It Aint Easy Being Green

June 22, 2011

Hey guys!

Did you see this terribly sad article detailing the mass extension of our oceans?!?! Goodness gracious sometimes being required to read all things about the environment is such a bummer! I will discuss the truth of marine debris in tomorrow’s post, because as per this article, it is a rather timely topic! Here is a picture of me petting a dog shark at the zoo, which speaks to my utter LOVE of our fine finned fellas!

AND, I have updates on PET thermoform recycling as per a colleague who attended Walmart Canada’s SVN meeting today. EXCITING!

In early June I was contacted by the editor of Plastics Business Magazine, which is a quarterly publication for plastics processors supported by the Manufacturers Association of Plastics Processors. She found me through Twitter, compliments of the Packaging Diva, who is a super successful independent packaging professional with like thousands of Twitter followers—that’s right, thousands. Anyway, the editor was looking for a packaging converter with a bit of sustainability know-how to write an article on sustainable packaging choices, specifically geared towards plastics molders, and asked me as per the Diva’s suggestion! Thanks ladies!

The editor explained that the magazine is targeted to upper-level executives/management operations staff, providing industry trends, strategies, etc. Because a lot of blow molders are involved in some type of post-mold packaging for their customers, she thought it was important to address sustainable packaging options, as this is obviously a trend with some staying power.

AND she gave me 1,500 words, which is by far the most space I have gotten in a print publication EVER, yippee!

Check out my first draft below. It is a bit academic, but I didn’t know how else to handle such a complicated topic as sustainable packaging in causal discourse.

It Aint Easy Being Green

Chandler Slavin, Sustainability Coordinator, Dordan Manufacturing Co. Inc.

“Sustainability” is a concept commonly defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since the early nineties, “sustainability” as concept has been integrated into how we understand different process of production and consumption, products and services.

As the Sustainability Coordinator of a medium-sized family owned and operated plastic thermoforming company, I believe my employment speaks to the extent to which “sustainability” has percolated industry. By taking an informed, systems-based approach to sustainability, I believe plastic processors can develop truly sustainable packaging options for their customers. What follows is a discussion of some of the tools, materials and resources available to those that wish to embark on the journey towards sustainable packaging. It is important to understand, however, that there is no “silver bullet” when discussing sustainability; compromise is required whenever assessing how certain materials or processes will inform the overall environmental and economic performance of a given product or service.

Life cycle analysis is a popular approach to understanding the environmental requirements of different products and services. By considering the entire life cycle of product—from material extraction to production, distribution, and end of life—one can begin to understand its sustainability profile. This type of assessment provides quantified, scientific data, which can be used to facilitate sustainability improvements across the supply chain. Discussion of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s life-cycle based, comparative packaging assessment software COMPASS will make clear the importance of LCA and how such intelligence can aid in sustainability improvements in packaging systems.

COMPASS s a design-phase web application that provides comparative environmental profiles of packaging alternatives based on life cycle assessment metrics and design attributes. Created by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (hereafter, SPC)—an industry-working group dedicated to a more environmentally robust vision for packaging—this tool provides the environmental data needed to make informed packaging design decisions early in the developmental process. COMPASS assess packages on resource consumption (fossil fuel, water, biotic resource, and mineral), emissions (greenhouse gas, human impacts, aquatic toxicity, and eutrophication), and attributes such as material health, recycled or virgin content, sourcing, and solid waste.

Dordan began its subscription to COMPASS in 2010 in response to inquiries from clients into the sustainability of one material vs. another, one design vs. another, etc. Because COMPASS contains life cycle impact assessment data (LCIA) from raw material sourcing/extraction, packaging material manufacture, conversion, distribution and end of life, it details the life cycle impacts of different packaging systems in a comparative format; this allows the practitioner to understand the environmental performance of package A vs. package B, which allows for informed design decisions that results in quantified marketing claims.

To utilize COMPASS, one needs the following information: The weight of the various packaging material constituents of the primary and secondary packaging for the existing and proposed packaging; the conversion process i.e. calendaring with paper cutting vs. thermoforming; and, the data set i.e. US vs. EU vs. CA (end of life data is geographically specific). COMPASS data output consists of colored bar graphs corresponding to the existing and proposed designs, indicating the emissions generated and resources consumed as listed above.

