Reduce, recycle, renew: Which option is best?
Packagers who want to use “sustainable” materials must first decide what the word means.
Is it recyclable material? (And who decides what’s “recyclable,” anyway?) Or whittling material down as far as it can go and still be functional? Or perhaps using “renewable” bio-based material?
The push toward packaging sustainability is unique among corporate trends in at least one important way: It’s not really being led by consumers.
“Sustainability is this wonderful initiative, and it thrills me to see that corporate America has so completely embraced it,” says Stuart Leslie, president of the packaging design firm 4Sight. “But the challenge is that corporate America is ahead of the consumer, for the first time in their lives, maybe.”
Instead, the push for sustainable materials has come largely from trade customers, especially Walmart. Its packaging scorecard, implemented in 2006, requires vendors to evaluate their packaging according to a standard set of metrics. Whole Foods instituted a similar scorecard last year, and others are reportedly considering doing so.
The Walmart scorecard allows packagers several options in material choice, says Nancy Limback, a former packaging executive with Sara Lee who now serves as a packaging consultant.
“There is not a ‘one size fits all’ magic bullet for targeting improvement on the Walmart scorecard,” Limback says. “Score improvements in material reduction, use of recycled content, recyclable materials and renewable resource materials are all fair considerations. The impact to the overall score depends on the magnitude of the change.”
ReductionSource reduction is one of the most popular sustainability strategies, for a simple reason: Besides burnishing a company’s “green” credentials, it has the potential to save money.
One of the most highly visible instances of source reduction has been in bottled water. With category leader Nestlé Waters in the forefront, bottled water has seen dramatic reductions in the amount of plastic used per bottle.
Nestlé Waters has reduced the weight of its half-liter water bottles by 60% since they were introduced in the mid-1990s, according to Jane Lazgin, a spokesperson for Nestlé Waters North America. Doing so required some fundamental changes to bottle production.
“By 2005 or so we realized that to go any lower [in weight], we would have to redesign the bottle,” Lazgin says. The company made a comprehensive effort in that direction, setting a Europe-based design team to look at all aspects of the bottle: ribs, waist, shoulders, footing. The result was the Eco-Shape, a bottle that weighed in at 12.5 grams for a half-liter bottle. In the last two years, the weight has been further reduced, to 9.3 grams.
“We felt like it was completely justified to call it Eco-Shape because so much plastic had come out,” Lazgin says. The improvements to Nestlé Waters’ carbon footprint came not just because the bottle saved on plastic, but because its lighter weight reduced shipping costs both to and from the bottling plants. In the latest development, Nestlé reduced the size of its closure nearly by half. It’s an example of how source reduction can save money while burnishing a company’s green image-a true win-win situation.
Nestlé Waters, along with the rest of the bottled water industry, can use the green credibility. Bottled water has taken some major hits on ecological grounds, with critics citing the alleged wastefulness of using plastic bottles to package a product that flows from taps at a much lower cost.
On the other hand, when your material-reduction efforts get noticed by consumers, that’s not always a good thing. The ultra-thin Nestlé bottles, with their shallow caps, have generated something of a consumer backlash.
“You have a package that consumers hate,” 4Sight’s Leslie says. “Consumers are cutting their hands when they go to open the package because it’s so difficult.”
Lazgin acknowledges that the cap has presented some problems: “Consumers weren’t altogether, 100% unanimously in favor of the cap. It got very small, it had fewer threads, and so it was a little harder to grasp and open, and harder to put back on.” Nestlé is currently retooling the cap, hoping to maintain the lighter weight while adding a thread to make it more secure.
The Nestlé situation is an example of how green efforts don’t always connect with consumers, Leslie says.
“In a perfect world, consumers would be so on board with this sustainability message that they’d be thrilled to spill a little bit of water on the ground every time they open the package if they knew that that package had half the plastic of five years ago,” he says. “But the consumer is not quite there.”
Leslie mentioned 4Sight’s work on bottles for ready-to-drink Lipton tea as an example of successful downsizing. The new design reduced plastic by one-third while incorporating swirls and other elements that differentiate it from PET water and soda bottles.
