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Doing More With Less

By: Andrew H. Dent, PhD
Posted: January 19, 2011, from the January 2011 issue of GCI Magazine.

While recently leading a workshop on sustainable cosmetics packaging in Paris, the question again arose, “What is the most sustainable material that we can use?” Those who have worked in sustainability for some time will always give the safe answer of “it depends,” as in “it depends on what you are trying to do with your packaging and what sustainability attributes you are trying to meet.” Different materials will be the best choice depending on whether you are trying to have the packaging recycled, composted or kept for a second use—or to ensure the minimum of damage to the product it contains so that you don’t have to send a second one.

The second answer to this question of the most sustainable material is “less.” Whatever you are using, try to use less of it—whether it’s virgin paper or plastic, ink or coatings. A good example of this was the recent launch of the Clever Little Bag, the new shoebox concept from athletic wear brand Puma. After months of design work and assessment of the entire production, use and disposal cycle of the iconic red Puma shoe box, including a full life cycle analysis of the possible options, it was found that the best solution was a radically reduced box that used a recycled nonwoven bag on the outside and a mere skeleton of recycled cardboard to create structure within.

This “less” approach saves Puma 65% of the cardboard used in the previous version, as well as 275 tons of plastic bags and 500,000 liters of diesel from lowered transport needs. It also allows for 60% savings in water, energy and diesel consumption on the manufacturing level alone.

Achieving “Less”

“Less” is possible in material choice through the use of recycled materials (less virgin plastic). Despite the sluggish economy, 2009 [the last full-year report available as of print time for this feature] was a banner year for the use of post consumer recycled PET in food and beverage bottles, with the highest ever volume recycled, at 203 million pounds (28% of all consumer used bottles). Non-food packaging bottles also had their best year ever, with 65 million pounds.1 Less can also be achieved through the use of renewable resources in place of oil-based plastics, and there has been a significant increase in the number of starch-based plastics available for packaging applications. Examples range from the large volume addition of starch to commodity plastics, such as PP (Cereplast, eco Plastic by Plantic and Teralloy from Teknor Apex), to biodegradable or compostable resins using starch-based raw materials, such as Mater-Bi from Novamont, Biotec Bioplast 105, Solanyl BP from Rodenburg Biopolymers B.V.