“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” and due to that we must conserve it with all our efforts. That is a quote that was ingrained in my brain because it resonated with me. It is one of As Greenpeace USA’s director, Annie Leonard expressed, sustainable packaging has ubiquitously permeated macro society. The advent of cheap and efficient packaging has constructed higher usage permeability amongst all socio-economic demographics alongside myriad positive practical ramifications. However, its future remains dubious as discourse surrounding social, economic and climatic parameters becomes more pervasive. These parameters paired with “regulatory and public concerns1” and modernist green movements have spurred significant reverberations in the packaging industry. Ergo, traditional packaging — namely the non-biodegradable styrofoam, “polystyrene or polyethylene2” — has been exponentially interrogated for its environmental repercussions that have “overtaken the threshold3”. Such packaging has repeatedly threatened environmental protection and social equity: two of the “three pillars of sustainability.4” Consequently, as institutions and nations divert to contemporary and sustainable products, how would packaging’s future transpire? Ergo, this essay will reflect on the nuances of packaging’s future in correlation to social, economic and sustainable ideals. Moreover, the essay will present various sustainable packaging innovations that will continue influencing the sustainable packaging industry.
Sustainable packaging can be constituted as “beneficial, safe [and] healthy5” and “sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy…and utilised in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.6” In fact, a packaging’s carbon footprint or sustainability can be derived from a synthesis of production during its “design, creation and transformation processes7,” to transportation, useful life and ultimately “recycling or management of waste derived from packaging.8” Still, how have social and sustainable values impacted the sustainability industry? Increased consumer awareness — spurred by mainstream media’s proliferation of sustainable packaging’s benefits — has catalysed macro governmental responses to implement packaging regulations. These regulations include “minimi[sing] environmental waste and improve waste-management processes.9” Specifically, eight U.S. states have wholly banned single-use packaging, whilst eight others enacted statewide regulations targeting packaging waste10. More importantly, the E.U. parliament has “voted on a SUP (Single-Use Plastics) directive11” where sustainable packaging is heavily encouraged. Therefore, as corporations and nations transition from single-use packaging to more green options, the sustainable packaging industry is expected to grow exponentially.
Firstly, the packaging industry will undergo mass changes in its method, components and use towards a more sustainable future. To achieve such goals, there are several prerequisites. A salient example is extended producer responsibility, where producers must “financial and operational responsibility12” for the end-of-life of packaging to accentuate sustainability. Furthermore, there must be macro legislative action like California’s groundbreaking ‘Truth in Labelling for Recyclable Materials’ where recyclability is more apparent.13 Also, additives and toxins must be removed from packaging to ensure consumer and environmental safety. This was marked by large corporations like McDonald’s “banning toxic chemicals and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).14” When culminated, these ventures will impel the packaging industry towards a more sustainable future.
As macro legislative action calls for sustainable packaging, there are various sustainable packaging methods. A pertinent example is biodegradable corrugated cardboard packaging that is “fully recyclable without compromising performance or cost.15” These forms of reusable packaging ensure an extended ‘useful life’ whilst minimizing waste and will biodegrade, thus negating landfills. Furthermore, corrugated cardboard “is recycled more than any other packaging material in the U.S.16” Moreover, there are upcoming developments that will transform the sustainable packaging sector. For example, the novel marine source-derived biopolymers utilized for food packaging. Hydrocolloids — found in “biopolymers, protein and polysaccharides17”, provide great flexibility and exhibit good protection against exterior elements. These renewable food packaging materials mirror traditional and ancient methods like Chinese fruit waxing and England’s meat larding. Therefore, the by-products of the seafood industry can develop further environmentally friendly food packaging to extend shelf life whilst employing intersectional sustainability. Eventually, all sustainable packaging must amalgamate three distinct characteristics: compatibility with the market’s status quo of the “circular production-consumption system,18” satisfying heterogeneous consumer needs — alongside market trends; and extending material life cycles to assist sustainable lifestyles.
Ultimately, progress in sustainable packaging relies upon a collaborative structure between stakeholders: environmentalism, “civic engineering, politics and corporate and consumer responsibility.19” A single entity cannot solve the environmental crisis; developing a working circular economic model for sustainable packaging would predicate intersectional cooperation among “solution providers, CPGs, municipalities, retailers, NGOs and individual consumers.20” In contemporary times, as sustainability becomes further integrated into packaging and mainstream culture, authentic, sustainable packaging will be marked by a green rendition of current packaging and manufacturing practices. Therefore, the road to sustainability is neither simple, straightforward, nor swift. However, to ensure universal sustainable packaging, commerce, corporations, and consumers must unite toward a sustainable future.
In conclusion, packaging remains an omnipresent factor that will continue to rise in demand. However, as climate change exacerbates worsening conditions, a transition to green practices and methods is paramount. Therefore, sustainable packaging’s future relies on sustainable methods and technologies alongside a withdrawal from traditional single-use packaging: a duality essential to serve the world’s sustainable calling for packaging.
Essay by: Octavius Tan
Carnegie Mellon University