Rebuttal to NYT’s “Devilish Packaging, Tamed”

June 7, 2011

Stephanie Clifford’s “Devilish Packaging, Tamed,” appeared in the June 2nd addition of the New York Times’ Energy and Environment section. What follows is a critical analysis thereof from the perspective of a Sustainability Coordinator at a family owned and operated clamshell manufacturing company.

Clifford makes the following assumptions in “Devilish Packaging, Tamed:”

Retailers are instigating the shift from clamshell to trapped blister packs because (1) increased plastic packaging prices; (2) the desire to reduce packaging material use (re: Wal-Mart’s goal of 5% packaging reduction by 2013); (3) trapped blister packs are more “green” than clamshells; and, (4) trapped blister packs are easier to open than clamshells.

In discussing these assumptions, it will become clear that not only are the claims made in this piece incorrect, but the perception about “green packaging” created therefrom a disservice to the always-progressing dialogue about sustainability and packaging.

Assumption 1:

Retailers are instigating the shift from clamshell to trapped blister packs like MWV’s Natralock because of increase plastic packaging prices.

Trapped blister packs are not new to the packaging market; hence, the assumption that the recently unstable resin market motivates the transition from clamshell to trapped blister packs is incorrect. Since Natralock’s introduction years ago, it has been marketed as the “sustainable alternative to clamshell packaging.” Consequently, referencing the unstable resin market as reason for why clamshell packaging is being replaced with trapped blister packs is an after-the-fact justification that meets MWV’s PR story more that the realities of supply and demand.

Due to the contemporary “death of print” phenomenon—a repercussion of our digital age—the fiber market has been cutting prices to allow for market gains in areas formally controlled by other mediums. This, in conjuncture with other global economics (like the unsuccessful cotton crop in Asia resulting in increased international demand for RPET driving up prices for RPET for packaging converters, like clamshell manufacturers), paints a more accurate picture of the intricacies of the resin vs. paper market than assumed by Clifford. Seeing as how industry publications such as PlasticsNews devote entire sections to explaining and contextualizing the fluctuating resin market (see Material Insights), it is silly to assume that something so complicated as the international production and consumption of commodities be so simply reduced as Clifford would have it.

Assumption 2:

Retailers are instigating the shift from clamshell to trapped blister packs Like MWV’s Natralock becasue the desire to reduce packaging material use.

It is misinformed to assume that packaging material reductions are achieved by switching from clamshell to trapped blister packs, which this article postulates. In fact, as per the Wal-Mart Packaging Success Stories presented during the Wal-Mart Packaging Sustainable Value Network meetings, most packaging reductions are achieved by attaining lower product to package ratio via package redesign and/or moving into a lighter packaging medium i.e. PP shrink wrap vs. corrugate boxes. The reason-by-association tactic employed by Clifford assumes that the retailer’s desire to reduce packaging is achieved by transitioning into trapped blister packs; this is overly reductionist and negates the role of the packaging engineer in understanding how each packaging medium allows for different savings depending on the application of the package. In short, packaging material reductions are the result of extensive R&D within a specific distribution context and are made with consideration of the unique market demands inherent in any consumer product.

Assumption 3:

Retailers are instigating the shift from clamshell to trapped blister packs like MWV’s Natralock because it is more “green” than clamshells.

What is “green?”

How does Clifford understand “green?” At the last SPC meeting attorney general of the FTC discussed their recent efforts to understand the consumer’s perception of ambiguous marketing claims like “green,” “sustainable,” “environmentally friendly,” etc. After conducting a survey, it was found that consumers didn’t really understand these terms, which lead the FTC to conclude that such ambiguous environmental marketing terms should be avoided in order to alleviate consumer deception. Consequently, if a marketer is going to make a claim of sustainability/environmentally friendliness, he/she must qualify it with further information like: “Made with 30% post consumer recycled content;” or, “complies with ASTM D6400 Standard for Industrial Compostability.” Hence, the postulation that ALL paper packaging is more sustainable than ALL plastic packaging and, via reason-by-association, that ALL trapped blister packs are more sustainable than ALL clamshells is not only manipulative insofar as no qualifying language is provided, but again, overly reductionist; as such, lacks the legitimacy seemingly assumed in a news article worthy of publication in the NYT.

