The Rise of Sustainable Industrial Packaging

Humans have used a year’s supply of natural resources in less than 8 months as the population continues to demand more from the Earth. It seems ecological debt is inevitable based on recent statistics relating to carbon emissions, fish stocks, the use of forests for timber and the planet’s ability to regenerate the mentioned resources and naturally absorb carbon emissions. Excess demands being placed on precious natural resources are doing more permanent and long term damage that cannot be easily reversed.

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Due to the growing global population alongside the expansion of consumption around the world, it is estimated that human consumption first began to exceed normal capacity in the early 70s. According to the president of Global Footprint Network, Mathis Wackernagel, the problem lies in that humanity cannot maintain the Earth’s natural resources in the long run, nor the deficit which increases every year. He also added that even though that we are in a deficit, humanity is not taking any measures to move everything back in the right direction. The evidence of the ecological deficit can be seen through deforestation, soil erosion, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the depletion of food and water resources. If these trends continue without any adequate plans, humanity will surely face a bleak future. How can humanity sustain the planet’s resources? What are the ways in which sustainability can be applied to reverse the effects of over-harvesting the Earth’s resources? One way of solving environmental issues is to focus on sustainable and recyclable packaging. We all know that all consumer goods being processed and sold around the world require packaging and processing plants, however, businesses can do their part to make world resources more sustainable.

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Climate change, pollution and energy usage are all environmental issues provoking international attention and debate about the sustainability of humanity’s lifestyle in the modern world. Environmental sustainability has become a mainstream concern for many governments, businesses and individuals in order to preserve the planet’s future. Although there are already several concepts in action to contribute to sustainable design and practices, these are still at a less than optimal level and vast improvements have to be made. The worldwide packaging industry has been concerned with the environment for several decades now. The main cause of the concerns has been based on environmental losses and uses of packaging materials, as well as which materials are best to use for environmental, economic and commercial efficiency. When these concerns are viewed in an international context, it becomes more complex. Packaging material must not only consider the environmental concerns of the country where the product is being sold, but they also need to comply with the packaging rules and regulations of the country.

What Is The Role Of Packaging In Society?

Packaging is a form of service. The present level of economic development in modern society relies on modern services. To obtain the consumer goods society needs, packaging is required. One of the most important roles of packaging is that it satisfies human need in an effective way. Effective packaging does its job with little use of resources and minimal overall waste. Conserving any perishable goods also prevents early spoilage, prolongs the shelf-life and helps distribution across great distances.

The role of packaging in reducing waste is most evident in food packaging. When food is processed and packed, the food residues are usually used as bio-fuels, animal food or some other economically useful by-product. If the packaging of processed food is not present, food spoilage will happen and will create additional garbage. As the use of packaging materials goes up, the amount of food waste goes down. For every 1% increase in packaging, food wastage goes down by about 1.6%.

Packaging serves 4 purposes:

  • Protect and preserve the product. This is specifically important in the food industry where packaging developments have been an essential factor in reducing wasted produce in the supply chain.
  • Communicates brand image. The design and format of the packaging are a key tool for marketers in projecting the brand image for their products.
  • Convey product information. This includes how to prepare, use or consume the product or legally  required information like nutritional value or the list of ingredients.
  • Convenience. This involves many aspects like instructions on how to use the product, how to properly stack and store the product and the proper disposal of the product.

What Is Sustainable Packaging?

Sustainable packaging refers to the development and use of packaging resulting in improved sustainability. This involves the use of LCI (life cycle inventory) and LCA (life cycle assessment) to help reduce the environmental impact and ecological footprint of packaging. Sustainable packaging includes a look at the whole supply chain. The primary goal of sustainable packaging is to enhance quality of life and the increase the longevity of natural ecosystems. As mentioned earlier, it should also meet the economic and functional needs of the present generation without compromising the abilities of future generations to sustain themselves and meet their own needs. Sustainable packaging is a new addition to environmental considerations for industrial packaging. It’s not enough to say that a company is “going green”. Instead, businesses should try to include analysis of package design, choice of materials and overall sustainability in their manufacturing processes.

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Companies implementing these “going green initiatives”  are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, taking advantage of recycled materials and reusing more package components. They also encourage their customers, suppliers, distributors and contact packagers to do the same. Currently there is no packaging solution that is 100% sustainable, however, technology and innovation are being harnessed within the industry to address these challenges. Despite the lack of a complete solution, there is still a good reason for industrial packaging companies to move forward with more sustainable packaging solutions that will provide enhanced environmental performance and business value.

