Sustainability in packaging has become an increasingly urgent topic of conversation amongst businesses in recent years as the real impacts of the climate crisis continue to make themselves apparent on all continents. But the term is much more than a buzzword; it is an imperative and one that every industry must meet equitably.
For the global packaging industry, sustainability is a particularly important subject to broach. The widespread use of single-use plastics and harmful manufacturing processes contributes greatly to a wasteful and pollutive world – but what can the industry do to reverse the trend?
Recyclability is a chief concern for packaging designers and manufacturers, particularly with the heavy emphasis placed on recycling by the government with regard to individual approaches to sustainability. Many plastics are impossible to recycle effectively and do not degrade – leading to environmental issues beyond greenhouse gas emissions, notably ocean pollution.
Swapping single-use plastics for materials derived from wood and fiber materials can improve recyclability and reduce reliance on harmful pigments or dyes, too. With bans on single-use plastics coming into effect in various countries, this is becoming more and more mandatory a consideration.
An often-overlooked aspect of addressing sustainability from a business perspective, particularly where the business model involves material manufacture, is the overall energy consumption commanded by the business. Attention is rightfully given to the provenance and recyclability of materials used in manufacturing, but the energy demands of central manufacturing processes can be inadvertently missed in service of said attention.
Energy usage is a business-wide concern, too, from the manufacturing plants and fulfillment warehouses to the administrative offices and showroom floors (where applicable). Addressing the energy efficiency of office and administrative environments is a relatively simple endeavor, where utilising electric boilers can reduce energy consumption in a targeted and effective manner.
With regard to manufacturing, though, industrial equipment and processes can carry a much higher energy demand than any alternative energy source could meaningfully provide – without wilful and comprehensive investment in industrial-sized alternative energy sources such as solar arrays.
Of course, the energy cost of the manufacturing process – and, indeed, the sustainability of the packaging products themselves, in terms of material usage or wastage – can be directly impacted by the design process. Overpackaging has become a visible concern for consumers and for industry leaders, with news coverage frequently given to the wasteful packaging of consumer goods found in supermarkets.
On an industry level, there are lessons to be learned from this negative press, even with regard to non-consumer-facing packaging solutions such as pallets or pallet wraps. Minimalist design philosophies, prioritising efficiency and considering manufacturing processes can together positively impact the environmental footprint of future packaging products.
As a final point, packaging design benefits from considering reusability. Single-use plastics and packaging solutions are rightly maligned for their resource burden and pollutive impact, whereas reusable packaging presents a sustainable alternative that does not offload the burden onto an inefficient recycling process.