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Sustainability is the big watchword right now, and one of the most significant pushes comes from the packaging sector. The entire world has finally grasped the importance and ubiquitous nature of packaging. Whether the product is sourced online or in person, purchased from a chain store or boutique outlet, or is a fashion item, car, or something from the greengrocer, it will come in some form of packaging.
Sustainability is top of everyone’s mind when it comes to packaging. Even so, it’s important to take a closer look at sustainability—and here I must state that this is an opinion piece. As the title of my article suggests, we first need to understand what sustainability in packaging actually is. Every country has its fair share of sustainability gurus; most businesses have their own sustainability officers, evangelists, or proponents. Governments have entire committees dedicated to exploring sustainability, oftentimes from the standpoint of seeking to penalize non-compliant parties. But none of these experts have actually come up with a global definition of sustainability in packaging. Indeed, sustainability at its heart is about environmental and public health. If we look at it from that vantage point, does the focus shift?
Let’s think about some of the different processes that are considered sustainable. First, there’s recycling, otherwise known as reprocessing used items into new items. This is generally accepted as a good way to reduce the volume of virgin materials. Second, some items can be reused, which essentially requires collecting, washing, disinfecting the reusable items, and inserting them back into the stream. While these solutions are the most likely to come to mind when people think about sustainable practices, sustainability also covers several other activities.
Unfortunately, recycling or reusing practices may be difficult or impossible for several players in the packaging chain because these activities do not fall into their production capabilities. For example, paper manufacturers use recycled paper for their production. Still, the limitations of the fibre mean that paper can only be recycled so many times before it ends up in the landfill. Therefore, many paper manufacturers explore other areas, such as ensuring that all the materials they produce come from plantations that promise to replace felled trees and keep waste to a bare minimum.
Another form of sustainability focuses more on the carbon footprint and less on the actual volume of material produced or how it can be recycled. This is because the material may be tough to recycle, but it is still an essential element or the most cost-effective item with the lowest impact.
At the end of the day, the primary issue is that there needs to be a solid, irrefutable definition of what sustainability is/what is required to make packaging sustainable. Because we are in need of such a definition, many varied (sometimes competing) opinions on sustainability exist. All experts want to weigh in, and some hope that simply speaking the loudest will make their opinions heard and accepted. Unfortunately, it’s possible that the sustainability holy grail is unattainable in packaging: There may not be a one-size-fits-all definition because the parameters for sustainability itself are too broad.
This may seem like a controversial statement, but it can be argued that, as a planet, we are losing the battle against reducing the volume of plastic in circulation (based on recent data about the levels of pollution winding up in the sea or the volumes of plastic ending up in landfill). The United States has been able to report lower rates of plastic to landfills, but this is a partial picture because much of its plastic waste is being sold to countries in the Far East, where it still ends up in landfills and contributes to the contamination of water systems.
While sustainability is an important goal for everyone in this industry, a more important and easily attainable goal might be determining what constitutes it. A clear definition—or perhaps a set of definitions—would set the goalposts and give the packaging industry something to work toward. In addition, with a clearer outline, politicians and legislators could gain a more realistic overview of the challenges and opportunities rather than simply imposing their own guidelines and penalties without understanding what can be achieved on a practical level.
Regulations can play a critical role in ensuring that print and packaging are sustainable because they set standards and guidelines that companies must follow. At the same time, however, these regulations must be achievable or they will only serve as whipping posts without the opportunity for redemption. Some regulations govern the use of paper, inks, and other materials in print production and require businesses to reduce their environmental impact and improve their sustainability practices. Regulations that can impact the sustainability of print include:
Overall, regulations can be an essential tool in promoting the sustainability of print and packaging. Businesses can reduce their environmental impact and contribute to a more sustainable future by complying with regulations and adopting more sustainable practices. However, regulations and regulators should work hand-in-hand with the industry to promote a better environment rather than simply imposing fines to generate revenues.
Although some might disagree with my opinions, sustainability in the packaging industry is open to much interpretation and sectoral manipulation. Is your company/organization committed to sustainability or compliant? There is a big difference between the two.
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