A new term has likely emerged in your lexicon over the last
couple of years: sustainability. Is it the latest buzzword? Is
it more than a fad?
The root word, sustain, means "to keep up or keep going, as
an action or process: to sustain a conversation." So
sustainability is an action or process that is ongoing. A
sustainable process is one that can keep itself going.
Now think of it in terms of a planet. The population in the
US exceeded 300 million this year. In the next generation, the
world's population is expected to exceed 8 billion. How is the
planet to keep itself going with continually greater demands on
From a broader perspective, sustainability refers to
providing for the needs of the current generation without
compromising the ability of future generations to provide for
their needs. Simply, sustainable development minimizes the use
of nonrenewable materials and energy in satisfying today's
Sustainability is more than a recyclable package.
Sustainability is more than renewable materials. Once you stop
to think about the concept, minimizing energy usage, water
usage, waste and pollution can apply to everything you do. It
will touch everything in your life, both professionally and
So, you're really interested in sustainable packaging. What
is it? Who's got it?
Fitting packaging into the definition above, sustainable
packaging is developed by minimizing the natural resources,
energy and disposal effects of packaging. Are there sustainable
packages? It depends on whether you consider the definition in
terms of absolutes or a continuum.
Think of the journey as an aspiration to create packaging
whose lifecycle is a closed loop, cyclical in nature. Waste
throughout the process is minimized. Materials are reused to
make new packaging. The amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) and
CO2 emitted to the atmosphere and waste in the landfill is
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) has created an
eight-point definition that describes the absolutes of
sustainable packaging (see "8 sustainability criteria" on p.
24). Practically, packaging professionals must realize these
virtues of sustainability represent a continuum on which to
judge current packaging systems and base future design
Are there examples of sustainable packages in the
marketplace today? Certainly, there are many, if you accept
sustainable packaging as an aspirational goal and not an
absolute one. Packages such as glass bottles and aluminum cans
have been collected and reused or recycled for decades.
Flexible packaging offers source reduction options that
minimize package weight. Corrugated packaging provides a highly
sought after waste stream for recyclers.
When asked how petfood packaging in all its shapes and sizes
can be more sustainable, I offer these suggestions:
1. Minimize the use of excess packaging. Using as little
material as possible is the single biggest contributor to GHG
reduction. Not only does it take less material and energy to
make the package, but it also takes less energy to transport
it. Don't overlook the opportunities to reduce secondary
2. Maximize the use of renewable/recycled materials. This
extends the earth's ability to support an evergrowing human
population. Many bio-based materials also provide substantial
ecological benefits during their growing cycle. Using recycled
materials provides an opportunity to recover valuable raw
materials, thereby providing an opportunity to create economic
value by eliminating the basic extraction and processing
3. Design for recyclability or compostability. This helps
reduce the ever-growing problem of human waste. Nobody wants a
landfill in their backyard. As packaging is one of the largest
contributors to municipal solid waste, it is incumbent on the
packaging industry to develop solutions.
4. Use materials that are safe in all end-of-life scenarios.
Promote the safe incineration, landfill, recycling or
composting of packaging waste. Packaging that can be safely
harnessed by any method will be much easier to integrate into
any waste management stream.
Today, it is important to keep in mind that, when compared
to alternatives, flexible packaging options offer petfood
manufacturers a more sustainable system than any other. The
packages are very lightweight, many are made principally from
renewable materials, they are efficient to transport,and they
perform their intended function reasonably well.
However, flexible packaging is often criticized because it
is difficult to recycle. Well, don't despair. Today's recycling
system is highly focused on only a few materials: corrugated
paperboard, office paper, newsprint, aluminum, steel,
polyethylene terephthalate and, in some cases,
Most materials collected in municipal recycling schemes do
not actually get recycled because there is no market for the
recycled material. In light of these limitations, one can argue
that focusing on developing a petfood package that is
recyclable will have very little value if it is not actually
Organizations like the Flexible Packaging Association and
SPC are working to address the issues that limit the recycling
of petfood packaging materials. By focusing on the needs of the
recycler and pooling the efforts of the entire packaging supply
chain, these issues can be solved.