Many flexible packaging converters and suppliers want to scream if they hear or see that dreaded “S” word just one more time.
If you’ve been around the packaging industry for any measurable amount of time, you’re familiar with the outbreak of the buzzword. In fact, you’re probably also familiar with a basic question surrounding this increasingly popular trend-what is sustainability, anyway?
The reality is there are as many valid definitions of sustainability as there are groups, associations and companies coming up with those explanations. In most cases, these definitions suggest living within one’s limits, achieving a balance between economy, society and ecology, or maintaining an equal distribution of resources and uses.
These definitions, while accurate, only generate more questions. What does sustainability mean to flexible packaging, and more specifically, your business? Who is driving the push for sustainability? Looking beyond the package, how can converters start or continue working sustainably?
Sustainability definedEven as investors and businesses begin to speak of economic recovery, flexible packaging converters remain nervous about the economy. With concerns about margins, production volumes and developing business, companies are putting more time and attention into regaining their financial footing before being fit for a smaller carbon footprint. But sustainability objectives can balance business considerations and strategies that address the environmental concerns related to the social and environmental impacts of packaging.
In that vein, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) has developed criteria that, when followed, delivers packaging that is economically viable and generates environmental and social benefits throughout the life cycle of a package. Says SPC, sustainable packaging:
• Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle,
• Meets market criteria for performance and cost,
• Is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy,
• Maximizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials,
• Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices,
• Is made from materials healthy in all probable end of life scenarios,
• Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy, and
• Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial cradle to cradle cycles.
With sustainable packaging more clearly defined, an additional and relatively large question remains: Who’s driving the sustainability bus? Everybody and anybody, or so it seems.
A more appropriate way of answering that question is who isn’t driving the awareness and progress of sustainability? As a 2009 Cone Consumer Environmental Study points out, consumers’ green interests remain strong, even throughout the recently weak economy. Nearly one-third (34%) of American consumers say that, in spite of the bleak economic times, they’re more likely to buy environmentally responsible products (and, by extension, environmentally responsible packaging) while another 44% indicated their environmental shopping habits have not changed as a result of the economy.
Even as consumers try to keep green in their wallets, their ability to keep green on their minds has not waned. The Cone survey also found that many consumers are currently inclined to hold companies accountable for their environmental commitments. To this end, 35% of those surveyed have higher expectations for companies to manufacture and market environmentally responsible products and services during the economic downturn. As further evidence that consumers are primary drivers in sustainability’s continued proliferation, 70% of those surveyed indicated that they’re keeping their eyes and ears open to what companies are doing with regard to the environment today, even if they cannot buy until a later date.
A separate study released by consultant firm GlobeScan and think tank firm SustainAbility in July 2009 found that while they do play some role in driving the move to sustainability, business and political leaders lag far behind non-governmental organization leaders and social entrepreneurs, though the research also points out a new generation of corporate leaders driving change may be starting to emerge. The survey found that while 47% of corporate leaders performed poorly on the sustainability front in the eyes of experts, 21% of this same group received an “excellent” rating for their sustainability performance.
GlobeScan’s survey cites a credible public commitment to sustainability embedded in a company’s core values can serve as a key factor behind experts’ choice of corporate leaders in sustainability. While a company’s products, services or policies are important signs of sustainability leadership, research indicates that a company’s ability to communicate a strong commitment to sustainability resonates the most, suggesting that companies who integrate sustainability as a core value are also expected to follow through with more sustainable products and services.
“While global sustainability challenges are growing both in urgency and complexity, it is clear that our political and business institutions have some distance to go before they are seen as providing adequate sustainability leadership,” says Jeff Erikson, vice president for SustainAbility. “Companies must continue to integrate sustainability throughout their core business practices, while government leaders must do a more effective job at developing policies which drive positive social and environmental change. Those which do so will gain the trust of the public and be more likely to succeed in these changing economic times.”
While flexible packaging converters can-and do-promote the bio-based, solventless and source reduction tools in their arsenals, thinking outside the box, pouch or bag and promoting internal improvements can help bolster a company’s sustainability position.
Energy, emissions controlWith regard to sustainability, controlling the product that comes out of your converting process is just as important as what goes into the process and what emissions arise from the process. Packaging manufacturers in virtually every corner of the industry have reduced the negative impacts of their work by evaluating their emissions as well as energy consumption, one of the largest issues facing manufacturers in industries across the board.
Compliance Management International (CMI), a professional management firm that provides organizations of all sizes with hands-on solutions to environmental and energy challenges, regularly works with converters and packaging manufacturers in comprehensively assessing their footprint with regard to emissions, greenhouse gases and efficient energy usage.
“We will look at a company for sustainability at many levels-the type of raw materials the company is using, the types of waste they’re producing, including solid waste going to a landfill or water discharge,” says Kristian Witt, technical director with CMI. “From the standpoint of the raw materials, can you use a different raw material that would be less toxic but produce the same result? Or from a waste standpoint, if you change your process a little bit, would you have less air emissions, specifically carbon dioxide, which is typically the kind of pollutant that causes greenhouse gases?” Witt also explains that reducing the waste that goes to landfills by recycling, a strategy that not only addresses the reduce/reuse/recycle rules of sustainability, ultimately impacts a converter’s long term emissions once materials produce methane and CO2 as they degrade over time.
