Serious environmental issues have heightened the focus on sustainability in recent years, including on the human drivers at play.
From contributions to overall global waste and pollution and natural resources being depleted at rates faster than they can be replaced, to the damaged ozone layer and increased evidence of climate change, the question of how to minimize our environmental impact is urgent.
Consumers are aware, engaged and demanding sustainable options. According to a 2019 CGS Sustainability Survey, nearly 70 percent of respondents said that sustainability is at least “somewhat important” to them when making a purchase, while 47 percent indicated they would pay more for a sustainable product. Consumer product groups are under pressure to deliver eco-friendly solutions or risk business.
With the consumer market demanding action and change, brand owners and other organizations across the globe are setting ambitious goals to protect the planet.
For example, the European and US Plastic Pacts have been launched as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Plastics Pact Network, which stimulates collaboration between businesses, governmental groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders to tackle environmental issues across all regions.
Typical short-term goals set by the Plastics Pacts target that, by 2025, all plastic packaging will be 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable, and that the average recycled content or responsibly sourced bio-based content in plastic packaging will be around 30 percent, among others. In addition to these immediate-term goals, an increasing number of entities are targeting net-carbon neutrality between 2030 and 2050.
As organizations look for ways to reduce their global carbon footprints, they can consider how to incorporate sustainable best practices across three key pillars: throughout their operations, their products and their industry collaborations. Within each pillar, the “five Rs” (5Rs)—reuse, reduce, recycle, renew and redesign—help guide sustainable best practices in this heightened environmental landscape.
By its nature, the sustainability initiative must be a collaborative one, as no entity can achieve success on its own. Instead, there must be close collaboration among the full range of stakeholders.
Recognizing the importance of sustainability, the United Nations introduced its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan of global action for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. The United Nations proposed 17 interconnected Sustainable Development Goals as a guide to create a more sustainable future for all. Accordingly, many organizations, including Sun Chemical, have aligned their sustainability initiatives with the United Nations SDGs.
Specific industry relationships are also critical to achieving sustainability initiatives. Working with partners up and down the packaging value chain is important for understanding gaps and development opportunities, and for defining joint programs to address them.
Participating in various cross-industry associations can also help to ensure alignment with value chain partners. Respected packaging and recycling associations can offer visibility into requirements for today as well as to emerging demands.
Additionally, being active with suppliers through industry associations dedicated to corporate social responsibility and responsible material sourcing can help ensure that the upstream supply chain is equally committed and positioned to deliver on sustainability objectives.
A number of key initiatives can help to reduce water and energy usage, waste and CO2 emissions in operational processes. When applying the 5R approach through an operations lens, reuse can entail recovering energy from waste streams, which also diverts those waste streams from less desirable, disposal options like landfills; while reduce may be about various ways to minimize waste, energy and emissions at operational facilities. Renew can refer to accessing new renewable sources of electrical and fuel energy, for example, and recycle can be about the capture and recovery of solvents or other valuable raw material streams.
Redesign may be about reimagining alternate scenarios for conventional operations in order to achieve greater efficiency and performance. This could include use of automation or optimizing manufacturing campaigns to minimize downtime, equipment cleanups and startup waste.
Tracking progress is critical to understanding how much waste is being produced and the ways that it can be minimized. Tracking and reporting can also offer insight into the evolution of other key environmental metrics, such as emissions, including CO2, greenhouse gases (GHGs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as well as water use, energy consumption, and waste generation and disposal. Understanding where there is waste can help an organization alter its operations accordingly.
Finally, the products themselves, which are the components of a package, such as inks, coatings and adhesives, are key enablers of a sustainable package and merit special attention. The sustainability attributes of these components contribute to the overall design, functional integrity and performance of the package, and can determine whether a package is recyclable, bio-renewable, and/or compostable, as well as its overall carbon footprint.
Considering again the 5R model, organizations can enable reuse by designing products that contain post-consumer recycled content, or by using protective coatings and resistant inks that can withstand multiple wash cycles, for instance, as required for reusable packaging.
Reduce can be about ways to minimize overall packaging weight through protective and barrier coatings, barrier adhesives technology and also with use of direct food contact inks that allow removal of protective films. Also, reducing waste at converter facilities with multi-purpose and expanded gamut (EG) inks can further contribute to overall sustainability goals.
Additionally, products with high levels of renewable content can translate directly into CO2-equivalent emission reductions. Products should also be designed to enhance recyclability, including re-pulpability and compostability of a wide range of packaging structures. And the final “R” is about supporting fundamental redesigns in packaging structures and printing processes; for example, transitions from plastic to paper or fiber-based structures.
Context & Considerations
There are some important considerations to keep in mind for sustainable product developments. First, new solutions must be designed in the context of properly validating assumptions and confirming that the targeted carbon footprint reductions of alternative package designs are actually achieved.
This is done through detailed life cycle analyses. Additionally, costs must be managed because, despite reports of consumer acceptance of higher costs, sustainable solutions generally do not carry a premium in the market. Finally, there can be no compromise on package performance, including shelf life, which is especially important for food packaging.
One last consideration is around compliance. New product developments must be compliant with current regulatory standards to ensure they are favorable not only for the planet but also for human health. Increasingly, safety and compliance may not be enough, for example when even low levels of detection of certain substances of concern may put a brand owner’s reputation at risk. In a circular economy where such substances have to be managed through multiple product lifecycles, from cradle to cradle, “beyond compliance” is likely to become the new standard.
Like for operational sustainability, to support product sustainability it is also important to establish targets and track progress against them. For this purpose, Sun Chemical has created a product sustainability index that will be used to evaluate the environmental impact throughout the full life cycle of all products, from cradle to gate and from gate to end of life. This index will allow for evaluation of alternative technologies and the setting of development strategies and priorities, as well as tracking broad environmental objectives associated with our product portfolio.
A Sustainable Future
As organizations search for ways to reach their sustainability goals, the three-pillared approach described in this article can help to identify areas of focus and to define sustainability action plans through collaborations, operations and products. Within each of the pillars the 5Rs framework can be used to further collect and organize current needs, gaps and opportunities toward defining and implementing a holistic sustainability strategy.
About the Author
Dr. Nikola Juhasz is the technical director of sustainability at Sun Chemical Corp. She engages with internal and external stakeholders to formulate sustainability-driven technical strategies, and oversees the corresponding innovation and product development programs across all of Sun Chemical’s product lines and technology platforms, and represents Sun Chemical at various cross-industry organizations focused on sustainability and the future of packaging, including CEFLEX and APR.
Prior to joining Sun Chemical, Nikola spent 20+ years in various positions of R&D leadership in the diversified chemicals, polymers and materials industry. She holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a B.S., also in chemical engineering, from Purdue University.
For more information on how Sun Chemical can contribute to sustainability goals, follow #SunSustainability on Twitter and Facebook, or visit www.sunchemical.com/powerofflexiblepackaging.