Sustainable Packaging is About More than Just Avoiding Waste

Originally posted at http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/blog/green-sustainable-packaging-avoiding-waste?newsfeed=true

From drinks to toys to household goods, planet-friendly packaging has become a selling point in its own right.

Barbie Doll Display
Mattel has promised to change its sourcing policy after paper fibres from deforested regions in Indonesia were found in Barbie packaging. Photograph: Scott Houston/ Scott Houston/Sygma/Corbis

Earlier this summer in Los Angeles, Greenpeace activists unfurled a cheeky banner from the top of Mattel’s headquarters to denounce the company’s procurement of packaging materials. Testing of boxes in which Barbie dolls were packaged revealed paper fibres traced to deforested regions in Indonesia. Within a week, Mattel had pledged to change its sourcing policy and instruct its suppliers to commit to sustainable packaging. Mattel will learn from other companies that deal with a long and tangled supply chain that sustainable packaging is not only about waste diversion, but also innovation that can boost a firm’s bottom line. Companies that had long competed against each other based on product now joust for an edge based on their products’ packaging, from two-litre soft drinks bottles to laptop computers.

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) and food companies are now quick to tout the advantages that their packaging offers. Dr Pepper Snapple Group, for example, has eliminated that pesky strip from the bottom of plastic bottle caps, reduced bottleneck sizes and will decrease the amount of raw material in its bottles to create what it says will be the lightest 2-litre bottle in the beverage industry. Meanwhile Heinz has adopted the Coca-Cola plant bottle, made out of 30% cane ethanol-based plastic, for a new ketchup bottle. In Japan, a mineral water brand owned by Coca-Cola has introduced a new design that is 40% lighter, uses 30% plant-based material and easily crushes down to a size that makes it easier to transport to recycling centers.

When it comes to razors, Proctor & Gamble has stepped outside the traditional marketing tactic of adding another blade or degree of flexibility to its disposable shavers. In Europe and the UK, one Gillette-branded razor comes attached to a tray made in part from plant-based fibres. The trays are cheaper to make and their lighter weight means lower transport costs. For P&G, the benefits are a sleek design and a way to stand out in a highly competitive market. For its supplier, California-based Be Green Packaging, industry recognition is a boost for its line of Cradle-to-Cradle certified packaging.

Dell has also jumped on the sustainable packaging bandwagon. The computer manufacturer partnered with Ecovative Design, which creates shipping materials made from a fungus that feeds off agricultural waste such as rice hulls and cotton burrs. Between this and laptop trays sourced from bamboo, Dell reduced its consumption of packaging materials by 8.2 million kilos (18.2 million pounds) in 2009.

These packaging innovations offer several advantages, among them lighter materials that reduce fuel and water consumption, decreased costs, and increased consumer awareness – which in turn could increase sales. What becomes of that packaging, however, is another story. Will municipalities accept these materials into their recycling waste stream? And will consumers bother to compost that Styrofoam alternative?

The most compelling sustainable packaging options are the ones that take low-value recycling materials and transform them into high-value products. The industrial packaging company Greif and its Brazilian partner Cimplast collaborate on what they call the “Agribusiness Virtuous Cycle“. The process diverts agrochemical bottles from landfills and recycles them into pipes for new construction or remodeling projects. Meanwhile a Brazilian civil society, Earth Curators, takes plastic bottles and other scrap and “upcycles” them into affordable building materials targeted to lower- and middle-income families. While chic design will catch consumers’ attention, turning single-use products into quality building materials and high-value products that last for the long term will be the next frontier for companies and their suppliers who seek the next sustainable packaging competitive advantage.

Leon Kaye is founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com

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