Green Movement Pushes More Companies toward Sustainable Packaging

October 23, 2008
Kayt Sukel

There seems to be no doubt about it: green products and practices are in. What started as a small ecotrend has snowballed into a national movement. In fact, a recent market research survey by AMP Agency (Chicago) found that 90% of more than 3000 participants aged 18–49 believe that environmental responsibility is important enough to modify their buying behaviors. What's more, those respondents stated that they hold corporations primarily accountable for the environmental impact of their goods and processes. The AMP study is not the only one. Other surveys by organizations like EcoPulse (Knoxville, TN), Packaging Digest magazine, and the Nielsen Co. (New York City) suggest that the green movement is no mere fad.

Consumer products and goods companies, both big and small, are paying attention. And one way in which they are now trying to green up their offerings is by adopting sustainable packaging initiatives. In fact, even Wal-Mart (Bentonville, AR) has issued a call for more environmentally friendly packaging on the products it stocks. Its Packaging Scorecard program has called for a 5% reduction in all packaging used by suppliers in the next five years.

Although there is some variation in definition across the industry, sustainable packaging "means that packaging is made in such a way that it can be continued or sustained for a period of time without depleting resources," says Anthony Gentile, director of art and marketing at XelaPack (Saline, MI), a manufacturer of sample-sized packaging.

Rob Hyams, vice president of Impressions Packaging (Peachtree City, GA), concurs. "It really means pretty much the same thing to everyone," he says. "Sustainability involves leaving as little of a footprint as possible, reusing as much as possible without creating new."

This philosophy could be realized by employing recycled materials, using natural materials and innovative processes, or utilizing new materials that have been in some way certified as sustainable when creating packaging. "With paper, there are now a lot of wood farmers that are becoming certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)," Gentile says. "That paper is harvested in a responsible manner based on the criteria of SFI and is therefore considered sustainable."

Sustainable Plastics

A packaging mainstay is the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle. But this popular bottle, holding some of the most admired beverages found on store shelves, has fast become the whipping boy of the green movement. Though PET bottles are recyclable, many states are taking another look at how they handle the containers because of the hundreds of thousands of bottles that go into landfills instead of recycling centers each year. But that is not the only drawback.

"Like it or not, virgin PET resin's price is tied to the price of oil," says Marny Bielefeldt, a spokesperson for Alpha Packaging (St. Louis), a plastic bottle manufacturer. A significant amount of oil is used in the man­ufacturing of plastics, which conservation­ists also see as an environmental drawback.

Some manufacturers are looking at two alternatives to the PET bottle: post-consumer recycled (PCR) content and plastics made from polylactide polymer (PLA) bioresins like corn and other sugar-based plants.

Noble Juice (Winter Haven, FL), which supplies a line of pure citrus juices, has just moved to a bioresin-based packaging. "The PLA-based material takes a sugar-based plant and then turns it into a plastic resin," says Allison Lee, director of marketing. The company started with the PLA bottle in 2006 but has now incorporated a shrink-sleeve label made from the same material. Both are recyclable and compostable.

"For us, this kind of packaging is just a natural line extension," says Lee. "Our juices are all made from healthy fruits and are all-natural. It just made sense for us to find new ways to use innovative sustainable materials to have an all-natural package, too."

Alpha Packaging is manufacturing a PLA bottle option for its customers. But according to Bielefeldt, the trend that is gaining more traction right now is that of bottles made from PCR content, or from plastic bottles straight from the recycling centers. "We're seeing PCR, with some of our customers moving into 100% recycled PET bottles, as a more realistic trend right now for more sustainable packaging," she says. "And all of this has really come about in probably the last 12 months or so."

Hyams, whose Impressions Packaging is also offering a 100% PCR PET bottle, has also seen an upswing in interest. "We tried to be on the forefront of the market and started making PCR bottles back in 2006," he says. "When we first started offering the bottle, we had a few small orders. But in the past year and a half, those orders have grown, and interest continues."

