It is generally accepted that the packaging industry needs to come up with more wide-ranging solutions to its many and varied sustainability challenges. But there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, as we’re all very aware. Victoria Hattersley spoke to Gerald Rebitzer, Director Sustainability at global rigid, flexible and carton packaging producer Amcor, about the methods it proposes: among them, the Seven Pillars of Sustainability.
From my experience talking to people from many different facets of the packaging supply chain, one thing I have become increasingly aware of is that, while everyone agrees that we need to be more sustainable as an industry and as a society, there is little agreement on what this actually means. Some advocate passionately for recyclable plastics within a circular economy while others favour compostables; some extol the benefits of glass, some metal, and so on.
But what if nobody is ‘right’? What if it’s more a case of recognizing the uniqueness of each scenario and finding the best solution within that context? This, it seems, is what Amcor’s seven pillars are attempting to address.
“All our customers are looking to improve the sustainability of their packaging,” says Gerald Rebitzer, Director Sustainability at Amcor. “Our intent with focusing on seven sustainability options is to give brands a clear starting point for actions they might take to switch to more environmentally friendly packaging. We then work together with our customers to tailor a solution for their specific product and market.
“And options can of course be combined in order to produce the optimal packaging with a holistic life cycle perspective in mind – for example, a bio-based PE pouch made from sugar cane that is also recyclable and has a lower carbon footprint than the product’s previous packaging.”
“Our intent with focusing on seven sustainability options is to give brands a clear starting point for actions they might take to switch to more environmentally friendly packaging now.”
The seven pillars
Before we go on, let’s look at these pillars, or ‘options’, that brand owners can take:
Materials that have served their purpose (have been used by the consumer) and subsequently been recycled to produce a new product.
Materials derived from renewable resources such as corn, sugar cane or trees.
Raw materials sourced from socially and environmentally responsible suppliers, as confirmed by certification schemes, such as ASI or FSC®.
Packaging that has a lower life cycle carbon footprint than common alternatives, e.g. due to material selection, design or improved recycling performance.
Packaging that meets accepted design standards for recyclability, i.e. packaging with the right attributes for successful collection, sorting, and recycling in the real world.
Materials that biodegrade in a commercially managed or home composting system according to the relevant industry standards.
Packaging that is refilled or used again for its original purpose.
“If food waste were a country, it would come in third after the United States and China in terms of impact on climate change.”
A balancing act
The main goal behind each of these seven pillars, as Gerald Rebitzer says, is to ‘retain the packaging’s performance while reducing any negative impact’. As such, the company has identified three interrelated sustainability topics that it believes need to be a part of the sustainable packaging conversation: climate change, food waste and plastic waste. Each of these feeds into the other two, and so addressing them all is a complex balancing act.
“Thirty per cent of food is wasted globally across the supply chain, contributing nearly 10% of global greenhouse emissions. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would come in third after the United States and China in terms of impact on climate change. For most food found in grocery stores, the vast majority of its carbon footprint comes from growing, harvesting and producing the food. On average, only about 10% of food’s carbon footprint comes from transportation and packaging combined.
And here is where the seven pillars concept can come into Amcor’s relationship with its customers. “Packaging’s first job is to protect the food inside from spoilage, prolong its shelf-life and reduce food waste. As an example, paper is a renewable and recyclable resource. It can be a great packaging material for foods requiring no or low barrier. But for products that degrade with moisture and oxygen, paper does not offer enough barrier and plastic packaging is a better option. In those cases we can work with customers to explore options such as recyclable packaging using bio-based PE made from sugar cane; or using post-consumer recycled plastics; as well as downgauging to reduce the amount of material used in the first place.”
“When packaging is thrown away, the valuable financial and natural resources contained in its materials are lost.”
Beyond packaging design
Of course, the scale of the challenge goes beyond packaging design. That’s why Amcor emphasizes the importance of more unified policy, collection systems and recycling infrastructure across Europe (and other regions) to build a stronger recycling framework.
“When packaging is thrown away, the valuable financial and natural resources contained in its materials are lost,” continues Gerald Rebitzer. “Improperly disposed-of packaging waste also contributes to the growing issue of pollution. We know that some countries use recovered plastic for ‘thermal recycling’ or ‘heat recovery’. This method, which involves burning plastic to produce electricity and for other uses, produces carbon dioxide emissions. What we are focused on is packaging that can be recycled and enter a circular system and be used again to make packaging or other products.
“Our work with organizations like the Consumer Goods Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Recycling Partnership in the US, and CEFLEX in Europe is already moving us closer to this reality. But we need governments and advocacy groups to get on board with the fact that there simply isn’t enough infrastructure to serve rapidly growing populations in many countries and this needs to change with support from both the public as well as the private sector.”
“We need governments and advocacy groups to get on board with the fact that there simply isn’t enough infrastructure to serve rapidly growing populations in many countries.”
Actions, not words
In short, you can design the most ‘sustainable’ package imaginable, but if the end-of-life infrastructure is not there then all that work may well be for nothing. That’s what we mean when we (as we often do at Packaging Europe) discuss the need for more ‘joined-up thinking’ across the entire value chain. It’s not just words that are thrown around to sound impressive: I’d like to think a large percentage of the industry is beyond that now.
Certainly it seems Amcor is. “It is now more than two years since we made our pledge that by 2025 all our packaging will be designed to be recyclable or reusable, as well as increasing our use of post-consumer recycled content. While the majority of our packaging portfolio is already designed to be recyclable – for example, 97% of our rigid packaging already is recyclable – we continue to develop new materials and light-weight flexible packaging solutions that are both extremely efficient and can also be recycled. Integrating post-consumer recycled content in both rigid and flexible packaging is also a high priority.”
And while it is fair that a large part of the burden should fall on industry, Gerald Rebitzer stresses that this should not therefore absolve the individual of responsibility. “The system also needs consumers to be more active in keeping waste out of the environment. Through participation in a collection system and avoiding littering, each one of us plays a critical role in creating a highly effective system.”
It is this kind of ethos, including tools such as the Seven Pillars of Sustainability, that will hopefully help move us towards the common goal of a circular economy for plastics. And many would argue we have the means at our disposal today – we don’t need to wait around for some astounding new technology to effect real change. The future is today (as my 10-year old daughter informed me yesterday).
“Our hope is to bring the supply chain, governments, multinational and regional companies and NGOs together to create permanent, scalable recycling systems and improve recycling rates – all of which is vital to keep plastics in use and out of the environment.”
For more information on Amcor click here