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How Green Is My Package?
by Ian Allard
“Green packaging” is the new buzzword for companies that have analyzed their packaging methods, materials, and procedures, and come up with an environmentally friendly and effective solution. It means environmental factors have been taken into account in packaging decisions.
As a result, green packaging is mainly about using fewer resources or using materials that are reusable, recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable—in other words, using materials preferable to our environment in order to make them “green.” When designing packaging, consider several key factors:
Materials: In addition to using more environmentally preferable materials, develop packaging with reduced environmental inputs (energy, materials).
Dimensional efficiency: Consider the relationship of surface product/sales area, mass and volume of the packaging, and product. Take into account any clear empty space that could be reduced in volume. When applied to the whole packaging system (secondary, tertiary, and so on), this can improve logistical efficiency and, thus, carbon emissions.
Information and claims: Packaging is a vector of information to the consumer. Assess environmental claims and information that help consumers at packaging end of life or to check the credibility of any information provided.
Consumption and residues: Estimate the ability to easily open and reseal the package in the case of marginal use.
End of life: Take into account the ability of the packaging to be recycled, recovered thermally or biologically.
Why Green Packaging?
There are many reasons an organization may wish to utilize these tools. First, there is the issue of compliance, and within this area, there is scope for environmental and economic cost savings. There are many EU, U.K., and global regulations, which set environmental requirements. Below is a summary of the regulations that are the most relevant to packaging:
Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007
Every EU member state sets stringent recycling and recovery targets that must be met. To meet these challenges, the EU puts pressure on industry and organizations to change the way consumer goods are packaged. The EU charges for every piece of packaging put on the market. The more packaging an organization uses and the heavier that packaging is, the more the organization has to pay. Reducing primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging ultimately saves organizations money and benefits the environment through waste reduction and resource conservation. In order to reduce packaging, an organization must understand areas of potential improvement, which can be done through some form of life cycle analysis.
EU Landfill Directive
Throughout the EU, it is becoming increasingly expensive to dispose of certain wastes by traditional means. For example, the standard rate landfill tax in the U.K. is £8 a year per tonne until at least 2014 This will have a significant effect on waste carriers, who will then pass the charges on to their clients.
The more packaging material an organization reduces when placing products on the market, and the more materials an organization makes available for reuse or recycling, the lower the disposal costs will be for end users and distributors. These costs can be passed down the supply chain, making a specific packaged product more appealing and valuable to the consumer or distributor, who benefits from reduced packaging and waste costs.
Historically, taking such an approach may have brought extra costs to an organization, and only those wishing to define themselves as responsible or “green” would have taken up the idea of green packaging. Today, however, companies are increasingly realizing that not only does a green packaging strategy add value to their product, in terms of its consumer saleability and marketability, it also has the advantage of saving costs, from a reduction in the use of raw materials to a reduction in processing costs. This has made the idea of green packaging more realistic and applicable, with environmental and economic factors considered together in packaging design decisions. An organization must now fully understand the life cycle of its packaging, which can present difficulties for any company.
Life Cycle Assessment
A life cycle assessment of an organization’s product, service, or packaging aims to take a holistic approach to analysis and help reduce harm to the environment. An LCA, or “cradle-to-grave” approach, estimates the impact of a set number of representative environmental criteria—eutrophication, global warming, acidification, waste, and so on—throughout the lifetime of a product, including its design, use, and disposal. This enables better understanding of the most significant effects throughout the supply chain.
Life cycle thinking has become the backbone of many environmental regulations, and the ISO 14040 series provides guidance and regulatory standards on the accurate performance of assessments of a product in order to attain international recognition for the standards to which it adheres. Once the life cycle of a product, service, or piece of packaging is known, an effective and targeted solution can focus on such things as design improvement and raw material usage. Until the most significant impacts are understood, a green or sustainable packaging strategy could be ineffectual. The analysis helps to compare environmental benefits with costs and addresses the technical performance that can enhance the marketability and value of a product through a “green claim.”