“Talk about stabbing sustainability right in the heart-that’s a real easy way to tackle it,” he says.
RecyclingWhile source reduction may be invisible or even annoying to consumers, recycling is a sustainability strategy that just about every consumer can understand-at least, those interested in ecological issues.
However, package recycling is more complicated than simply dropping a bottle in a bin.
The package recycling setup in the United States has long been criticized as fragmentary and confused. The chasing-arrows symbols on most rigid plastic packaging exists just to help recyclers sort them by resin, without giving consumers a clue as to how “recyclable” a given package really is. Brand owners who want to tout recyclability explicitly on their packaging must follow regulations of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which make them take into account the availability of recycling in a given geographical area.
A move to clarify package recycling by revamping the standard packaging symbols is underway, spearheaded by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), a project of the environmental nonprofit organization GreenBlue. The system would spell out such words as “widely recycled,” “store dropoff,” “check locally,” and “limited recycling” on a package and offering corresponding visuals oversetting the chasing arrows, such as slash through the arrows to connote the lack of recycling options. The SPC submitted this new labeling system to consumer testing and received the results in January.
“What we found is that the [proposed] label is well-understood and that it does appear that it will prompt the correct consumer behavior,” says Anne Bedarf, the SPC’s project manager. The consumer feedback was used to make minor adjustments to the symbols. The next step will be for some of the consumer packaged goods companies among the SPC’s members to try out the new symbols on selected products, which is scheduled to start in June.
One of the big advantages of the SPC’s new system is that it would, in theory, remove the need for qualifying language now required by the FTC. (To be called “recyclable” under FTC regulations, recycling must be available in at least 60% of the municipalities in the container’s distribution area.)
Another obstacle with recycling is the difficulty in using recycled packaging for its original purpose-so-called “closed-loop” recycling. Most post-consumer recycled (PCR) packaging plastic is used for non-packaging purposes like textiles. There have been some impressive strides toward closed-loop recycling, such as Coca Cola’s joint venture in the world’s largest bottle-to-bottle PET recycling plant in Spartanburg, S.C. But these are exceptions. The recycling infrastructure in the United States still has problems meeting the demand for PCR.
“We know the technology exists to separate mixed plastics [in the recycling stream], but it’s expensive,” Bedarf says. “A lot of companies want it, but it just isn’t around.”
RenewOne of the most attention-getting options when it comes to sustainable materials has been “renewable” bio-based plastics. Unfortunately, not all of the attention has been positive.
Frito-Lay extricated itself recently from a debacle involving the use of polylactic acid (PLA), the most widely used bioplastic, for its single-serve bags of SunChips. Complaints about the bag’s noise when crinkled went viral, becoming the subject of several Facebook pages and resulting in mainstream media coverage. (Frito-Lay recently announced plans to introduce a new version of the SunChips PLA bag, with a new adhesive that eliminates the noise problem.)
The SunChips fiasco shows how consumers simply don’t want to be inconvenienced for the sake of sustainability, Leslie says.
“The mantra is, [packaging] is all about convenience,” he says. “It’s about imagery, it’s about emotion, but sustainability is so far down on the list.”
On the other hand, bio-based materials have racked up some high-profile success, notably the PlantBottle, introduced last year for carbonated beverages and Dasani water from Coca-Cola.
The decision to use bio-based material has to be motivated by more than a simple desire to score “green” points, says June Anderson, a founding partner with the consulting firm Packaging Knowledge Group LLC.
“It depends on the core values of the company and their corporate culture,” Anderson says. “Renewable materials are very important to some organizations and not at all to others.”
In any case, if improving their Walmart scorecard is the primary motivation, packagers might do better to look elsewhere, she says: “Generally speaking, renewable materials don’t give you as much bang for your buck as other strategies.”
Material choices, like sustainability policy in general, need to hit the “sweet spot” of viability and consumer appeal, Leslie says.
“If you get them with the purchase decision, and you just make sure you deliver on all the real-world behavior stuff and the real-world sustainability, and you have a clear conscience that you’ve done something good for the planet, hopefully they’ll realize that, too,” he says. “That seems to be the sweet spot right there.” F&BP