Exercising Environmental Responsibility: Part 3

The columns appearing in this space for the past two months presented instances in which people were not being environmentally responsible in their jobs. The specific examples did not directly concern the converting and packaging industries but related only in a peripheral sense. They did provide food for thought by showing how seemingly small incidents can be environmentally irresponsible.

This column will be the last in this series on environmental responsibility and will focus on a specific area in which those in the converting and packaging industries can truly be environmentally responsible in a very positive way — conservation of resources.

Conservation is a term with different meanings for different people. In the forest products industry, for example, it might mean reducing the use of trees. In the packaging and converting industries, an important aspect of conservation is reducing the amount of materials that go into packaging.

Packaging today is a huge industry that seems to have no end to its growth. Designers constantly are devising ways to package new items as well as new ways to package old items. All the packages are necessary for protection, display, preservation, etc. While the packages definitely are functional, are they environmentally responsible? The answer may be no if they do not conserve raw materials by using the minimum amount of packaging possible.

Each additional layer in a composite, each additional color of ink on a surface, and each additional adhesive used in a laminate requires the use of more raw materials. Are these additions justifiable for the needs of the package? Are they simply examples of poor conservation of raw materials?

One excellent way to evaluate the amount of packaging material used for a product is to consider this in relation to the amount of material packaged. Ideally, the amount of packaging material should be much less than the amount of material packaged. This is not always possible. Consider the packaging of very small items such as hardware. Because they are so small, packagers often make the package excessively large to prevent someone from stealing it. With this exception, packages generally should follow the rule stated earlier.

Recycling is another way to practice conservation and is important in both pre-consumer and post-consumer use.

Pre-consumer use refers to the reuse of items during the manufacturing process. Some items such as scrap from an extrusion process may be good candidates for recycling. Other items such as unused, two-component thermosetting adhesive cannot be recycled.

Post-consumer recycling is an area that does not seem to receive sufficient consideration by people that make flexible packages. Everyone is familiar with recycling for glass, metal, and rigid plastic containers. Collection programs exist to accomplish this. In addition, consumers themselves often reuse such containers by placing other items in them for storage. Consider the leftover food from a meal stored in a refrigerator in a washed, empty peanut butter jar. Glass, metal, and rigid plastic containers frequently do such double duty.

Packagers have not concentrated on finding second uses for flexible packages. Most flexible packaging material simply goes into the waste stream. An innovation would be a flexible package that could have a second life of some sort. Perhaps a flexible package of the proper size that contained some food item such as cheese or meat could be cleaned easily and used to store screws, nails, etc., in a home workshop. Someone out there must have a brilliant idea, one even better than this, that can be pursued.


David J. Bentley Jr. is a recognized industry expert in polymers, laminations, and coatings with more than 30 years of experience in R&D and technical service. Contact him at dbentley@unm.edu.


Subscribe to PFFC's EClips Newsletter