A green claim is a very generic term that is used to group together a variety of different tools organizations can use to promote the environmental credentials or properties of a product, piece of packaging, or service. The most common form is an eco-label, but a green claim could also be a statement or a marketing campaign, in which an organization may state that its product does X, which is better than Y. These claims can be based on the same environmental impact criteria outlined above for an LCA, or on another set of criteria recognized by the market. An organization may use several types of eco-labels and declarations based on the ISO 14020 series. The standards and principles must not only be adhered to but must also:
- Be accurate, verifiable, relevant, and not misleading;
- Not be an obstacle to international trade;
- Be based on scientific methodology with accurate and reproducible results;
- Provide information concerning the procedure, methodology, and any criteria used to support the environment;
- Take into consideration all relevant aspects of the life cycle of the product;
- Not inhibit innovation;
- Be applicable;
- Include an open, participatory consultation with interested parties; and
- Provide information on environmental aspects of the product to purchasers.
One type of eco-label is a self-declaration, which is based on the international standard Type II ISO14021. It is a voluntary, multiple criteria-based, third-party program based on life cycle considerations, which awards a license that authorizes the use of environmental labels on products. The label indicates the eco-friendliness of a product within a particular product category. Examples include:
- EU – Eco-Label;
- Nordic Swann; and
- Blue Angel.
Another type of eco-label is the Environment Product Declaration based on Type III – ISO 14025. This is a measure of the quantified environmental data for a product against pre-set categories of parameters based on the ISO 14040 series standard. Type III declares lifetime environmental impact information in the form of quantities, based on LCA. A green claim is a good way to set a product or service apart from the competition and gives consumers more complete information about what they are buying. If an organization decides to make its own green claim using internationally defined criteria, it may need an external third party to verify this claim. Otherwise, if the claim proves to be inaccurate, it may damage a company’s reputation and increase the risk of noncompliance-related fines.
Put It All Together
Green packaging, LCA, and green claims are very closely related responses to greater demand for environmental awareness on the part of companies and industry. To understand how to make packaging more sustainable or green, an organization must understand the life cycle of the packaging in order to use a targeted, efficient, and appropriate solution to maximize the environmental and economical benefits of its processes. Once an organization has improved or changed its approach to and strategy for packaging, it may wish to demonstrate this to the consumer through a green claim. An organization may choose to set its own criteria and/or have a third party verify its claim, or it may wish to use one of the existing eco-labels on the market.
Implementation of ecodesign thinking is required under the EuP (ErP) Ecodesign Directive. Ecodesign is a crucial factor in the minimization of a product’s environmental impact. As a preventive approach, ecodesign determines the processes, materials, and energy required to produce a product and its functionalities and to reach its destination at the end of its life cycle, as determined during the design stage. Its function is to help secure future energy sources and reduce consumption. Its initial aims are to take the worst performing energy-using products off the market and to provide the standard structure of a technical documentation file for all kinds of products. Implementing measures give two kinds of requirements, specific to each product group: generic requirements that aim at improving environmental performance without setting limit values and specific requirements that aim to improve a selected environmental aspect of the product within set limits.
At present, ecodesign is aimed at energy and is not specific to food products and packaging. However, a movement in France that seeks to transfer the life cycle of different product categories to a single eco-label is gaining momentum. This movement would give consumers environmental indicators for each product group in order to inform their purchasing choices. The success of this movement would mean regulations that would more than likely spread across Europe. It could even become a legal requirement to understand the life cycle of a product, including its packaging.
Other factors driving greater numbers of organizations to look at the life cycle of their packaging in order to enhance sustainability include:
- A drive to enhance the transparency of the packaging process through stating the whole life cycle, thus enhancing communication with suppliers and consumers.
- A drive to improve the efficiency and reduce the costs of the packaging process, by understanding what the main costs are in both environmental and economic terms and looking for targeted solutions to reduce raw material costs.
- A drive to enhance engagement with the buyer or improve the manufacturer-consumer relationship through green claims to enhance a product’s or organization’s brand and sustainability image.
- A drive to improve product value through green claims, making it a consumer first choice, or to maximize the profit margin with lower packaging costs.
More and more organizations seek to reduce packaging costs by performing packaging LCAs. More and more companies are also benefiting from the added value of such strategies to their bottom line. Furthermore, a greater number of consumers are concerned with the overuse of packaging and are choosing products that have lower environmental impact. One way organizations are choosing to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability to consumers is through green claims and eco-labels. Can you afford to be left behind?
Ian Allard is a sustainability consultant at SGS Consumer Testing Services in the U.K.