Sustainability and sustainable packaging are the buzzwords that represent today's number one issue in the flexible packaging industry. The issue is simple: What can converters do to improve the quality of their impact on the environment? The answer, of course, is slightly more complex.

Sustainability with regard to flexible packaging involves a number of different approaches geared toward minimizing the environmental impact of packaging, including: design, source reduction, recovery, reuse, recycling and new materials.

In support of converters trying to meet specific sustainability goals, the Flexible Packaging Association has established the Sustainability Center of Excellence, which is not a place, but rather, a concept with three clear goals:

• to minimize the environmental impact of packaging;

• to develop collaboration between packaging manufacturers, end users and retailers to achieve sustainability; and

• to realize the efficiencies that result from sustainability.

Sustainability Goals

Marla Donahue, president of the FPA, says that the FPA has taken a two-phase approach to achieving those goals.

“First, is to research the current state of sustainable packaging and participate with the Wal-Mart sustainable packaging steering committee,” she says. “Then, we'll look at lifecycle analysis and lifecycle inventories, and work with the Wal-Mart steering committee toward a single-source of information on lifecycle analysis.”

The FPA has completed phase 1, which includes, “A report on the current state of sustainability and a primer on how our members can input data into the Wal-Mart scorecard, and also contains a section of (about 200) terms and definitions of commonly used words on the sustainability discussion,” says Donahue. “One of our goals is that industry, the government and environmental groups are using the same nomenclature.”

In the end, Donahue says, the FPA's role on the issue of sustainability is one of education and representation:

• To provide information on the state of sustainability and sustainable packaging;

• To represent the industry with end users, retailers and environmental groups;

• To expand our knowledge base so that we can speak in technical, scientific terms about the advantages of flexible packaging with regard to sustainability; and

• To develop educational materials on the value proposition of flexible packaging that are scientifically based.

Nothing New

Sustainability has been a part of Sonoco's packaging business for roughly 50 years, at least on the paper side of things. The concepts being discussed today about flexible packaging are nothing new to the company, as seen it its well-rounded approach to the issue.

“Sonoco takes a very broad view on sustainability,” says Jeff Scheutz, vice president of global consumer technology at Sonoco. We're really looking at all three prongs: economic, social and environmental sustainability.”

Sonoco's sustainability initiatives encompass each phase of the package lifecycle, from design to reuse.

“Now in our design criteria, we're using not only our customers' technical requirements and their cost requirements, but we're also 'designing for the environment' to make sure that we're doing the best we can to build the most environmentally friendly structure,” says Scheutz.

One of the advantages inherent in flexible packaging is its low weight and mass in relation to its rigid counterparts, so source reduction can be a highly effective avenue toward more eco-friendly packaging.

“A lot of things can be done and are being done to reduce the amount of material in flexible packages,” says Scheutz. “It might be package size or thickness of materials, but it's also the types of materials being used, like bioplastics.”

Sonoco has also taken a lead in reusing and repurposing plastics. For years, Sonoco has been collecting paper products for its recycled paper board business, and has recently begun providing a similar service for plastics.

“Through that business we're finding new uses for things we previously thought to be unrecycleable. So we're starting by looking at scrap generated in our own facilities and our customers' facilities. We're finding uses for just about any flexible packaging scrap that's generated in an industrial environment,” says Scheutz.

“Starting with industrial recycling, we're now working on an infrastructure for finding non-packaging resources for used packaging materials. Everything from synthetic lumber to fillers that can be used in a wide variety of materials, to boiler fuel. For instance, plastic burns very cleanly and actually has a higher BTU value than coal. Why not run boilers on used packaging waste? We do that at Sonoco with some of our internally generated scrap.”

Paper and PlasticLike Sonoco, Wausau Paper sees a significant role for paper products in an industry concerned with sustainability and environmental issues. David Petrowski, industry manager, Packaging Papers at Wausau Paper, says the source reduction in petroleum-based packaging products is helping to facilitate the re-emergence of biodegradable paper products, and today’s designers are, “Requesting biodegradable or compostable substrates and reducing excessive packaging,” he says.

Petrowski also notes that going forward, the industry will be adapting to the concepts it has set as goals, and industry-wide acceptance will play a huge role in the success of any sustainability initiatives.

“Whether or not sustainability will be accepted by mainstream America will depend on education and our ability to meld the “EDLP” (Every Day Low Price) generation with the organic and sustainable lifestyle generation,” he says. “To that end, iIndependent environmental product certification is growing. That certification verifies a product’s sustainable lifecycle, proving environmental commitment to customers.

“We need to develop new alternative food packaging with greater sustainability in mind, i.e. all food packaging products will be designed [in the future] with environmentally responsible lifecycle and waste stream considerations.”

Scheutz adds that maybe the best approach to sustainability is one similar to Sonoco's full lifecycle strategy.

“It's not just using natural polymers, or it's not just reducing package weight, or it's not just recovering and recycling; but it's all of those elements bundled together in what we call a “cradle to cradle” cycle. It used to be 'cradle to grave,' now it's cradle to cradle. How do you start a new life once it's reached the end of its first life?”

For additional information on sustainability, including details on key initiatives by Alcan and Alcoa, and valuable industry contacts and links, visit