With regard to energy usage, Thomas Gresko, program development manager and certified energy manager at CMI, explains his firm evaluates a converter’s operation from literally the ground up.
“We recently did an energy audit for a packaging company and identified some building envelope issues where the company could better insulate its roof, better insulate its windows,” says Gresko. “But the primary result that came out of that energy audit was use of the company’s equipment at lower-than-designed power loads which otherwise causes a higher power factor on the plant. That power factor costs money.” One solution to boosting the energy efficiency of these machines included the installation of capacitors in the plant at a certain price where the components would pay for themselves in two years.
Gresko explains that a facility assessment begins, logically enough, with a tour of the facility as well as initial assessments of the company’s utility bills to establish benchmarks for comparison to “standard” packaging companies of simliar size; the benchmarks are then used later to track the converter’s emissions and energy improvements.
“We go into the facility and audit the types of machines being used, the size of the machinery that they use and the power factor of different motors,” says Gresko. “We’re also looking at the building envelope, including the lighting used inside and outside the facility. Overall, we’re looking at the facility to try to identify energy savings opportunities, costs and payback periods associated with those changes that bring the facility back to where it ought to be compared to a standard or stereotypical metric.”
Similarly, emissions experts at CMI evaluate the machinery or processes a converter uses that would cause greenhouse gases, addressing the second half of CMI’s work with a company.
“The one [source] that is fairly well known: anything that produces combustion products, where you’re burning natural gas in a boiler, for instance,” says Witt. “But there are other sources that may not be so obvious, such as refrigerator units. We evaluate the direct sources of emissions and can monitor, if a company so chooses, indirect sources like electrical consumption or even employee travel.”
Each energy and emissions evaluation is as unique as the companies CMI partners with in developing plans to tackle environmental and efficiency challenges. As Witt explains, the scope of an energy and emissions plan is contingent on what boundaries a company develops early on.
“Some companies will just say, ‘We really are concerned about our direct sources, not our indirect sources like electric consumption or the power we need from external sources,’” says Witt. “But I usually invite them to take an initial look across the whole baseline to see where they really are before setting boundaries. Then we can say, ‘This is your biggest contributor to CO2 emissions and the one that should be addressed now.’”
When a company first partners with CMI to develop an energy and emissions strategy, the consultancy group firmly encourages the converter's upper management commitment up front.
“Management has to buy into this up front before employees buy into it, so we typically ask for a management commitment letter that outlines what the goals are going to be and what the plan is for reducing a greenhouse gas footprint, a carbon footprint or energy use by a certain amount,” says Gresko.
Upper management endorsement-or lack thereof-is often the first hurdle faced in creating an energy plan. The pushback isn't due to lack of concern in conservation, efficiency or any sustainability aspect, but more often due to concern about covering the costs of an energy evaluation.
“First of all, there is a cost to this-and a lot of companies are just trying to keep their heads above water,” says Gresko. “At this point, these steps are not required and they hesitate because they don’t have the capital to invest at this moment.”
While this sort of pushback is certainly reasonable-maintaining margins and the current state of the economy is overwhelmingly cited by converters as their top challenges-Gresko points out that his firm regularly introduces its clients to government grants and other incentives that can reduce capital costs to a converter. Over time, additional incentives in the form of utility rate changes or emissions/energy regulations will compel initial detractors to seriously consider energy and emissions initatives.
“For example, in Pennsylvania, where the electric grade caps will be coming off at the end of this year, they’re projecting 10% to 20% increases in the costs of electric power,” says Gresko. “I think those kinds of changes are going to show that the payback period on energy improvements to be much less."
“We do not know if [Cap and Trade legislation] is going to impact packaging manufacturers-it may impact some and not others,” says Witt. “Depending on where the legislation lands at a federal level, some packaging companies may have to reduce emissions or buy credits to maintain the level of emissions that they have.
“And just because the federal legislation may not impact packaging companies immediately, such legislation also tends to start with the low hanging fruit before eventually it does work its way down to the smaller sources of emissions.”
Gresko also points out that converters under pressure from both downstream CPGs and consumers may feel the pinch if their sustainability initiatives aren’t up to par.
“I was recently talking to the National Association of Printing Leadership and they told us that sustainability is not on the top of their lists of issues that need to be addressed, but it is creeping up very slowly,” says Gresko. “They’re seeing more and more of their customers requiring them to be green, and in some cases, they’re using green as a way of culling out suppliers.”
Historically, the flexible packaging industry has proven it's capable of working with and adjusting to regulatory reform. But as competition increases and energy costs rise as anticipated, the innovations born out of keeping up with energy and emissions control and sustainability practices can improve a converter’s travel down the road ahead.
Compliance Management International
Sustainable Packaging Coalition