Can Your Packaging Be Defined as Sustainable?

What is the definition of sustainable packaging, and does your packaging align with these standards? 

can your packaging be defined as sustainable.jpg

Sustainability can mean different things for different companies—it all depends on what type of products you produce, what kinds of materials you use and what your supply chain operations look like. 


Packaging solutions that lower a company’s carbon footprint or reduce material usage would typically be considered sustainable. However, just because packaging is sustainable in one regard does not mean that every aspect of the packaging is environmentally friendly. Find out if your company’s packaging can be considered sustainable by exploring some criteria that define sustainable packaging.


Definition of Sustainable Packaging  

In general, sustainable packaging refers to packaging that minimises environmental impact. It takes into account the packaging material itself, as well as how the packaging is sourced, distributed and implemented. 


The most widely accepted definition of sustainable packaging comes from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), a leading voice in the packaging industry. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is a membership-based collaborative that was created as a subset of the nonprofit GreenBlue. To guide their initiatives, SPC developed a definition that emcompasses many different elements of environmentally friendly packaging. 


Below, we break down the eight elements of sustainable packaging as identified by the SPC—and provide tips for how your company can improve its performance in these areas


1. Beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities

Firstly, the SPC states that sustainable packaging needs to be beneficial and safe throughout its life cycle. With the rise of corporate social responsibility, brands are being held accountable for the social and environmental consequences of their operations. In addition to evaluating environmental effects, it’s important to look at how the production of packaging affects different societies. 


To see how your business measures up to this guideline, start by evaluating the ethics of your supply chain


2. Aligned with market criteria for performance and cost

According to the SPC, sustainable packaging should facilitate economic growth without the negative environmental impacts that have been traditionally associated with packaging. Sustainable packaging design should aim to reduce the total cost of packaging through resource optimisation and strategic material selection.


If your packaging is not optimised for cost savings, it may be time to consider how small changes to your packaging design can reduce packaging costs without sacrificing sustainability performance. 


3. Sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy

The use of fossil fuels is a leading contributor to climate change. To mitigate the negative effects of carbon emissions, companies should try to transition to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind power or hydroelectric. 


The GDP Global Supply Chain Report 2020 found that supply chain emissions are eleven times higher than operational emissions. If switching to renewable sources of energy is not within reach, then consider taking other steps to reduce the carbon footprint of your supply chain. This might include: 

  • Optimising space utilisation in shipping containers 
  • Increasing the efficiency of ocean and air shipments 
  • Ensuring that products will not need to be repacked at your distribution center 
  • Using alternative fuels or hybrid vehicles to transport products 


4. Made from renewable or recycled source materials

The SPC encourages companies to use renewable or recycled materials as much as possible, as they believe this will help ensure that materials are available for future generations. 


It’s important to keep in mind that recycled materials are not always going to be better for the environment than virgin materials. In certain cases, corrugated materials made from recycled fibres require more energy to produce than corrugated materials made from primary fibres. When determining which materials you should use in your company’s packaging, perform a life cycle assessment to get a thorough view of how the packaging’s production affects the environment. 


5. Manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices

Do you know how your packaging is being manufactured? In order for your packaging to fall under the definition of sustainable packaging, it must be manufactured using clean production technologies. This means that it is produced in a way that uses resources efficiently and minimises carbon emissions. 


Ask your packaging manufacturer: 

  • How are you working to reduce carbon emissions during the manufacturing process? 
  • Are you pursuing any renewable energy sources? 
  • What is your strategy for conserving water and other resources?


6. Made from materials that are healthy throughout the life cycle

This aspect of sustainable packaging focuses on eliminating the presence of harmful substances throughout the packaging’s life cycle. To ensure that your packaging does not pose an environmental or health risk, consider the following: 

  • Are your packaging suppliers transparent about their packaging materials? 
  • Do any packaging materials (including inks, adhesives and coatings) contain chemicals that may be harmful for humans or the environment? 
  • Are there alternative materials that can be used to minimise these harmful effects? 
  • Is your company compliant with legislation around restricted substances and material bans? 


7. Physically designed to optimise materials and energy

The right packaging design can make a huge difference in the overall sustainability of your supply chain. By implementing a strategic packaging design, you can reduce material usage and optimise shipment efficiency. 


During the packaging design process, think about how the packaging structure may affect sustainability performance. Right-sizing your packaging—the practice of minimising empty space while still maintaining product protection—can be an invaluable way to conserve materials and reduce the amount of carbon emissions generated by transporting your products.


8. Effectively recovered and utilised in closed loop cycles  

The final criteria that the SPC calls out in their sustainable packaging definition is the ability to recover packaging so it may be used again. In this context, recovery refers to the collection and recycling of materials in order to preserve material availability for future use. 


According to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency, about 33.3 million tonnes of corrugated boxes are generated in the U.S. each year. Take the following steps to promote packaging reuse: 

  • Select packaging materials that can be easily recycled in most parts of the world 
  • Limit your use of difficult-to-recycle materials such as EPS foam and plastics
  • Make sure your customers know how to recycle your packaging 
  • Create packaging that maintains structural integrity throughout the supply chain, so that customers can reuse the packaging for other purposes 


Improve the Sustainability of Your Packaging  

As you assess the sustainability of your packaging, keep in mind that sustainable packaging is relative. Even if your packaging does not meet all the criteria laid out by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, small packaging optimisations can add up and make a significant impact. Start by examining your existing packaging program, and then identify areas where you can make improvements. Some decisions will be difficult to make before gathering the required data. 


Billerud Managed Packaging can help uncover opportunities for packaging optimisations. We conduct an in-depth packaging review that examines your full packaging program. This includes material analysis, performance testing, design analysis and more. Request a complimentary packaging review for a thorough look at the sustainability of your packaging. 


For more information on how you increase your brand’s sustainability performance, download our “Designing a Sustainable Packaging Program” eBook.


Any questions, ideas or something you'd like to tell us? Don't hesitate to contact us. 

Get in touch