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Special Edition: Sustainable packaging

Sustainable packaging - road map or road to nowhere?

By Rory Harrington , 28-Apr-2010
Last updated on 28-Apr-2010 at 14:16 GMT

Sustainable packaging is a buzzword on the lips of consumers and industry players alike. But what is sustainable packaging and how far has the sector come in developing a road map towards this most elusive of goals?

Until recently food packaging was routinely vilified as a symbol of society’s wasteful excess. But all that is changing thanks to the packing industry efforts to define sustainability parameters, combined with a shift in public perception over the value of packaging.

Trade organisations such as the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment (Europen) would say this is merited recognition for long-term commitment from the industry – both in terms of developing a consensus on sustainability principles in packaging and in the on-going greening of its products in terms of sourcing, weight and recyclability.

Europen declares that in order to meet sustainable principles packaging should include holistic design, responsible sourcing of materials, the ability to perform and be recovered efficiently after use.

However, in its position statement on the matter the body said it avoids “speaking of 'sustainable' packaging because packaging is just one of many elements that can help companies meet corporate sustainability goals”. Sustainable packaging cannot be an end in itself, rather there are more sustainable ways of manufacturing it, said the group.

Global Packaging Project

A step change in progress on the matter came earlier this year when the Consumer Goods Forum's Global Packaging Project - made up of many of the world's largest producers and users of food packaging - agreed common definitions and principles for packaging in the framework of sustainability.

This was followed by the launch of a pilot programme to road-test the metrics and indicators within real business situations. A report on this is due to be delivered in November 2010.

The principles and metrics being put through their paces are based on those developed by Europen and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in the United States, and the results of the pilot are likely to have huge consequences for whether sustainable packaging can develop a viable road map or not.

Growing maturity

Philip Richardson, head of food manufacturing technologies, at Campden BRI is also convinced that packaging is getting a fairer hearing but is uncertain that the development of a universal roadmap for sustainability is possible.

“There was a period where any packaging was seen as bad but that is now being balanced out,” he told FoodProductionDaily.com. “There is an increasing recognition of the valuable functions that packaging performs in ensuring food products withstand the rigours of the distribution chain and its vital role in extending shelf-life.”

He added: “I am not convinced that we are too far down the road towards a definition of sustainable packaging. Instead current definitions overlap greatly with those aimed at delivering business sustainability. It is difficult to compile a single road map because of the sheer variety of sectors and the breadth of their sustainability requirements. I believe that companies have come to realise the importance of sustainability because it is important to consumers."

However, if Richardson has reservations of a 'one-size-fits-all' solution for sustainable packaging, he believes that 2010 will see industry leaders begin to chart a clearer path to address the complex issues surrounding the environmental impact of food and drink production.

"Attitudes are shifting and as measurement improves, we will see the emergence of more mature and substantial approaches to counter or minimise negative environmental consequences,” he said recently. “Open innovation will play a crucial role as the industry explores new technologies and processes rooted in a truer understanding of the challenges facing different areas of the industry.”

He added: "Sustainability is a lot to do with good housekeeping and good practice – about not creating waste unnecessarily, recycling what you can and exploring energy efficiency. There has been a growing awareness of the importance of carbon dioxide emission for some time but this is being joined by such issues as water waste, which is equally important."