Green packaging requires urgent rethink to avoid landfill legacy
The adoption of sustainable packaging strategies such as material minimisation and lightweighting may be doing more harm than good, experts have warned.
According to latest thinking in this field, issues of product protection and durability need to come to the fore so packaging methods can reduce both environmental impact and risk of product damage.
This means thinking beyond finding the latest sustainable material, as different materials have different properties and what might work for one product may not benefit another.
Talking to Reuters, environmental packaging advocate Joan Pierce maintains that figuring out the right kind of packaging isn't a one-time effort for businesses.
"You can't say that there is one material that's better than another. You have to pick the material that's right for your product. Focus on continuous improvement. If you do that, you're going to be way ahead," she advised.
This view is echoed by Dow Chemical's global sustainability leader Jeff Wooster, who points out that cutting back on too much packaging will damage a product, representing wasted energy and natural resource loss.
"We need to think of product protection as a part of sustainability. If we waste the product ... we have certainly done more harm than good," he said.
Recycled packaging materials usually aren't as durable as non-recycled ones, which presents a further dilemma. For example, every time paper is recycled its fibres are shortened, making it structurally weaker than non-recycled.
According to packaging consultant Sterling Anthony, maintaining consistent quality when using packaging made from a recycled material can be tricky.
He recommends companies take a gradual approach to incorporating a certain percentage of recycled content, increasing its amount in stages until they find an optimum performance level.
Wooster adds that decisions around greener packaging must take into account not just how natural a material is, but also how much energy and other resources are required to make it.
For example, he argues that the production process for a paper shopping bag takes more energy and water and releases more greenhouse gases than that for a standard plastic bag.