Sustainability in Today's Economy

Provoked by a bustling economy and a misplaced sense of social conscience, sustainability has become part and parcel of our industry's lexicon. All this has led to the creation by most large (and many small) corporations of huge sustainability departments staffed by managers and workers ill-versed as to “how and why” sustainability fits into the entire packaging mix.

It is this staff that issues all sorts of lofty sustainability documents that are “hell bent” on serving our planet from the “creeping tide of packaging waste.” It has affected consumer thinking to a degree that makes absolutely no sense. For example, a New York Times (January 18 edition) article commented on the Sundance Festival and its setup:

The crew of one truck was peeling big packing sheets off what appeared to be even bigger plasma television screens brought in to brighten the festival proceedings. The foam packing would seem to offset more than a few of the plastic water bottles festival sponsors hope to eliminate with a new program by the Brita and Nalgene companies, which are providing reusable bottles to be filled at “hydration stations.”

But all this simplistic view is slowly morphing into a more realistic view of sustainability. Today's financial meltdown and poor economy are the main drivers behind this change. Slowly and with little fanfare, industry is adapting to harder times by reverting back to the basics of good business. We seem to have forgotten that the “business of America is business” (Calvin Coolidge, 1925).

Forced to adopt to this new economic climate, sustainability proponents now are facing a recycling industry that has dried up with no demand for their product. Biopolymers — hailed as the green alternative to fossil-based polymers — has decreased in industrial interest. Problems in application, cost, and performance have raised questions to their future use. And there has been widespread criticism over new package designs that have been poorly received by consumers.

The adoption of Sam's Club's squareless milk jug packaging is an example of a sustainable concept that violates the very essence of good packaging. Although not requiring crates or racks for shipping and storage, the designing of a flat “spout” makes the pouring of milk a virtual impossibility. Many consumers are complaining of difficulty in pouring the milk and are turned off by the jug's poor ergonomics. Another example is consumer backlash over the reduction (by one-third) of 16-oz. water-bottle wall thickness. Advertised as an “effort to save the planet,” the water bottle almost collapses in the consumer's hand when an attempt is made to drink the contents.

There are many more examples. How much time and energy was expended in developing a coffee flex-pack using a polylactic acid (PLA) film as a substitute for a nylon layer? This effort toward the development of a sustainable coffee package makes absolutely no sense. Using nylon is infinitely superior to PLA in virtually all areas of usage.

Good package development inherently incorporates sustainability principles. Using as few plys as possible in a flex-pack structure in order to adequately protect the package contents is intrinsic to good development. Minimizing package material usage for a product is also an essential cure to good package design. It seems that instead of staffing and organizing separate corporate sustainability departments, management should consider strengthening their package development personnel. This is when packages will appear that are, by their very nature, sustainable and also consumer friendly. Bottles will pour, flexible constructions will function, and shelf life will be respected.

While packaging pundits argue about the value of sustainability, let's remember that the eruption of Mount Kraetoa in 1883 spewed more pollution into the atmosphere than anything packaging ever did. This natural disaster caused weather fluctuation for years following the eruption, populations shifted, and islands disappeard. Certainly this caused more problems than sustainability would hope to accomplish. Add to this the unmanageable pollution by Third World nations and hard-to-control nations such as China, and it's absolutely clear we should make good package design a major goal in the overall framework of profitable business practice. Let's leave sustainability alone, and let the consumer decide!

P.S. If readers think the opinions expressed here are radical or unusual, just think back to the late 1980s when the packaging industry was infatuated with “green.” At that time, “green was in” and natural-based polymers were the rage; polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was almost banned; and all packaging had to be recycled. A few years later, this was all forgotten. We've gone full circle once more!

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Package converting expert Stanley Sacharow has been in the flexible packaging industry for more than 35 years. Contact him at 732-636-0885; univpac@aol.com.


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