Too narrow of a focus on sustainable packaging can be troublesome for these three reasons.

Robert M. Lilienfeld

Due in large part to pressure from Walmart, consumer product companies are scrambling to create “sustainable” packaging. Marketers are “greening up” their cans, bottles, bags, and boxes and promoting their packages as being recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, or made with renewable resources. Consumers are increasingly purchasing or punishing products based on these green credentials.Laudable as this may sound, these efforts often miss the point.  Focusing too narrowly on the environmental bona fides of packaging is troublesome for many reasons.  Here are three:

The 7% solution

The real environmental issue isn’t the package–it’s the stuff in the package.  Research indicates that consumer products create approximately 93% of the environmental impact and their packaging is responsible for the remaining 7%.

Why do we focus so heavily on packaging?  Probably because the public has little emotional interest in it.  We’re not really buying the plastic, paper or metal packaging.  We’re buying that expensive plasma HDTV, perfume, or Toy Story 3 action figure in which we have enormous emotional interest.  Focusing our environmental concern on the products themselves rather than the packages would require us to analyze our purchasing behavior.  That would cause us to confront the elephant in the room: consumption and the friction it causes between a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment.  (Anybody up for that conversation on Christmas morning?)

Less is usually, but not always, more

My organization,, has produced or reviewed countless environmental studies over the past 17 years.  They predominately reach the same conclusion: The best way to reduce waste is to start with less stuff.  Using less stuff also generally results in using less energy, so waste and greenhouse gases decline as packaging weight per unit of product declines.

But there is a tipping point.  A package contains, protects and identifies something of value.  Reducing packaging beyond its ability to protect a product obviously produces more waste-the product breaks and needs to be discarded.  Think about eggs.  While they could be packaged in lightweight plastic bags, the resulting broken eggs would create more waste and a much larger environmental footprint than the foam or pulp egg carton that is replaced. 

So more packaging–actually, the proper packaging needed to safely transport, store and display the eggs–ultimately equals less waste and improved sustainability.  

Green doesn’t necessarily equal sustainable

Physics tells us that every action generates a reaction.  Creating and transporting a product, no matter how politically correct or green sounding, generates waste:  Collecting, transporting and reprocessing recyclable materials all generate solid waste and greenhouse gases.  Biodegradation and composting release carbon dioxide and methane. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable resources can lead to deforestation, reduced biodiversity, rising food prices, and social unrest.

In the end, sustainable packaging does not simply mean recyclable, compostable, biodegradable or renewable. These factors are important, but they are merely tools in the much bigger toolbox needed to build sustainable packaging that delivers maximum product value with minimal environmental impact. 

So how do we do increase sustainability of products and packaging?

First, instead of focusing so heavily on packaging (7%), consumer product companies must determine the environmental footprint of a product’s creation, delivery, use and disposal (93%) and make that information public.

Second, retailers and consumers must use this information to evaluate the impacts of products, not simply the packaging, and then make informed, appropriate choices.

Third, we all must realize that the laws of nature are governed by physics, not by today’s prevailing psychology or clever marketing.  Rather than looking solely at one attribute (“Hey, it’s recyclable!”) to evaluate sustainability, we must look more broadly at the lifecycle of both the product and its packaging, from cradle to grave. Regardless of our psychological needs, physics usually will tell us that the answer is simply to use less stuff.  

I realize that bridging this gap between physics and psychology is a difficult, complicated process. However, if we can't do it ourselves, the laws of nature will do it for us. I'm guessing we won't like the results. F&BP

Robert M. Lilienfeld is a Fox TV environmental commentator and Editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a newsletter dedicated to conserving resources and reducing waste. He also founded the website. Along with Dr. William J. Rathje, he co-authored the book Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Areand the 1995 landmark New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled Six Enviro-Myths.