Long term vision critical for sustainable packaging

By Joseph Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainability Life cycle assessment

Food and drink packaging’s sustainability could be improved through more developed analytical software, wider use of consumer communication tools and more varied and detailed information, according to one leading academic expert.

Thinking about sustainability at the design and engineering stage might take more time but would benefit products in the long term, Dr Rupert Hurley, associate professor at Clemson University, told FoodProductionDaily.com.

“Sustainability is here to stay and it is part of the development process,”​ he said. ”Companies that rush through the process are truly not sustainable. The cost at first may be higher and the ROI [return on investment] not as immediate, but taking the time to build the process will be better long term.

“Better information will reduce the use of non-conforming consumer packaging, and QR [Quick Response] codes and any resources consumers can use on their mobiles to learn more will help.”

Factors to be considered

He said designers of packaging should consider its sustainability and life cycle analysis (LCA). Appropriate raw materials, distribution details and risk of damage were other factors that needed to be considered, Hurley added.

“To borrow a quote from the SPC [Sustainable Packaging Coalition], sustainable packaging is ‘made from materials healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios’,”​ he told this site.

Hurley said Clemson University focused on how to design packaging properly, optimise the supply chain, justify the materials used and have checks throughout the process. This might take more time but led to a sustainable product, he said.

‘Every facet of design process’

“Sustainability covers every facet of the design process. Developing product and packaging needs to be done in tandem.”

Integrating packaging and product, as with water soluble films, could improve sustainability and localising products, lessening the time between manufacture and consumer use, also helped, he said.

He stressed that everyone had a role to play. Researchers, for example, could help improve LCA data through populating databases to reflect what is known.

Role of education

They could also help engineers to understand sustainability as a concept and educate consumers to make the most of packaging opportunities and choose suitable waste disposal methods.

Hurley said making packaging lighter overall by sourcing fewer substrates was one way to make it more sustainable. However, he cautioned that it still needed to meet the basic needs of the product and consumer. If the approach led to the packaging rupturing during transportation, for example, the process could no longer be viewed as sustainable.


He added that despite a plethora of software and resources the drive for sustainability could often be time consuming and complex. “Most software is still at the preliminary metric stage. Not all of it is agreed upon, so we need someone who has done the research and understands the end results.

“The software is still relatively new and there is a lot of data on the screen, it needs to be understood so we can leverage and use the tools to good effect.”

Brand involvement in sustainability issues

Wal-Mart’s use of a scorecard to measure packaging sustainability was one example of how firms were reacting to consumer’s environmental concerns, said Natalie Quin, private co-ordinator at consulting firm Sustainable Ally.

Another illustration was Frito Lay’s relaunch of its SunChips brand in polylactic acid packaging after consumer complaints the bag was too noisy, she added.

Top sustainability issues for their clients revolved around carbon footprint, life cycle analysis and barrier properties, said Quin. “The industry is moving in the right direction to reduce packaging. It is key for engineers and designers to look for people of expertise and build on education.”

She added that US businesses had signalled that sustainability was a priority by joining organisations such as the SPC and recognising the important issues.

Related topics Processing & Packaging

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1 comment

Good Perspective

Posted by Allison,

I like the emphasis you guys place on a holistic view of sustainability within packaging. I also agree that we need more expert interpretation of LCAs/sustainability software in order for it to be used effectively. Great points.

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