Sustainable packaging is more important now than ever before. As consumers become more educated about products and their packaging, the demand for sustainable solutions in packaging increases.
Consumers are looking for brands to take a stand. Specifically:
- The United Nations has also challenged brands to make significant sustainability goals by 2030
- Retailers have set ambitious environmental goals that consumer product companies (CPCs) are also trying to achieve
- There is more interest in the circular economy, particularly where packaging goes after use—far beyond when a product is sold
- A 2020 study by Trivium Packaging states 67 percent of consumers now identify as environmentally aware and 74 percent said they would be willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. In the US, in states like New York, plastic bags are no longer allowed, and grocery stores there and elsewhere have stopped the production of plastic bags. California has banned the use of plastic straws
- Because plastic is in the ocean, we’re now seeing bans in some countries for single-serve plastic bottles
Brands and CPCs are stepping up to the challenge and have made significant strides in sustainability. In fact, sustainability is becoming a widely adopted initiative within various industries around the globe. To accommodate consumer demand and prove their commitment, companies of all sizes are incorporating sustainability into their mission statements, ensuring customers can see their focus is on the greater good of the environment and contributing to the circular economy.
Collaboration is the key to sustainability success for these CPCs. They can’t do it alone, so they enlist converters and their suppliers to help achieve their packaging sustainability goals. By working together to establish common goals, utilizing renewable resources and eco-friendly raw materials, and enabling increased recycling, CPCs and brand owners can help achieve the ideals of a circular economy.
By working closely with converters to define collaborative sustainability goals, ink and coating manufacturers can prioritize initiatives that will provide a variety of positive impacts on the environment in the packaging market.
While plastic isn’t recycled enough globally, ink and coating manufacturers can work with various trade organizations, such as the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX), Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) to explore solutions that have an overall positive environmental impact for the packaging industry at large.
They can also work with regulatory bodies as well as substrate and equipment manufacturers to understand market demand and identify an overarching approach to meet green requirements.
Resources & Raw Materials
Packaging has become a significant focus for brands to achieve their sustainability goals, but how they accomplish those objectives depends heavily on consumer behavior. Generally, this means that sustainable packaging can be separated into three distinct categories—the use of biorenewable resources, compostability and recyclability.
Biorenewability refers to packaging materials derived from new carbon, such as plant-based materials. The National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM) suggests these can include raw materials consisting of gums, resins, waxes, solvents, oils and other polymer building blocks.
Substituting conventional water-based inks with more bio-based options that deliver equal or superior performance is an easy way to help reduce greenhouse gases. In fact, with full adoption of current commercially available solutions, global CO2 emissions due to inks and coatings can be reduced by more than 30 percent, or approximately 700,000 tons, per year.
However, all claims of biorenewable materials should be verified by a third-party lab to avoid misconceptions and false claims. For example, NAPIM has a comprehensive program to verify biorenewable claims, helping ink suppliers and consumers with their verification needs.
Compostable packaging is another route many CPCs and brands are exploring to achieve sustainability goals without sacrificing flexibility or the number of product iterations. For a package to be compostable, it requires collaboration between converters, ink manufacturers and substrate manufacturers to ensure the full package can be certified as compostable.
For a package to be compostable, all aspects of the package—inks, coatings, adhesives, substrates—must also be compostable. Each one of its components must biodegrade naturally within a specified timeframe under controlled conditions, or be confirmed not to negatively impact that biodegradation. The design of the package and application of various components must comply with specific standards.
Companies typically rely on independent entities to provide certifications proving inks conform to compostability standards. These entities, such as TÜV Austria in Europe and BPI in North America, carry out laboratory tests on the finished packaging product or on its separate components (including the inks) to prove that they fully meet European EN 13432 or North American ASTM D6400 and D6868 protocols.
If certified, the material used would be considered compostable or compliant with compostability without leaving excessive levels of toxins, heavy metals or plastic residues in the soil.
Energy curable technologies can also play a role in sustainability efforts. These technologies are VOC-free and offer a lower energy footprint than conventional heat-dried technologies. Additionally, while energy curable inks and coatings products have traditionally been cured with mercury UV lamps, advances in the technology allow for an even eco-friendlier alternative—UV LED-cure inks and coatings.
This energy-efficient technology offers multiple sustainability benefits, including lower lamp energy and operating costs, extended service lifetime and improved reliability, no mercury and no ozone generation.
Committing to sustainability means prioritizing and enabling increased recycling. To shift the world from a linear economy to a circular economy, the industry is focusing on making printed products easier to recycle or dispose of.
For instance, in the label market, suitable ink solutions have been developed for different films approved by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR). With the guidance of APR, an ink or coating manufacturer can help to explore ways to further boost the rate of PET recycling and ultimately assist CPCs in achieving ambitious sustainability goals around improved PET bottle recyclability.
This collaboration has resulted in the development of removable flexographic and gravure inks. The technology allows ink to be removed from post-consumer printed PET packaging in typical existing recycling processes, without staining the recovered PET flake or the process wash water. Designed for crystallizable PET shrink sleeves that can be recycled together with the PET bottles, the washable ink allows for the increased recovery of high-quality, clean, recycled PET resin.
Brands, CPCs, package printers and suppliers alike are all committed to sustainability goals to help meet the demands of the consumers, retailers, regulators and more. They are doing so by prioritizing the environment and changing their operations process, as well as utilizing renewable resources and raw materials to help reach their own sustainability goals.
Achieving that overall package sustainability comes when organizations across the entire supply chain align their goals with overarching initiatives. Working and partnering with suppliers and trade organizations who share in similar sustainability values, while aiming to deliver biorenewability, compostability and recyclability, will help take the packaging industry one step closer to truly achieving sustainability objectives, reducing waste and becoming a circular economy.
About the Author
For more information about sustainability in the packaging industry, register for October’s FLEXO Tech Talk, titled Packaging & the Environment: Roadmap for a Sustainable Future.