Leading by Example: A Q&A on Sustainable Packaging Trends

During the last decade, the paperboard industry has seen sustainable practices go from occasional application to the industry standard, achieving new benchmarks in packaging innovation. As beauty and other companies deliver on the broader promises of sustainability, the paperboard packaging industry is manufacturing packages that help reduce the product-to-package weight ratio, increase shipping efficiencies and introduce new more environmentally friendly materials.

True sustainability is a balance between environmental and social stewardship and economic practicality. Cost, performance, and environmental and social impacts must all be managed, beginning with packaging design and specifications, moving to manufacturing and distribution, and then the end-of-life of a material.

Discussing sustainability and packaging trends in this Q&A, PaperWorks Industries’ corporate sustainability directory Kyla Fisher shed some light on what the environment for paperboard packaging looks like now.

Sustainable Materials

Q: Are you seeing an increased demand for certain types of sustainable materials?

Kyla Fisher: Absolutely. Our customers are asking for higher percentages of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in paperboard than ever before. Many of the Fortune 1000 have set the goal of increasing PCR content in their material and are looking for suppliers that can help them achieve a gradual increase over the next decade. In addition, some customers are looking for completely plastic-free and additive-free packaging solutions to address consumer concerns around estrogenic compounds leaching into food and beverage products as well as at end-of-life disposal.

We [also] are seeing more requests for biodegradable film in windows on cartons and in blister packs. However, the [packaging] industry is still exploring the limits of biodegradable materials, looking to see how these materials will be handled in the recycling stream, and if our current collection and waste systems are adequately set up to handle degradable materials.

Brands are also interested in sustainable package coatings and printing. PaperWorks’ Holobrite, for example, replaces printing directly on foil or holographic board while still providing the reflective nature of these materials. Typically, holographic effects render packaging non-recyclable, [but this] process maintains the packaging’s recyclability by micro-embossing a reflective coating onto CRB [coated recycled boxboard].

Q: What issues are currently on the materials regulatory front? Is there anything new on the horizon?

KF: One issue on the radar is in the European Union, where there is growing sensitivity over chemical use in consumer products. Recently, there has been concern regarding the potential risks associated with mineral oil in food packaging. It has been argued that mineral oil saturate hydrocarbons (MOSH), which may be found in recycled packaging, are migrating out of the paperboard into other products. Concern over MOSH is a relatively new development that is still being addressed; however, the science behind the claims is being contested. The E.U. has deferred regulating MOSH until they have developed a more comprehensive process to assess the true impact of chemicals in packaging.

It is a situation that we in North America are watching carefully. Recently, the U.S. has started looking at its own chemicals act, and the packaging industry is investigating the use of software tools to help measure the environmental effect of chemicals used in packaging. I’m sure this will drive increased focus on chemicals found in all of materials and processes over the next decade.

Sustainable Processes

Q: Beyond using recycled packaging materials, what are packaging suppliers doing to take the lead on sustainable packaging?

KF: When it comes to sustainable packaging, I believe there are two key services customers are looking for. They are seeking a partner to help them identify sustainability cost savings and to promote sustainable packaging. In addition, they want to know their supply partners internally implement sustainable processes themselves.

Internally, I work with our production and plant staff to maximize our resource use. This includes tracking greenhouse gas emissions, exploring ways to reduce energy use, and minimizing waste through recycling programs. I also work alongside our innovation, design and sales teams to help customers develop better packaging, going beyond simply promoting sustainable materials. This might mean looking beyond package design to identify more efficient production practices or transportation logistics—offering services that include training, packaging assessments, and design and engineering expertise.

Our own sustainability efforts are paying off in various ways. For example, we expect to see some significant cost savings due to the innovative energy efficiency measures and zero waste initiatives that we have implemented at many of our plants. We’ve also received recognition and awards from some of our key customers for our efforts in this area.

Sustainability Metrics

Q: What is life-cycle analysis, and how is it being used for packaging products?

KF: Life-cycle analysis (LCA) is a system that accounts for the material and energy used at every stage of the “life” of a product, including production, processing, packaging, use and retirement, giving a comprehensive overview of a product’s environmental impact. Too often people quantify sustainability based on limited information, such as greenhouse gas emissions or recyclability. Utilizing an LCA assessment, [packaging suppliers] can include all available information to see the complete picture, helping identify where in a product life cycle the biggest environmental impacts are, and targeting specific areas for improvement.

Unfortunately, LCAs are time-consuming, costly, and often unattainable for small to mid-sized companies. However, there are industry tools that build off these models and help provide similar information. At PaperWorks we make frequent use of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s Compass software system. When working with a customer on a new design, we can plug in the dimensions and material used to see which design performs better against a series of LCA metrics. This is a great way to see impact of a package across its whole life cycle. It also drives collaboration with the customer to identify the areas they want to focus on to improve the sustainability performance of a package. This can mean anything from a design or material change, to taking a look at supply or transportation logistics.

Q: There is an increased trend lately toward retailer scorecards. How are these scorecards being used, and what impact do they have on industry?

KF:One of the more visible scorecards is Walmart’s Sustainability Scorecard. It forces Walmart’s suppliers to measure themselves against several criteria, including recycled content and recovery value. While it’s not an LCA, it makes use of LCA tools to assess the sustainability value of materials used, introducing the concept that sustainability is not just about material choices but also includes transportation, materials sourcing and the end of life of a product. It also drives the concept of continuous improvement and innovation by scoring products on a bell curve against one another.

The P&G scorecard is another example, asking manufacturers to share how they are using resources internally and what they doing to help drive sustainability with the products they provide to P&G.

When supply chain-influencers such as Walmart or P&G send the message that they will not do business with suppliers that do not foster sustainable innovation or internally implement sustainable business practices, these scorecards become powerful tools to drive change across the entire consumer products supply chain.

Q: There is a growing trend toward co-innovation between brand owners and suppliers to achieve more environmentally friendly packaging. How is this new dynamic changing the way you work with brands?

KF: In terms of productivity, this new dynamic is a game-changer. [Packaging companies and suppliers] are no longer just order-takers—we’re employing a more collaborative problem-solving approach. This means that we can work more closely with customers to understand their needs and make actionable recommendations for continuous improvement.

Utilizing the expertise and know-how our people have in materials science, engineering and design, [packaging suppliers] are able to work with customers throughout the product life cycle to develop innovations in sustainable packaging that work.

For example, PaperWorks’ team will look at customer packaging lines and processes, working to reduce the amount of waste and realize cost savings. We also apply our engineering and design expertise to develop sustainable packaging solutions that are both effective and efficient. From design to final manufacturing, we apply sustainability throughout the production process, creating packaging solutions that result in higher scorecard ratings.

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