Catching Up on Hot Packaging Topics

Posted on 11/14/2013 4:29:18 PM By Jeff Timm

Looking back at my last few Packaging Blogs one might conclude that I am in a rut only discussing sustainability and its components like recycling.  The reason for this emphasis is that study after study indicates that sustainability is the single biggest trend/issue in the packaging industry.  In fact, from my own experience I believe that the whole sustainability movement got a huge boost when the packaging industry embraced sustainability at the turn of the century.  The reason for this is partly due to the fact that a package is the connection or link between the product and the market.

Having said all that, three pieces of sustainable packaging information that have recently come over my desk bear mention.  

Sustainable Packaging Definition

Like any good new idea or movement basic concepts evolve with time.  A good example of this is the long-standing definition of sustainable packaging from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC).  This definition has received updates since it was first released in 2005.  Besides some minor word tweaks, the major definition change in 2011 stated that sustainable packaging materials were made from materials “healthy throughout their life cycle”, replacing “healthy to all probable end of life scenarios”.

Sustainable Packaging Definition:


Is beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;



Meets market criteria for both performance and cost;




Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;



Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;



Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;



Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle;



Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy;



Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.

This change reflects the SPC’s belief that packaging materials should be accessed not only on any negative impacts of material disposal, but negative impacts throughout the entire life cycle. 

Another conceptual change within the sustainable movement is reflected in a recent quote from Adam Gendell, iProject Manager-SPC in a recent Packaging Digest article “We must understand how sustainability relates to all of the processes that are linked with creating, using and disposing of packaging.”  This concept brings the interaction of packaging materials, design and all other aspects of packaging creation and follows them backwards throughout the process to access their tangential sustainable effect on the entire operation.

Perhaps another sustainable packaging definition update is in the works?

US Plastic Bottle Recycling

The recent U. S. National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report jointly issued by the American Chemistry Council, Inc. (ACC) and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) documents the continuing growth in plastic bottle usage as well as the amount of those bottles ending up in the recycling stream.  PET and HDPE bottles comprise over 96.4% of the U. S. plastic bottle market with PP at 1.9% of plastic bottles produced followed by LDPE at 0.84%. Together, PET and HDPE encompass over 98% of the bottles recycled.

In 2012 a total of 2,785 million pounds of plastic bottles were collected for recycling. The change from 2011 was an additional 161 million pounds of recycled bottles, an increase of 6.2%.  The total bottle recycling rate increased to 30.5%, which is 1.6% over 2011.  The HDPE recycle rate is 31.6% for a 1.7% increase and the PET recycle rate is 30.8% which is a 1.5% increase.

Other key report findings are:

  • Bottle resin use per capita has remained stagnant for three years, rising very slightly from the low point of the recession. The growth seen before the recession has been replaced by less bottle use and continual lightweighting and smaller sized bottles like those used for concentrates in laundry detergent bottles.
  • Single-stream collection of household recyclables continues to grow generally resulting in higher overall household participation rates but with more challenges from contaminated bales of bottles with low bale yields.  This is due to limits in separation processing equipment technology.
  • Polypropylene (PP) recycle rates increased by 6.2%, the largest year-to-year increase by any resin, which is even more amazing since the sale of PP resin sold in 2012 into bottle production dropped by 36 million pounds.  However, PP was only 1.9% of bottle resin sales.
  • End-use markets for recycled material continue to develop with demand increasing.  Unfortunately supply bottlenecks continue with a lack of recovery collection options at public venues, offices, recreational sites, schools, and retail establishments.

Sustainable Business Survey of Corporate Sustainability Executives

A global study, BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey 2013, based on interviews of more than 700 corporate sustainability executives was recently completed. The study has revealed a growing sense of urgency among these   respondents to address human rights, worker rights and climate change and that the solutions go way beyond what a single company can do.  These corporate sustainability executives believe that only through a collaborative effort between business, government, civil society or consumers can these global issues be addressed.  Additionally, 62% of these respondents believe the most important leadership challenge for business is the integration of sustainability into core business operations.  This was far higher than the next most frequently cited challenge, convincing investors about the value of sustainability, 28%.

Other findings include:

  • When asked to choose which sustainability issues need collaboration the most, climate change and public policy frameworks promoting sustainability are ranked highest.
  • Only one in five companies (21%) has fully integrated sustainability into business.
  • Engagement between sustainability functions and corporate functions such as marketing, R&D, human resources, investor relations and finance remains very low.
  • Collaboration by companies focus more often on engagement with NGOs (76%) and industry associations (75%) than it does on engagement with other businesses, service providers, academics, government and media - 27% rated as the most difficult partner for collaboration.

When I see this data plus read the full report one finding that strikes me is the high year-to-year values given to the difficulty integrating sustainability into core business functions.  These values have remained the most important leadership challenge (62%) which has not changed in the three years reported.  One would assume that if sustainability was gaining prominence within a business or being introduced into more businesses this value would be declining. Second, corporate sustainability priorities over the next 12 months - like climate change and sustainable consumption - have been declining since 2009.   Not a good sign.

So what do these three news items tell us about packaging sustainability?  It tells me it looks like the sustainability movement is on hold.  Is this true or just a factor of three unrelated items?  Has shale gas/oil potentially lowered future sales forecasts for biopolymers?  Has the recent enforcement  of the FTC Green Guides put the scare into companies who would rather stick with non biobased products than navigate the FTC Green Guides regulations?  Has the drive for continued lower pricing at all levels in the value chain driven down innovation and new product development?  Please share your thoughts for continuing this discussion.

 Related Links:

Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Sustainable Packaging Definition  

Packaging Digest Magazine – Article - No End in Sight for the Scope of Sustainable Packaging by Adam Gendell, iproject Manager at Green Blue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers

American Chemistry Council

2012 United States National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report

GlobeScan – State of Sustainable Business Survey 2013

Green Chemicals Blog

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

FTC Green Guides

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