When we look at greenness of a product, type, extent and material of packaging should also a part of the perspective. While a product could be green, its packaging may not. Packaging accounts for almost 10 % of the environmental impact of anything bought. In estimating the “environmental impact” of the package, we assess the material (i.e. embodied intensity), its biodegradability and recyclability, the label and method of printing (e.g. ink used).
Consideration to Green House Gas (GHG) Emissions has also influenced packaging design and the logistics. Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) in the United States has committed to eliminate 2 billion kgs of packaging waste nationwide by 2020. If GMA reaches this target then GHG emissions will reduce equivalent to removing 815,000 cars from the road or to cutting of electricity from 363,000 homes for one year! Environmentally sensitive packaging on a nation-wide basis can thus help in combating climate change.
Today, increased consumer demand has compelled many companies to make packaging as sustainable as possible. An ASSOCHAM study on Domestic Green Packaging Industry showed that “rising environmental concerns about carbon emissions, dearth of natural resources together with increased health awareness and waste reduction targets” are key drivers of green packaging in India (see: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/industry-and-economy/article2543529.ece?ref=wl_opinion)
The Global packaging industry is estimated to be $429 billion. According to a study from Pike Research, sustainable packaging is a fast-growing segment of the global packaging industry, and will grow to 32% of the total market by 2014, up from just 21% in 2009.
It is not surprising therefore that you see commitments and innovations in eco-friendly packaging. EnviroPAK in North America for example uses complex recycled paper pulp for packing electronic goods. By opting for paper pulp in the place of expanded polystyrene, the company has claimed to save 70 per cent in packaging and shipping costs
Sustainable packaging often leads to innovations. While use of recycled paper in packaging is one of the common options, Dell has pioneered the use of bamboo to protect certain devices (see Source: http://content.dell.com/in/en/corp/d/corp-comm/bamboo-packaging). Two-thirds of Dell’s portable devices will ship in bamboo by the end of 2011. Bamboo is local (hence has less GHG emissions), grows quickly and is strong and durable. Plus, bamboo packaging is biodegradable and can be composted after use.
But then “underpackaging” is also not desirable. A recent report by the Global Packaging Project states that the environmental risks of underpackaging can be greater than excessive packaging. By reducing packaging excessively, products get damaged in transit, requiring re-manufacturing and re-distribution in order to replace the original products. Further, there are costs and liabilities for disposal of off-spec, discarded or foul products. Thus, by trying to reduce the environmental impact of packaging, companies may simply be shifting, and potentially increasing, the adverse impact to the environment. So a careful balance is needed and let us not “overdo” sustainability.
(Figure adopted from http://globalpackaging.mycgforum.com/)
For coming up with a sustainable packaging design therefore, every manufacture has to think “out of the box” and yet be “practical”. This is done through clever choice of materials, design and a communiqué that costs, reduces environmental impact and ensure product security. You as a consumer will now judge a product in its totality – not just how green it is but in addition how smart and sensible is the packaging. We got to think Out of the Box!.
(This article is a modified version of the column published in Green Prospects Asia in Malaysia)