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Material Trade-offs
Fri Apr 05 2024
Learning of the Month
Learning Objectives
Discuss the collaboration between various stakeholders when working toward sustainable packaging solutions
And asses the trade-offs that exist in the sustainable packaging sector

New sustainable packaging solutions seem to hit the market daily, and they’re popular amongst corporations, fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers, and packaging suppliers. 

These entities are proactively making bold commitments to improve the sustainability of their packaging while fundamentally rethinking their packaging systems.1

But whether we’re talking about packaging or life in general, we all know that saying is much easier than doing.

So with that, by the end of this short lesson you’re going to be able to:

  • Discuss the collaboration between various stakeholders when working toward  sustainable packaging solutions 

  • And asses the trade-offs that exist in the sustainable packaging sector 

So, to keep this brief, I’m going to focus on the people, processes, and technologies that come into play when considering implementing sustainable packaging solutions into your current packaging system. 

PEOPLE

Creating sustainable packaging that aims to increase environmental efficiency without compromising functionality (like preservation, protection, communication) is by no means a solo endeavor—it is a collective process that involves multiple stakeholders.2,3,4,5 

Clear communication needs to exist between product development, quality, your client, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and ultimately, your end-users. 

Ensuring that you have identified a person and bounced off your idea off each of these stakeholders enables you to have a comprehensive understanding of the solution. 

Keep in mind that most people are reluctant to embrace change—so, instead of stating and defending your idea, ask as many questions as possible to fully uncover liabilities, issues, and reluctance. 

Try to embrace resistance to fully tease out where issues exist. Once you have a better understanding of the speedbumps ahead, you can begin to optimize your solution for deployment. 

By leveraging collective expertise, creativity, and insights amongst your stakeholders, solutions can be crafted that are not only environmentally friendly but also commercially viable and technically feasible. 

PROCESSES 

At a high level, it’s important to think about material usage (think reduce, reuse, recycle), but also energy, and waste, all while aiming to maximize performance, functionality, and appeal to the updated packaged system. 

So, as far as materials are concerned, let’s walk through an example highlighting common material trade-offs. 

So, a multilayer PET flow-wrap like this offers quality such as stiffness, gloss, print protection, and heat resistance for sealing. 

But laminates cannot always be recycled.6 

However, there are single-layer, mono-material flow-wraps available that can be recycled, even composted—like this. 

So, consider this sustainability example. Here we have a food bar in a PET laminate and over here we have the same bar in an oriented polyethylene—a mono-material. 

While the mono-material is recycle-ready for store drop-off, it can’t achieve the same thermal resistance of PET—which might be important for your product.6 

This is one of many possible trade-offs to be uncovered. 

You may find that while the more sustainable material theoretically works for your product, it may require upgrading your sealing equipment. 

Another example may be that a newer material is more brittle, requiring that you reduce your production line speeds.6 

There is also a consumer perception trade-off that is worth investigating. 

Even though sustainable packaging is often perceived as higher product quality due to its “naturalness,” it can also have an impact on the perceived aesthetic quality as well—biodegradable and compostable materials tend to be cloudier and more opaque than conventional plastics, whose transparency is associated with an attractive, fresh, and reliable product.7,8

Let’s also look at PET—you know that number one plastic—versus PLA. 

So, PET has strong chemical properties that prevent microorganisms and chemicals from leaching through, while PLA’s barrier is not as resistant to microorganisms and chemicals. 

So, based on this, PET can therefore be used for long shelf life products, whereas PLA is typically used only for short shelf life products.9

PLA melts at a lower heat capacity and its structure will deform more easily. And in terms of cost, PLA is more expensive to produce than raw PET and recycled PET.9, 10

Any new material should be tested for product protection. 

So, the International Safe Transit Association has developed a sustainable packaging process guideline which provides rationale for sustainable packaging, recommended sustainable packaging metrics, and a standardized process guidance for organizing documentation and developing sustainable packaging.

We’ve put these links in the resources section at the end of this lesson. 11,12

As you can see, sustainable packaging optimization is not a linear process, but dynamic and iterative.2 

When considering new sustainable options within your organization, it’s important just to stay ahead of regulations, and start testing your ideas, building prototypes, and collecting as much data as possible so you can best communicate your ideas to all your stakeholders.2,13

TECHNOLOGIES

Technologies play a key role in helping us achieve a more sustainable future. 

I believe it’s reasonable to assume that new materials will have lower supply and higher cost compared to traditional packaging materials. 

So, when considering a new packaging technology, anticipate who could also benefit from the investment. Seek out internal and external stakeholders who have sustainability goals. 

As new technologies and tools become available for seemingly unrelated topics, take a moment to connect the dots between your project and an emerging technology to find inspiration and resources. And remember, it’s always best practice to collaborate. 

It’s also important to take into account the full view of the packaging supply chain to be able to quantify your footprint—you need to recognize both direct and indirect carbon impacts and weigh the pros and cons associated with all the material choices or changes you are making.14

I know you're busy—so I’ll urge you to review the resources at the end of this lesson when you get a chance so you can continue to educate and inspire your organization on the trade-offs associated with your sustainable packaging goals.

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