According to the SPC (Sustainable Packaging Coalition), sustainable packaging is that which:

  • Meets market criteria for cost and performance
  • Is beneficial, healthy and safe for individuals and communities throughout the packaging life cycle
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported and then recycled using renewable energy
  • Maximises the use of recycled or renewable materials
  • Is made using clean production technologies and other best practices
  • Is physically designed to optimise material and energy

Making the switch to more sustainable industrial packaging is one step toward achieving sustainable objectives.

There are different criteria for ranking and comparing packaging based on their sustainability. These criteria are in continuous development and are published by many different groups. Consumers, retailers and governments all share the same goals when it comes to packaging:

  • Functional. This includes safety, product protection and regulatory compliance.
  • Cost effective. A product or a solution is unlikely to be used if it is too expensive.
  • Support. For long-term human and ecological health.

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Design Objectives for Sustainability

If you’re a packaging designer or engineer, you may think that putting sustainability into consideration would limit your creativity, but finding innovative solutions for sustainable packaging is a good and exciting opportunity to showcase your skills. As a packaging designer, you play an important role in making sustainable packaging a reality. As you know, design is a critical point in developing products that incorporates sustainability principles, and yet, there are ongoing debates on the broader issues of sustainable consumption. These debates and arguments have direct implications for the whole packaging industry, but are nonetheless outside the scope of most designers and engineers. The debate is essential to be mentioned because any decision that involves the sustainable levels and consumption patterns will be a major factor in the direction of the efforts in sustainable packaging.

The definition of quality encourages engineers and designers to rethink conventional design objectives like cost, technical performance, appearance and regulatory compliance.

1. Technical performance

Technical performance contains several factors:

  • Physical protection. This is the primary goal of packaging. As a designer, when you consider any protective design features, you need to evaluate the importance of each feature offered by the packaging. Avoid over-engineering because it may make the packaging too complex or too vulnerable.
  • Asset protection. In some areas of retail, packaging can be a means of theft prevention, but predominantly relying on product packaging for asset protection may lead designers to over-package the product. You can break this cycle by thinking of new and efficient ways to prevent theft without including any redundant layers of protection.

2. Mechanical requirements

The package design should be able to maintain product protection and withstand all mechanical requirements associated with the packing, handling, transporting and storing of the product. Some products may require more protection than others, but in general, the higher the product value, the higher its resource intensity and the higher the financial and environmental impact that is associated with packing failure. Although designing the packaging for the worst case scenario is a good thing, it may result in over-packing.

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3. Cost

The cost of packaging ties in with the materials used. Although the base material is one of the biggest cost factors, packaging fees also contribute to the calculating cost of the product packaging. A well-designed package that incorporates environmental considerations has the ability to lower the cost of packaging through efficient energy use and resources, minimised fees and compliance with industry regulations.

4. Final appearance

A creative design or image can communicate information to consumers by providing product details which ultimately make purchasing decisions easier. For example, sustainable packaging uses “green” marketing claims, labels and symbols. Any misleading, overused or illegitimate claims may be subjected to penalties and possible product recalls. All claims should comply with the environmental marketing guides of the source and market countries.

5. Regulatory compliance

Just like in any other industries, there are many regulations that govern packaging. These regulations can range from labelling to design requirements and the recovery of EOL requirements. It’s very important to know and understand  the packaging restrictions to avoid any fines, penalties and unwanted delays. Some regulations are based on the type of product being packaged and sold while others are based on the design of the packaging. Regulations are updated and changed from time to time, but the guidelines generally fall into the rules and regulations listed below.

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  • AS/NZS ISO 14021:2000 Australia & New Zealand Standard, Environmental labels and declarations – Self declared environmental claims.
  • Directive 94/62/EC on Packaging and Packaging Waste, including amendments.
  • U.S. Labelling Guidelines: Federal Trade Commission “Environmental Marketing Guides” (which is similar in the UK and Canada).


  • EN 13427:2004 Requirements for the use of European Standards in the field of packaging and packaging waste.
  • National Packaging Covenant, Australia.
  • ISO 14040:1997 – Life Cycle Assessment General Principles Standard.

