In the 21st Century, the act of consuming has taken on more detail for many. It’s not enough just to buy something; we need to know where it comes from and what impact its manufacturing process has had on the environment. One of the most high-profile areas that, quite rightly, gains a lot of attention is the packaging industry.
So, in the light of our changing way of thinking about consumer culture, has the packaging industry responded? Have packaging products evolved along with our rising awareness of sustainable options for the things we buy?
Well, luckily we have packaging industry veteran and writer Brad Shorr here to give us some insight, and points of discussion, too …
Few industries have taken more heat on the environmental front than packaging. Companies are vilified regularly for paper packaging, plastic packaging, over packaging, and over the top packaging. Sustainability, once a non-factor for packaging manufacturers and consumers, has become the driving factor.
Despite the frequent bad press, the packaging industry has in fact moved aggressively over several decades to bring sustainable packaging options to market. As one who has part of this journey since the late ‘70s, I can share a couple of notable but often overlooked examples from the world of industrial packaging.
The History of Bubble, Part 2
When I entered the scene, there were two popular options for void fill and protective packaging: polystyrene “peanuts” and Saran-coated bubble packaging. Polystyrene was (and remains) a poor sustainable choice, as it is hard to recycle, doesn’t degrade, and is potentially toxic to boot. Bubble materials, made from polyethylene, were easier to recycle, although few cared to do it at the time. However, bubble was heavy and bulky, which increased shipping and related fuel costs.
Product innovation and technical innovation have given us far better sustainable options. Today, bubble materials are uncoated and made from thinner, yet stronger, polyethylene resins, reducing weight and bulk. And whereas earlier generations of bubble product were made from virgin resins, many today contain high percentages of pre- and post-consumer recycled polyethylene.
Entirely new products, such as inflatable air bag packaging, use a minimal amount of plastic and rely almost completely on air – a very sustainable option indeed. And at the other end of the spectrum, old-school “peanut” packaging is now made from cornstarch, recycled paper and plastic materials as well as polystyrene.
Want paper? Innovations in dispensing systems have brought paper back as an economical void fill and protective packaging option. Machines dispensing single- and multilayer paper at high speed are now common sights in high volume packaging operations.
Bottom line: With a proliferation of economical sustainable packaging options, any firm can improve its sustainable profile.
Corrugated evaporates in beverage packaging
As a friend of mine, a VP of sales for a multinational corrugated manufacturer, was about to retire, I asked him to reflect on his career. What stood out? With a sigh and a wry smile he said, “I’ve spent my whole life working with customers whose main goal was to eliminate my product.”
If this sounds sad or cynical, it shouldn’t: it’s simply the truth, a reflection of the sustainability and economic pressures that have transformed the corrugated packaging industry. My friend’s primary product was beverage packaging – water bottles, canned and bottled soft drinks, wines and liquor. Taking bottled water as an example, it’s easy to see the sustainable evolution in packaging design:
- Originally, cases of bottled water were packaged in heavy, two-piece corrugated boxes.
- Boxes were replaced by corrugated trays, which substantially reduced corrugated content.
- Trays were replaced by flat corrugated slipsheets – pretty much reducing corrugated content to a theoretical minimum. But this wasn’t enough …
- Cases of bottled water can now be packaged with heavy-duty shrink packaging – eliminating the need for corrugated altogether.
Successful corrugated manufacturers adapted by creating new packaging designs, and developing stronger and more sustainable materials. While many of their innovations still resulted in less tonnage running through their plants, they were at least able to meet the needs of their existing markets and offset inevitable losses by finding new applications in existing and new markets.
These stories have been repeated for virtually every product that protects and prepares products for shipment. While primary packaging – the stuff you see on the store shelves – gets all of the press, behind the scenes, industrial packaging manufacturers (representing a multi-billion dollar industry, by the way) have made enormous sustainable strides – even when in some respects they hurt their own business. And while there is still a long way to go, it’s going strong.