The Sustainable Evolution of Packaging
Packaging and sustainability have become largely intertwined. It is difficult to mention one without the other as they garner attention from government agencies, brands, and retailers. The consumer market is continuing to place an emphasis on sustainability, but what does this really mean for brands and package printers and manufacturers?
A Look at the Current Landscape
In a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company1 in October 2020, regarding behavior and attitudes of U.S. consumers toward sustainable packaging, the findings spoke volumes about trends and attitudes. The most interesting were that price, quality, brand, and convenience ranked as the most important criteria considered when purchasing. Overall, sustainability ranked lower when considering purchasing a product. However, the same study indicated that U.S. consumers remain concerned with the overall environmental impact of packaging, which means it has now become part of the consumer’s psyche.
Indications are that consumers will pay more for products in sustainable packages if more were available, and clearly marked as to their attributes. And moving forward, consumers would like to see more packaging options that include recycled content, increased recyclability, as well as fiber-based substitutes. As would be expected, the current COVID-19 pandemic only continues to heighten awareness of hygiene and food safety, both being important components for packaging materials.
For a more complete picture of the changing landscape, it is also important to understand the role of the government as it relates to sustainability and packaging. The legislative initiative that will have the most impact on packaging is called Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR.
Fundamentally, EPR is a policy approach under which the cost associated for the collection, recycling, treatment, or disposal of the post-consumer product is transferred to the producer or the company putting the product on the market. This is done by the imposition of a tax based on the type of material the product is made of and how easily it can be sent for recycling. It is in the implementation of this policy where the potential pitfalls lie.
EPR is being used as a legislative strategy by states to place a shared responsibility for end-of-life product management on producers, and other entities involved in the product chain. The intent is to shift the costs of processing and disposal from the consumer to the producer of the product, such as the brand owner. While the intent of this type of program is to encourage product design changes that reduce the environmental impacts of a specific product, the ultimate implementation of such a program requires the institution of a “fee” or “user tax” on the product’s producer to help fund and defray the costs of disposal.
This strategy is not only being deployed at the state level. Activities are ongoing within the United States Congress as well. At the state level, at least 13 states are considering legislation that will impose some type of EPR program to cover either packaging or printed paper and packaging. In 2020, the Break Free From Plastics Act was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) in Congress with the outlined goal, among others, of requiring large corporations to take responsibility for their pollution and producers of plastic products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs. These legislative strategies continue to motivate major companies to adopt sustainability goals related to packaging and packaging components offered.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a member-based organization comprised of brands as well as those providing print and packaging, provides an overview of the goals that companies are adopting. Many are adopted company-wide, but there are those that specifically target the packaging industry.
Among the most common are those involving material selection and sourcing. The most commonly developed goal categories include increasing the use of postconsumer and/or post-industrial recycled materials to replace conventional virgin feedstocks; increasing the use of plant-based packaging materials, including fiber/paper packaging and plant-based bioplastics; institution of a procurement policy for fiber/paper packaging; and outright elimination of substances of concern or materials perceived as problematic. These concerns are generally tied to toxicity issues.
The movement by major brands to seek out and develop alternative packaging materials is evidenced by the daily announcements of new packages launched for familiar items. The movement away from plastic to fiber-based packages, such as a paper bottle are becoming more common. And, the question remains, how can the average package printer work to help their customer base achieve their sustainability goals?
Pathway Forward for the Package Printer
Before a converter can effectively engage with their customer base on sustainability goals, it is imperative that the printer first conduct some research. Sustainability, both as a policy and a program, is now accepted as the new way to do business for companies in this vertical. Printing operations who do not take time to understand what their customers are seeking to achieve cannot expect to be seen as an active partner for these efforts. Take time to visit a customer’s website to review and read their latest sustainability report. Not only will their goals provide the printer with indications as to what they are seeking to achieve, but the reports further highlight steps taken and, most importantly, what they hope to achieve in the future.