The sustainable development movement has always been “reduce, reuse and recycle”. Thus, designers would have to take into account other important considerations. Designers should think of alternative, more sustainable materials and designs. Some of the key areas that also need to be addressed are as follows:

  • Maximising energy and water efficiency. Designers should try to cut the amount of energy used in the manufacturing process of the packaging. This can be achieved by changing the materials used or changing the production process.
  • Minimising materials. Source reduction is in line with sustainability. Reducing the volume of primary materials used in the packaging production by combining primary, secondary and tertiary materials whenever possible reduces the amount of packaging.
  • Taking advantage of recycled materials. If recycled materials are incorporated in the packaging design, the industry’s carbon footprint will surely go down. Recycled materials require less energy as compared to virgin materials, thus emitting less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is also the same with renewable materials like paper, cards, cardboards and bio polymers in the manufacturing process.
  • Minimising risks associated with hazardous materials. Any packaging that contains hazardous materials poses great risks to consumers and the environment. During the design process, the toxic materials should be identified and removed from the product. If this is not possible, the appropriate handling and control systems should be implemented.
  • Acquiring materials from responsible suppliers. Whenever possible packaging materials should be purchased from companies who have a documented environmental management system and who are committed to providing sustainable materials.
  • Providing information on sustainability. Most consumers are becoming more aware of sustainable solutions. It is now expected that the packaging of most consumer goods should provide clear information about the materials used, including the degradability and recyclability of the packaging after use.

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Why Don’t People Recycle?

While the concept of sustainability is being pushed by many countries and businesses, the concept will not be 100% if the consumers themselves do no adhere to recycling practices. For decades now, our society has been defined by excessive consumption without thinking of the possible consequences for the environment and for future generations. The concept of sustainability is not yet being embraced by everyone. Many see it as a fad that will go away, but changes are in the air. More and more people are becoming aware and are changing their lifestyles.

Here are just some of the reasons people don’t recycle and play their part towards sustainability:

#1 An Inconvenience To Many People

Inconvenience is one of the main reasons people don’t recycle. In some cases, some don’t have a recycling collection in their area or neighbourhood. Others don’t have the time to segregate their waste or they don’t have the storage space for recycle bins. Some people get confused which types of materials are appropriate for recycling or not.

# 2 There Are No Incentives

Most are not compelled to recycle unless there is some personal gain involved. Some countries and cities give fines to people who do not recycle.

#3 Complacency

Some people just don’t really care. Some don’t have any desire to change their wasteful lifestyle and conserve. Environmental concerns like pollution, over-fishing, over-farming and global warming are not priorities or issues to some people, therefore they are not motivated to do their share.

#4 Recycling Misinformation

Some people think that the Earth has infinite natural resources or that future technologies will be able to solve all of our sustainability problems. Some also believe that their efforts are not making any impact on the overall solution to the problem so they decide to do nothing.

#5 Lack of Education

Lack of education about the benefits of recycling and the concept of sustainability will surely rear its ugly head in the years to come if society does not shape up. Natural resources will run out and pollution will make it worse for future generations if we don’t use our resources more wisely. At the end of the day, the government, educational institutions and society as a whole should be involved and sustainability education should be introduced around the globe.

The Business Advantages Of Sustainability             

Sustainable packaging is not only focused on the product, but also taking care of the waste after packaging production. Any packaging business can get a number of benefits from recovering and recycling waste, although you have to remember that recycling and other waste management methods use energy, thus the priority should be to reduce overall waste during production. You can enjoy the benefits of sustainability by:

#1 Complying With Waste Regulations

Many businesses are facing increased legal obligations because of their waste. In some industries, these businesses also have a legal responsibility to correctly dispose of their products and assets like packaging, electronics, batteries and company vehicles. By implementing sustainable waste management practices, businesses will have an easy way to comply with waste regulations and be prepared for any new legislation that may come through.

Penalties for failing to manage environmental risks can be substantial, plus your business reputation can be damaged. This can also disrupt business operations.

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#2 Implementing good Waste Management Techniques

Your business can save capital if you implement good waste management techniques and increase your recycling rates. If applicable, you can do this by reducing your costs and handling and managing waste, spend less on materials and other goods and reduce the amount of landfill tax by reducing the amount of waste you send to the landfill. Sustainability projects can also attract new contracts from investors and new customers. Put more focus on making your products and packaging easy to recycle and recycling your own business waste.

#3 Recycling!

This is quite obvious, but let us state some comparisons. Producing recycled aluminium uses 5% less energy than that needed to process raw aluminium. When you recycle 2 glass bottles, the energy saved can be used to boil 5 cups of tea. Furthermore, the less waste you send to the landfill, the less methane you produce. This way, your company won’t be making greenhouse gases and climate change worse.

What The Future Holds

Consumerism has resulted in many environmental issues, specifically climate change. The exhaustion the Earth’s natural resources and the depletion of forests, lakes, rivers and other natural environments are real concerns. Although these aspects are not the sole cause of present environmental issues, they still raise concerns that many businesses, governments and societies need to address. We can achieve a solution if packaging is made to be fully sustainable, avoiding any negative impact on the environment. At present, many industries and businesses are moving in the right direction. Within the last 6 years, the percentage of sustainable packaging has gone up by 11%. A sustainable future is in our hands.

Let’s do our part and help sustainability reach its full potential.


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