COMPASS was created by stakeholders in industry, academia, NGOs and environmental organizations and funded in part by the US EPA. The LCIA data is taken from the two public life cycle databases available, the US Life Cycle Inventory Database and Ecoinvent, a Swiss life cycle database. This tool should be incorporated into the package development process in order to facilitate more sustainable designs that allows for informed environmental marketing claims. Examples of claims Dordan has made as result of COMPASS utilization includes: “25% reduction in GHG equivalents emitted throughout life cycle when compared with previous package” or, “40% reduction in biotic, mineral, and water resources consumed when compared with previous package.”

In addition to investing in a life cycle based, systems approach to packaging sustainability as manifest through subscription to COMPASS, it is important to invest in industry-specific sustainability R&D. Because each industry is unique in its demands and applications, it is difficult to speculate on what type of sustainability service will resonate best with each demographic. As thin-gauge thermoformers, Dordan found that “bio-plastics” were something in need of investigation because of their feedstock/end of life sustainability implications. By being proactive and sampling each available bio-based/biodegradable/compostable resin as it came to market, Dordan was able to provide its clients with a variety of options that may aid in the attainment of their sustainable packaging goals. Resins sampled include: PLA, PLA & Starch, Cellulous Acetate, PHA, TerraPET, Aeris InCycle. A comparative spec sheet detailing each resins’ physical properties, environmental profiles and cost as understood through density and yield was provided alongside the thermoformed samples, allowing for a holistic representation of this new class of resins.

Don’t let your efforts stop with industry-specific sustainability R&D, however: sustainability is a complicated concept and one that requires full time investigation and participation. In order for plastics processors to capitalize on packaging sustainability in the context of environmental and economic savings, it is helpful to divert resources to sustainability education. Dordan began its sustainability education by joining the SPC, which offered a variety of research crucial to discussions of sustainability. Research available includes: Environmental Technical Briefs of Common Packaging Materials, Sustainable Packaging Indictors and Metrics, Design Guidelines for Sustainable Packaging, Guide to Packaging Material Flows and Terminology, Compostable Packaging Survey, etc.

In joining an industry alliance dedicated to developing more sustainable packaging systems, Dordan was introduced to all the issues that concerned not only the thermoforming but also larger packaging industry; in doing so, it illuminated the obstacles faced and the opportunities available. A discussion of how Dordan developed a clamshell recycling initiative based on insights generated from SPC participation will make clear what is encouraged with sustainability education.

At Dordan’s first SPC meeting it became clear that very few types of consumer product packaging is recycled as per the FTC Green Guides’ definition. Upon this discovery, Dordan aggressively began investigating why thermoformed packaging, like the clamshells and blisters it manufacturers, is not recycled in 60% or more American communities; therefore, couldn’t be considered recyclable. After performing extensive research in this area, I was invited to be the co-lead of Walmart Canada’s PET Subcommittee of the Material Optimization Committee; this looked to increase the diversion rate of PET packaging—bottle and thermoform grade—post consumer. My involvement with stakeholders in PET recovery prompted multiple speaking invitations, allowing Dordan to achieve industry thought leadership status. In investigating issues pertinent to the sustainability of our industry, in this case recycling, Dordan was able to add to the constantly evolving dialogue around sustainability; this not only increased Dordan’s exposure within the industry, but allowed for said exposure to be one of genuine commitment to the sustainability of the thermoforming industry.

I was approached to write an article detailing what sustainable packaging is. According to the SPC, sustainable packaging: meets market criteria for both performance and cost; is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy; 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 closed loop cycles. While this definition is conceptual correct, I argue that it does not reflect the current reality of sustainable packaging: all commodities consume resources and produce waste during production, distribution, and at end of life. Our jobs as packaging professionals, therefore, is to educate ourselves about the trends, terminology, materials and tools available, so we can work towards achieving our definition of sustainable packaging. Only through education, supply chain collaboration and industry initiatives can we begin to develop truly sustainable packaging systems that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

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