfill gas-to-energy project? Or a dairy-farm manure methane-to-energy project?
Packaging Today with Tomorrow in Mind
The motivating forces that push a packaging company to make these moves range from competitive pressure to strict requirements from partners. Few, if any, industry players are unfamiliar with the Wal-Mart Packaging Scorecard, which went into effect in February. The standards that Wal-Mart sets for any brands wishing to be sold in its stores are stiff but effective. The corporation is raising the bar but also providing a set of tools, literally, to measure packaging performance in the area of sustainability and to help improve upon it. Visitors to Wal-Mart’s Package Modeling Web site can obtain software that will help them determine which materials will have the lowest environmental impact (and thus a lower score). The software also allows a packaging supplier to show a brand how its materials can help decrease the brand’s packaging score. Competitive software and programs cropped up more frequently as Wal-Mart’s scorecard commencement date grew near.
Tangible and intangible rewards motivate many eco-minded packagers. Packagers are proud to boast ISO 14001:2004 certification, EPA Performance Track Company status, or Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies certification. Cost savings are even an incentive for most, with more suppliers offering sustainable materials that are easily obtained, made with fewer raw ingredients, and from abundant sources.
MeadWestvaco Calmar is motivated by “all three parts of the triple bottom line: economics, the environment, and social responsibility,” according to von Puschendorf. “We find that our commitment to sustainability inspires innovative solutions and business practices that immediately benefit our business and meet the needs of our customers, while also protecting the needs of current and future generations.”
“Moral responsibility,” cites Xela Pack’s Anthony Gentile as the primary reason the sample- and trial-size-pack producer went green 20 years ago. “We are a family-owned and -operated company. We strive to succeed while producing a product that we can absolutely be proud of.” While profits, competition, supply and demand, and quality are always on the minds of packaging CEOs, there are many who claim a clean “footprint” among their top priorities. Such inspiration is contagious, slowly erasing the long-held belief that sustainable practices mean compromise and financial losses, and replacing it with a dependable future.