Moving Away from the Bottle

But some beverage makers are moving away from the bottle altogether. Rodrigo Veloso, CEO of ONE World Enterprises LLC (Los Angeles), a maker of exotic functional beverages and juices, opted for TetraPak (Vernon Hills, IL) packaging, a type of sustainable carton packaging that is common in Europe and growing in popularity in the United States.

"Our products are 100% natural, and it's crucial that our products be 100% natural," Veloso says. "Because of the technology of TetraPak, our product remains fresh. We don't have to add any preservatives, additives, or anything, but the beverage retains its health benefits and is also shelf-stable."

Veloso says that one of the main draws of TetraPak as a packaging supplier is its commitment to the environment. "TetraPak has one of the smallest carbon footprints compared with any other packaging company," he says. The paper carton with a single layer of aluminum and plastic is recyclable. But Veloso emphasizes that true sustainability goes beyond recycling. The TetraPak packaging does not require refrigeration during transport or in the store, saving on energy from bottling to buying.

Laurens Van de Vijver, vice president of marketing and product management at Tetra Pak, believes that other companies would do well to think beyond recycling. "In Europe, consumers, government, and big companies are taking more of a world-chain perspective to sustainability," he says. "Recycling is a part of that chain, but we all also need to take a closer look at carbon emissions at every step of that chain." Van de Vijver says that he believes that kind of shift in perspective is starting to hap­pen, albeit more slowly, in the United States and beyond.

Challenges to Green Packaging

Packaging, of course, serves multiple purposes. It is responsible not only for the integrity of the product inside but also for directions for use, ingredient and nutritional information, and a brand's marketing message. So the switch to sustainable materials is not always an easy one.

"One of the biggest challenges is the function of the package itself. There are lots of recycled papers out there. You could make a thick version of a package, but it might not have a good shelf life or the product protection needed," says Gentile. "It's not easy to create something as green or sustainable as possible while also retaining the optimal function, too." Many companies will have to invest in significant testing to make sure that a sustainable bottle or package works with the product.

And Lee says that the testing involves all aspects of the production chain. "It has its challenges," she says. "You have to work with the manufacturer, make sure the packaging is stable all the way through to the consumer. While you work through those challenges, you have to educate the consumer and retailer and maybe even your manufacturing partners as well on that new material."

Hyams says that another concern is the look of a package. "Some people have concerns on what PCR will look like. They haven't been satisfied with the way it looked in the past," he says. And that concern is not without cause. The recycled content does have a blue or yellow tint to it, making it nearly impossible to achieve the crystal clear plastic that virgin PET allows. But Hyams says that clients have been thrilled with colored versions of the bottles.

One of the largest concerns is cost. Bielefeldt says that although consumers say they want greener packaging, they haven't said they are willing to foot the bill. "In the studies I've seen, and we even did a small survey ourselves of our customers, packaging buyers are really only willing to pay 10–15% more for the packaging," she says. "I don't think we know what consumers would be willing to pay."

Steven Nussbaum, director of marketing for O. Berk Co. (Union, NJ), a packaging manufacturer that offers PCR options, suggests that a lack of direction for sustainable programs is also a challenge. "We'll jump right into it feet first once we get clear direction,” he says. "We're for green packaging. But we need direction from customers and vendors on what they really want, we need prices to go lower, and we need more options."

The Future of Sustainable Packaging
Noble's Lee, for one, believes that more options are on the horizon. "Companies are striving to reduce waste in packaging, and that will be one of the first things we’ll see," she says. "Everyone is looking at ways to reduce plastics in products, and I think ultimately we’ll see less waste."

Gentile agrees but he cautions that it's going to take time. "It's funny, my dad, the owner of XelaPack, was interviewed in 1992. He said that he thought in 5 years reduce/reuse/recycle would be part of everyday life, and it didn't necessarily happen in that amount of time," he says. "But I do believe it is moving in that direction. At least in the United States, consumers and companies are accepting more responsibility and starting to make positive choices for the environment. And that's only a good thing."