At a Glance
- Sustainable materials for packaging
- Biodegradable materials
- Circular sustainability
Design innovations play a key role in the evolution of clean manufacturing, especially in the area of packaging. All of clean manufacturing’s top goals, from waste minimization to energy efficiency to supply chain sustainability, can be accomplished through the improvement of packaging design.
Unfortunately, the packaging industry has been slow to adopt impactful innovations. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the packaging sector is the world’s largest producer of single-use plastic waste, accounting for roughly 36 percent of all plastics currently produced. The bulk of that plastic — as much as 85 percent by some accounts — ends up in landfills.
A number of steps can be taken during various phases of the manufacturing process to improve the eco-friendliness of packaging. The following are some that promise to have the biggest impact.
Boosting Material Efficiency
Material efficiency, which involves reducing the amount of material needed for a product, is a critical first step in increasing the eco-friendliness of packaging. Reducing the amount of packaging has a ripple effect across the entire clean manufacturing process.
Designs that involve less packaging material reduce the amount of raw materials that must be transported to manufacturing sites. Consequently, they reduce energy needs and emissions associated with transportation.
Less packaging also results in a lighter weight for the final product, which has a positive impact on the environmental impact of transportation throughout the entire supply chain. Adjusting inks and coatings involved in packaging to incorporate thinner or lighter materials can have an impact in this area. In some cases, design innovations can do away with the need for overboxing, which further reduces the environmental impact of transporting products.
Of course, less materials used in manufacturing also mean less waste produced. Even with packaging that ends up being recycled, less material lightens the burden on the recycling industry.
As companies consider improvements in material efficiency, it’s important to keep in mind how even small changes in packaging can have an exponential impact on eco-friendliness due to the lower volume of packaging being produced. In 2021, for example, the bottled water industry produced approximately 600 billion plastic bottles, resulting in 25 million tons of plastic waste.
Embracing Circular Sustainability
Circular sustainability does away with waste completely by keeping packaging materials in use indefinitely, breaking the take-make-waste linear model commonly used for plastic packaging. While recycling keeps waste out of the environment by reprocessing it as source material in new products, circular sustainability avoids the creation of waste that must otherwise be reprocessed.
The use of returnable glass bottles for carbonated beverages — a practice that came to an end in 2012 — is an example of this type of eco-friendly packaging. Coca-Cola’s “universal bottle” project, which launched in 2018, involved plastic bottles that could be refilled by the company an average of 25 times. Coca-Cola reported it produced 1.8 billion fewer bottles the year after the program was launched.
Similarly, Burger King announced in 2022 a circular sustainability project that involved serving food in reusable plastic cups and containers, which customers would have the option of paying a deposit to use, that could be cleaned and reused. This project is reportedly part of Burger King’s initiative to discontinue its use of single-use plastics by 2025.
Incorporating Biodegradable Materials
Designing with biodegradable or compostable materials is akin to circular sustainability in that it produces no waste material. These materials break down rapidly in landfills and typically have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional materials.
A variety of packaging materials are now being made from plant-based components that are biodegradable, including bubble wrap, packaging peanuts, and bottles. Packaging made from natural materials like seaweed or milk proteins can be easily disposed of by dissolving them in water or, for those who are more highly committed to environmentalism, even by eating them.
Using RFID to Improve Sustainability
Radio-frequency identification — more commonly known as RFID — can be incorporated into packaging design to make it more eco-friendly by utilizing transponders that wirelessly transmit information about the product. RFID readers can detect this information to make it available for rapid identification and easy tracking.
For example, RFID technology can be used in supply chain tracking to ensure that source material is eco-friendly. It can also drive higher levels of supply chain efficiency by providing more accurate inventory data.
The packaging industry has taken significant steps toward clean manufacturing in recent years, but more work is still needed, as the waste produced by single-use plastic packaging presents a serious environmental threat. Reducing the negative impact of plastic waste requires a dedicated effort to reduce the use and misuse of plastics in packaging.
Joseph A. Schlossberg is VP of Global Sales for Sourcing Solutions International, a one-of-a-kind supplier that manufactures hangers and packaging for the apparel/retail industry. Sourcing Solutions works in partnership with some of the largest and most well-known retailers and apparel brands, providing paper/plastic/hybrid garment and accessory hangers, labels, hang tags, packaging, and RFID solutions.
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