With this information in hand, a package printer now has a specific direction to research what is currently occurring in the marketplace so solutions can be provided that will help the customer meet its goals. It is also important at this point to ensure that discussions are held regarding the technology that would be needed to implement any packaging designs or changes to existing product lines. The goal is to become that nexus of information for the customer on how to effectively achieve its goals, both in terms of materials and cost efficiencies.
Finally, the print operation needs to take a hard look at its own sustainable business practices. It is becoming quite common for the customer base to inquire of its supply chain partners the status of its sustainability programs.
Remember, customers are developing strong transparent reports clearly outlining their goals and objectives. It might become an expectation that the printer does the same. And transparency is key. Obtaining certification for paper products is a fine start, but what other initiatives have been undertaken that can be highlighted? This is becoming a key question that the customer base is asking.
They now expect their supply chain partners to take a more robust approach to sustainable business practices, and printing operations are no longer being excluded from these discussions.
The shift in packaging design and materials does indeed speak to a shift in printing practices and technology. It is important that printers engage in these conversations. Not only in terms of available substrate options, but also how these shifts relate to the print manufacturing process. Costs and availability need to be addressed and printers should serve as the point of information for these discussions.
And all these discussions must be undertaken through the lens of sustainability and how they can help the customer meet their stated goals. A final question for the print facility to consider is the state of its own sustainability goals and objectives and the approach it has chosen to follow.
Remember, sustainability is a journey and not a destination, and these discussions will evolve over time.
1McKinsey & Company, Sustainability in packaging: Inside the Minds of US Consumers, October 2020.
About the Author
Marci Kinter is the Vice President – Government & Regulatory Affairs at PRINTING United Alliance, the most comprehensive member-based printing and graphic arts association in the United States. PRINTING United Alliance members have exclusive access to preeminent education; training; workshops; events; research; governmental and legislative representation; safety and environmental sustainability guidance; and resources from the leading media company in the industry – NAPCO Media.
In this article, Kinter addresses sustainability issues impacting the packaging industry. For additional information, reach out to Kinter should you have additional questions specific to how these issues may affect your business: email@example.com.
To become a member of PRINTING United Alliance and learn more about how PRINTING United Alliance subject matter experts can assist your company with services and resources such as those mentioned in this article, please contact the Alliance membership team: 888-385-3588 / firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcia Kinter is the Vice President, Government & Regulatory Affairs at PRINTING United Alliance. Ms. Kinter oversees the development of resources for the Association addressing environmental, safety & health, and sustainability issues. She represents the printing industry, as well as their associated supplier base, before federal and state regulatory agencies on environmental, safety and other government issues directly impacting the printing industry.
In 2008, Ms. Kinter, in conjunction with colleagues from other printing trade associations, was instrumental in launching the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership program. The SGP Program is a registry system for printing facilities that includes third party verification. The program successfully launched as an independent organization in August 2008.
Ms. Kinter is a member of and serves as Secretary for the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies. In 2001, Ms. Kinter received the William D. Schaeffer Environmental Award for significant advancement of environmental awareness in the graphic arts industry.
Before joining the PRINTING United Alliance, Ms. Kinter worked for The American Waterways Operators, Inc., the national association for the barge and towing industry.
Ms. Kinter holds bachelor’s degree in urban planning from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University.
In 2008, Kinter, in conjunction with colleagues from other printing trade associations, was instrumental in launching the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership program. The SGP Program is a registry system for printing facilities that includes third party verification. The program successfully launched as an independent organization in August 2008.
Kinter is a member of and serves as Secretary for the Academy of Screen Printing Technology. In 2001, Kinter received the William D. Schaeffer Environmental Award for significant advancement of environmental awareness in the graphic arts industry.
Before joining PRINTING United Alliance, Kinter worked for The American Waterways Operators, Inc., the national association for the barge and towing industry.
She holds bachelor’s degree in urban planning from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University.