Nina Goodrich, Executive Director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, opens up about recent developments in environmentally conscious packaging.

Mediaplanet: How would you define sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is a journey. It typically starts with a focus on material reduction and package optimization. There are many packages that can be improved by using less material or decreasing the size, but it is important to remember that the package protects the product and decreasing the packaging too much can result in damage or loss of shelf life for the product.

We like to start by thinking about three major elements. The first is sourcing and design. Can the package be made from certified or renewable materials? Can the package be made from recycled material? Are the materials recyclable? It’s also important to keep the end of life option in mind at the beginning. Designers shouldn’t combine materials in ways that may make them hard to recover and recycle.

The second step is optimization. Is the package the right size and shape? Can materials be reduced without hurting the product? Is there a better material with a better sustainability potential available? This is often where companies will use lifecycle analysis to create a footprint baseline for their current packages. This allows them to see if the suggested changes are an improvement and where the improvements are. There are always trade-offs. A new package might be designed to have a lower carbon footprint but is no longer recyclable. A lifecycle analysis should be used to identify the trade-offs so that a conversation can take place within the company about what is most important.

"By using the right amount of packaging and avoiding excess packaging waste the carbon associated with excess packaging is never emitted."

The third area is recovery. Can the package be recovered? How many areas of the country can collect and recover the package? Once collected, is the package recyclable? Do markets exist for the materials? It’s important to think about these questions at the beginning. Our recycling infrastructure depends on manufacturers using materials that can be recovered and that have value. The more materials we use that have value and can be recovered, the less virgin material we will need to source. The cost-benefit of recovering valuable material helps keep the cost of the system low.

MP: Why is sustainable packaging important to the fight against climate change?

Sustainable packaging can reduce carbon emissions in many ways. By using the right amount of packaging and avoiding excess packaging waste the carbon associated with excess packaging is never emitted. The right amount of packaging also protects the product. The carbon footprint of the product is usually much bigger than the package. This is especially true with food products. It takes a great deal of energy to produce food. Food waste is a large contributor to our landfill waste. Compostable materials like paper and food waste that end up in a landfill can produce methane gas. Methane is 25 percent more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Using recycled materials often significantly reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in manufacturing the product a second time. This is especially true with aluminum, where the energy required to produce the aluminum from recycled aluminum is 95 percent less than the first time when it was made from virgin material.

MP: What has been the biggest change in packaging in the recent years?

A great number of food packages have transitioned to flexible films. These flexible films are often made of multiple materials and are difficult to collect and recycle. The packages do use less material and a lifecycle analysis would show that they have a lower carbon footprint than the heavier package they replaced.

The problem is that, today, multilayer flexible packaging is not currently recoverable and is destined for the landfill. The packaging industry has recognized the need to have an alternative end-of-life option for these packages. Projects are underway to learn how to collect, sort and recover this package type.

MP: What can our readers do at home to support the sustainable packaging industry?

The most important thing consumers can do is to recycle their packaging. They can check with their local municipality to learn what can be recycled in their area. Common items include: paper, paperboard, cardboard, soft drink bottles and cans, juice containers, milk containers, laundry detergent bottles, cans, jars and cartons. Plastic bags can also be collected and returned to grocery stores. These can include grocery bags, bread bags, dry cleaning bags and many other household bags as long as they are clean and dry.