Sustainability can encompass far more than whether a wrapper is recyclable, says Adam Gendell, who works with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “Something that’s good from a greenhouse-gas or carbon-footprint standpoint isn’t necessarily good from a recyclability standpoint,” he says.
Considerations include which raw material was used and how it was grown, transported, manufactured, processed, packaged, sold and, ultimately, used by the consumer, says Marc Major, cofounder of Cleargreen Advisors in Boulder, Colo. And then there’s the issue of what happens to the package when the consumer is finished with the product—will it be recycled or composted?
Sustainable packaging—especially for products that typically come enveloped in plastic—can simply mean choosing recycled or post-consumer plastics over virgin plastic. There are two main types of recycled plastic: PET, or #1 plastic, can be translucent or tinted, making it the clear choice for water and soft drink bottles—though the higher the percentage of recycled material, the more discoloration that occurs, says Marny Bielefeldt, marketing manager at St. Louis-based Alpha Packaging. HDPE, or #2 plastic, is never clear, so it’s often used for nonfood products such as laundry detergent.
Some companies are moving toward bioplastics like PLA, which is made from corn rather than fossil fuels. But PLA has its own drawbacks: The plastic is more brittle, and it doesn’t provide an adequate moisture or heat barrier for many products. Plus, the corn is often genetically modified.
To quantify their efforts, some manufacturers conduct a lifecycle assessment—an attempt to study a product’s impacts on energy, water, toxicity and wildlife habitat. But, Major notes, “they’re very expensive, very time consuming and not that accurate.”
So while it’s important to consider every detail in the big picture, Major says manufacturers shouldn’t be deterred from making smaller improvements. “The perfect becomes the enemy of the good,” he says. “This is an urgent set of problems, and the more delay we indulge in, the less likely we are to solve the whole situation.”