Environmental marketing claims aside, I would like to take the moment to clear the air re: the sustainability of clamshell packaging.

Sustainability of clamshells vs. trapped blister packs, like MWV’s Natralock:

I am no expert in sustainability. However, I have learned that when discussing the “sustainability” of any product, package or service, it is helpful to take a life-cycle based approach; this looks to quantify the environmental requirements of production, conversion, distribution and end of life management. Only when a full life cycle analysis is conducted can the “sustainability” of any product be understood.

In regard to the first life cycle phase in the context of packaging material production, issues such as feedstock procurement (what is consumed and emitted during the process of raw material extraction?) and feedstock conversion (what is consumed and emitted during the process of raw material conversion?), are important to consider when discussing the “sustainability” of any packaging material.

In the context of pulp and paper production for conversion into trapped blister packs, trees are needed as feedstock, and extensive amounts of water and electricity are required to convert the material into useable fiber-based packaging materials. Consider this excerpt from TreeHugger.com, which attempts to answer to age-old paper vs. plastic conundrum by discussing the production of paper bags:

Paper comes from trees — lots and lots of trees. The logging industry…is huge, and the process to get that paper bag to the grocery store is long, sordid and exacts a heavy toll on the planet. First, the trees are found, marked and felled in a process that all too often involves clear-cutting, resulting in massive habitat destruction and long-term ecological damage.

Mega-machinery comes in to remove the logs from what used to be forest, either by logging trucks or even helicopters in more remote areas. This machinery requires fossil fuel to operate and roads to drive on, and, when done unsustainably, logging even a small area has a large impact on the entire ecological chain in surrounding areas.

Once the trees are collected, they must dry at least three years before they can be used. More machinery is used to strip the bark, which is then chipped into one-inch squares and cooked under tremendous heat and pressure. This wood stew is then “digested,” with a chemical mixture of limestone and acid, and after several hours of cooking, what was once wood becomes pulp. It takes approximately three tons of wood chips to make one ton of pulp.

The pulp is then washed and bleached; both stages require thousands of gallons of clean water. Coloring is added to more water, and is then combined in a ratio of 1 part pulp to 400 parts water, to make paper. The pulp/water mixture is dumped into a web of bronze wires, and the water showers through, leaving the pulp, which, in turn, is rolled into paper.

Whew! And that’s just to MAKE the paper; don’t forget about the energy inputs — chemical, electrical, and fossil fuel-based — used to transport the raw material, turn the paper into a bag and then transport the finished paper bag all over the world.

Please note that this account of pulp and paper production is too simplistic; for a full discussion of the life cycle attributes of pulp and paper production, consult the SPC’s Fiber-Based Packaging Material Briefs, available here for download.

To be fair and get both sides of the story, below is TreeHuger.com’s description of converting fossil fuel bi-products into plastic packaging:

Unlike paper bags, plastic bags are typically made from oil, a non-renewable resource. Plastics are a by-product of the oil-refining process, accounting for about 4% of oil production around the globe. The biggest energy input is from the plastic bag creation process is electricity, which, in this country, comes from coal-burning power plants at least half of the time; the process requires enough juice to heat the oil up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit, where it can be separated into its various components and molded into polymers. Plastic bags most often come from one of the five types of polymers — polyethylene — in its low-density form (LDPE), which is also known as #4 plastic.Again, this account of plastic packaging production from a bi-product of the oil-refining process is too simplistic, failing to take into account the different processes/materials required for the production of PET vs. PVC vs. PP; each resin has its own production profile and it’s important to understand how each informs the overall “sustainability” of said resin.

For the full discussion of the paper vs. plastic bag debate re: TreeHuger.com, click here.

