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New Trends in Sustainable

By: Jillian Salansky
Posted: July 12, 2011, from the July 2011 issue of GCI Magazine.

While industry experts have differing views on the most sustainable solutions for consumer product manufacturing and primary packaging materials, most agree that plastics are an area of significant focus. Plastics are the most useful, convenient and cost-effective option for the marketplace, though traditional, petroleum-based plastics are incredibly taxing on the environment—in both their manufacture and their end of life. As such, there has been a growing trend toward alternatives to traditional plastics to meet the needs of brand owners pushing toward sustainability.

Sustainable alternatives to traditional plastic come in many forms, but can be broken down simply to three main groups: recycled, bio-based and additive-based. While each alternative is clamoring for its share of the marketplace, each needs to be viewed separately, as they provide value in unique ways. Of the alternatives, recycled plastic is rapidly growing in popularity as advancements allow for higher-performing resins and greater consistency in processing—comparable to virgin-grade resins. Bio-based plastics have gained a lot of attention for the innovation and science required to make their material from biological sources. While advancements in the processing and consistency make bio-based plastics competitive with all other alternatives, material cost remains a barrier in many industries, though less a factor with the high margins of beauty products. The additive alternatives claim the best of both words, claiming biodegradability at a price similar to traditional resins, but often lack certification or substantiation by a recognized third party scientific testing laboratory.

Recycled Plastic Has Matured

Marketability is a big factor in choosing the appropriate sustainable resin solution, however products made from alternative materials must perform equal to or better than their predecessors in order to gain full acceptance within the consumer marketplace. A great example of this is found in the use of recycled plastic. Until five years ago, recycled plastic products were used only for less technical, rugged applications such as park benches and decking. Advancements in the quality and consistency of recycled plastic has allowed high-end consumer product brands to offer premium products that are made using 100% postconsumer recycled (PCR) plastic. Nextlife, for example, brought to market 100% PCR polypropylene and polystyrene resins that are U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved for food contact. Brand owners are finding that consumers making purchasing decisions based on environmental impact limit the premium they are willing to pay for such a product. PCR plastic is the ideal solution—competitive in terms of cost, performance and marketability while producing an approximately 70% lower carbon footprint when compared to virgin resins.

Closed-loop Programs

As brand owners evaluate sustainable programs that resonate with consumers with an affinity for environmentally friendly companies and products, the complete product life cycle is getting more and more attention. The development of closed-loop sustainability programs can be an effective solution. Closed-loop programs are designed to look at every facet of the product—from the supply chain utilized to create the materials that go into the product through the end of its useful life, and back again. Nextlife, for example, created a process by which it can supply packaging manufacturers with plastic for new products made from 100% PCR content, which can even be sourced from its own recycled plastic waste stream.