When trying to understand the sustainability of clamshells vs. trapped blister packs, it is also important to distinguish between fiber-based packaging IN GENERAL and Natralock, which is a specific type of clamshell alternative produced and marketed by a specific company. Unlike the majority of fiber-based packaging on the market, Natralock incorporates a special type of adhesive/laminate that allows these packages to be deemed “tear-proof.” After a quick search of the US patent database, the following description about BlisterGuard—a trapped blister pack similar to or the same as Natralock (I couldn’t find any patents for Natralock but believe that Colbert Packaging licenses the tear-proof technology to MWV)—is provided:

A packaging laminate is formed by a paperboard substrate with a plastic blister layer sealed to the substrate. The packaging laminate comprises a paperboard substrate for providing a base layer, a tear-resistant polymer layer applied to said substrate, and a heat seal polymer layer applied to said tear-resistant polymer…

The tear-resistant polymer layer 14 may be polyamides, such as nylon 6, nylon (6,6), nylon (6,12) or other polyamides, polyester, polyurethane, block copolymer, unsaturated block copolymers such as styrene-butadiene-styrene, styrene-isoprene-styrene and the like; saturated block copolymers such as styrene-ethylene/butylene-styrene, styrene-ethylene/propylene-styrene, and the like) or other material possessing high tear-resistant properties. The polymer used to make the tear-resistant layer may be blended with another polymer selected from the group including ethylene copolymers such as ionomers, vinyl acetate, methylacrylic or acrylic acid copolymers.For a full description of the patents from which the above excerpts were taken, click here and here.

The motivation for referencing the tear-proof laminate found on Blisterguard and perhaps Natralock is to demonstrate that these fiber-based alternatives to clamshells are not just a paper version of a clamshell; they are multi-material/chemical compositions that are only marketable as “tear proof” due to the addition of a variety of chemicals during the process of production. Without implying that the chemicals used in the Natralock adhesive/laminate are toxic/pose a hazard to human health as I am not privy to such information, it is important to acknowledge the following statistic about the inks/adhesives/laminates used in fiber-based packaging from the USA EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory Report :

Coated and laminated paper products are associated with significant reporting of releases and other waste management of toxics chemicals…Pollutants associated with various coating materials and processes have included emissions of volatile organic compounds and discharges of wastewater containing solvents, colorants, and other contaminants (EPA, TRI Data for Pulp and Paper, Ch. 5).

It would be great to conduct an LCA of a trapped blister pack like MWV’s Natralock vs. a, let’s say, RPET clamshell via the SPC’s comparative packaging assessment software COMPASS. Unfortunately, LCA tools like COMPASS don’t contain metrics for toxicity resulting from the inks, laminates and adhesives used in fiber-based packaging because: lack of life cycle data availability, lack of risk data beyond MSDS information, and that hazard is not easily correlated to toxicity based on mass of material. A respected LCA practitioner did explain to me that this need for risk data re: inks, laminates and adhesives used in fiber-based packaging like trapped blister packs IS being investigated via GreenBlue’s CleanGredients. He writes, “The fact that possibly the most toxic part of a package is not being assessed [by LCA tools like COMPASS] has not been missed by the LCA community.”

While we can’t conduct a holistic LCA of a trapped blister pack vs. a plastic clamshell because of the realities outlined above, we can conduct one comparing a PET clamshell to a corrugate box of similar dimensions via COMPASS; this is what I did to facilitate entry to GreenerPackage.com’s Database for Sustainable Packaging Suppliers–click here to see the third-party reviewed entry. Please note that I was only able to claim that the submitted RPET clamshell package “releases less GHG equivalents throughout life cycle than fiber-based packages of similar dimensions” because I provided this COMPASS LCA. As the data illustrates, the corrugate box releases more GHG and consumers more water, biotic, and mineral resources and results in higher concentrations of water toxicity and eutrophication than the plastic clamshell counterpart. Eutrophication is what contributes to the Gulf Dead Zone, which is where the absence of oxygen in the water has resulted in female fish growing testes as described in this National Geographic article.

Please understand that LCA tools like COMPASS are a constantly evolving tool; more LCI data is needed to paint a more accurate picture of the “sustainability” of any product. As such, this tool is appropriately deemed “COMPASS;” it helps illuminate where you are going but doesn’t always tell you where you are. In addition, though implied, I do not have information on how much paper and pulp production contributes to dramatic cases of eutrophication like the Gulf Dead Zone; it’s inclusion in this discussion was to demonstrate the complexities of “sustainability” as it pertains to different packaging materials and modes of production.

Next one should focus on the end of life management of trapped blister packs vs. clamshell packaging. As per the FTC Green Guide’s definition, in order to claim a package is recyclable, 60% or more American communities must have access to the infrastructure/facilities capable of sorting and reprocessing this material for remanufacture into new products and/or packaging. Unfortunately, as per this MSW report from the US EPA, clamshell packages AND trapped blister packs are not classified as recyclable insofar as there is no data on these packaging/material combinations (see table 21). As you can see , the high rates for paper recovery is attributed to newspaper and corrugate and those for plastic are attributed primarily to HDPE jugs and PET bottles. Those packaging categories listed “Neg.” like “other paper packaging/other paperboard packaging” means that not enough data is collected; this implies that all fiber-based packaging materials that fall outside of the categories listed are not recycled, contrary to popular belief.

The recyclability of materials used in combination to create the package depends entirely on the ability of someone (the end user or MRF) to separate the material constituents. After performing extensive research in the area of post consumer materials management, I have a hard time understanding how trapped blister packs, like MWV’s Natralock, are recycled due to the multi-material/chemical composition inherent in the package design…

Assumption 4:

Retailers are instigating the shift from clamshell to trapped blister packs like MWV’s Natralock because it is easier to open.

Consider the following excerpt taken directly from the NYT’s article:

“As a guy in packaging, I get all the questions — there’s nothing worse than going to a cocktail party where someone’s asking why they can’t get into their stuff,” said Ronald Sasine, the senior director for packaging procurement at Wal-Mart. “I’ve heard over the years, ‘How come I need a knife to get into my knife?’ ‘How come I need a pair of scissors to get into my kid’s birthday present?’”

That’s all fine and good—I am aware that consumers get frustrated trying to open their product packaging. The reason for the hard-to-open nature of the clamshell packaging is, as this article explains, to deter shop-lifters; it was Sam Walton himself who explained that products over a certain price point had to be packaged in clamshells to reduce shrinkage. However, clamshell manufacturers do not design their packaging to be frustrating to the consumer—in fact, most domestic manufacturers offer easy-open features and design the packaging to snap together, eliminating the need for secondary RF sealing. However, by the time the fulfilled package makes its way to a retail shelf, it has been RF sealed due to the requirements of the RETAILER, not the manufacturer. Don’t hate the players hate the game.

Now, consider this factoid taken directly from MWV’s webpage explaining Natralock: “The polymer-reinforced paperboard, along with our unique sealing process, makes the package virtually impossible to tear open by hand” (http://www.natralock.com/WhatIsNatralock/SecurityDurability/SecurityLossPrevention/index.htm).

Call me crazy, but doesn’t this imply that the package requires scissors, or another tool, to get into? If you can’t open it by hand, what can you open it with? Sooo how are trapped blister packs easier to open than clamshells?

Taken together, it is clear that this NYT’s article presents an overly simplified account of the requirements and realities of retail product packaging in the context of “sustainability.” As a representative of the plastics industry and a third-generation plastic clamshell manufacturer, I believe it is crucial that we combat these biased and scientifically unfounded perceptions about the “evils” of clamshell packaging; if we do not, clamshell packaging will continue to be targeted by self-serving actors looking to capitalize on the anxiety produced from notions of environmental destruction via our consumption habits.

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