by Cassandra Balentine
Packaging is big business. Within this industry, the demand for sustainable options is growing. According to a recent study by ResearchAndMarkets.com, The Sustainable Packaging Market 2021-2026, the sustainable packaging market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.03 percent to reach $348.919 billion USD by 2026 up from $247.435 billion USD in 2019.
The firm says sustainable packaging is defined as an approach towards packaging that is sourced, developed, and used in a way that minimizes the environmental impact.
The Right Terminology
When it comes to “green” products, it is essential that everyone involved—the media supplier, brand owner, consumer, and print provider—are all on the same page. However, with so many terms floating around, it is not always an easy task.
“There are many different terms being actively used today to describe planet-positive products and actions,” admits Lori Gobris, manager, global marketing, Michelman.
“Eco-friendly could be defined as having some positive impact on the environment, such as lighter weight films that use less resources, or perhaps materials that contain some amount of post-consumer recycled content, or even paper-based films,” comments Dan Halkyard, senior director new product development, S-One Labels & Packaging (S-OneLP).
However, he points out that eco-friendly, while admirable, does not have the same meaning as sustainable media. “To us, sustainable media means the resources used to produce the materials are self-sustaining or renewable. By this we generally mean media and materials that are either recyclable, compostable, or sourced from forests that utilize sustainable forestry practices, like replanting trees, or selective cutting versus clear cutting, etc.,” offers Halkyard.
UPM Raflatac avoids the phrase eco-friendly altogether. Ashley Drew, sustainability manager, UPM Raflatac Americas, says in her opinion, the terms sustainable and eco-friendly should not be used interchangeably. “Sustainable media—and sustainability in general—can mean different things to different stakeholders so it is important to align on that definition when discussing the sustainable outcomes we want to achieve, what our customers and brands want to achieve and how we can provide verified solutions to take measurable action,” he shares.
Innovia Films also avoids the term eco-friendly, as Stephen Langstaff, business development manager, packaging, Innovia Films, believes this can lead to greenwashing. “Any environmental claims should be based on scientific proof, such as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) data,” he offers, noting that an LCA is the systematic analysis of the potential environmental impacts of products or services during their entire lifecycle, from the extraction of raw materials through to processing, transport, use, and disposal. “This allows companies to identify hotspots and evaluate how they can improve the many outputs to become more sustainable. Innovia Films has invested in its own life cycle analysis tool and trained a small team of ‘experts’. This analysis is considered in all product development.”
Innovia uses the term sustainable to describe its Encore range of films. Langstaff says this reference relates to the addition of polymer, which is produced from a by-product of the forestry industry—FSC-managed forests. “This helps to reduce the use of fossil-based virgin raw materials.
They can be manufactured to reduce the carbon footprint of the film or to be fully carbon neutral—cradle to gate. The renewable polymer for Encore is managed through ISCC PLUS chain of custody. They are suitable for use in all market segments currently using BOPP films. The Encore film range can also be produced with the addition of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content using chemically recycled polymer,” he explains.
Avery Dennison offers sustainable products and processes that can provide increased productivity, reduced costs, and less stress on the environment, as well as improve sustainability through reduction in landfills and use of less natural resources. “In my opinion, eco-friendly is more about not harming the planet today whereas sustainable is more forward-thinking about how our actions and innovations will help to create a better future that allows for future generations to enjoy the planet and all it has to offer,” says Cindy M. Collins, senior product manager, Avery Dennison Rapid-Roll.
Gobris feels that it’s important to get past the high-level, general descriptions to understand precisely how the circular economy principles are being applied to Michelman’s products and how its coatings can enable the final product to reach those goals.
When it comes to flexible packaging substrate options, environmental considerations are a growing concern for media buyers.
“Flexible packaging manufacturers today are driving demand for sustainable packaging in three areas—recyclable, compostable, and PCR content,” offers Halkyard.
He points out that recyclable materials mean products that are typically made 100 percent from polyethylene (PE) that have been certified by both the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and/or Trex so at the end of the package’s useful life there is infrastructure available to reuse these materials.
“Most often, these materials are collected at participating retailers and repurposed into composite decking or grocery bags. S-OneLP offers the ReTreve Recyclable material line that is SPC and Trex certified.”
Beyond recycling, there’s a growing cadre of sustainably minded brands who want their packaging to return to the earth through composting efforts. “We’ve witnessed incredible growth in our compostable and bio-based material line called ReEarth. Some of our most popular ReEarth products are certified industrial compostable, and some are pending at-home compostability certification. All ReEarth products are made with a portion of bio-based components,” notes Halkyard.
And finally, he sees growing demand for flexible packaging materials made from PCR content. Here the sustainable benefit of the package is front loaded in the packaging content as opposed to its end-of-life, which relies on recycling infrastructure to make sure the product is ultimately recycled and not landfilled.
Demand for environmental conscious media options depends on a few factors and the goals of the buyer.
For example, utilizing recycled content is a great way to reduce the pressure on virgin fossil-based feedstocks and offers ‘up front’ sustainability benefits, agrees Drew. On the other hand, he says recyclability is unfortunately a very stratified landscape that differs by country and region—and sometimes by locality as well—so it is always important to take the whole packaging into account when designing for recyclability in order to get the highest possible recycling outcomes.
“Ideally the solution would be a combination of both—each packaging component designed with enhancing recyclability in mind, and in addition utilizing recycled content in packaging materials,” comments Drew.
Langstaff sees major brands responding to consumer demands for more sustainable packaging, reduction of packaging material, and easy to recycle packaging. “They are also focused on reducing their own environmental impact to achieve a lower carbon footprint to meet their sustainability goals.”
For instance, Langstaff says the packaging industry has worked hard to meet these demands by realigning its products and find solutions, without sacrificing functionality, hygiene protection, food safety, and shelf life. “They are developing thinner films or films with renewable content or recycled content that can help the manufacturer reduce their carbon footprint.”
Unfortunately, he feels that many brand owners and retailers claim they are being environmentally friendly and for marketing reasons, switch away from plastic to more environmentally damaging solutions to increase sales.
Collins believes the most desired result is to have packaging that is fully recyclable and can be used in the future. “The reality is that these products exist today, but there are many restrictions to the applications and true circularity. Further, the processing of these materials, including printing and pouching, require unique settings and handling. There is a movement in flexible packaging in response to current requests for PCR content, which is using what has been recycled in packaging.
This too, comes with the requirement to remain FDA compliant and safe for the consumer. The use of PCR resins typically exist in the core of a film where both outside surfaces remain virgin material and therefore perform the same as a fully virgin product would perform.”
“Every aspect of the circular economy, from material sourcing to end-of-life considerations are being incorporated into flexible packaging solutions. It’s exciting to see the industry strive to reduce its impact on the environment,” says Gobris.
With end-of-life initiatives and the majority of flexible packaging being in complex multi-material plastic laminations, the two strongest trends are recyclable mono-material plastic packaging, however transitioning plastic substrates into recyclable paper packaging is also occurring. Sourcing recycled materials is taking place today and will continue to increase as more collection and recycling infrastructure is put in place,” she says.
Supply Chain Considerations
As with any manufacturing area today, supply chain issues are no doubt affecting this segment of the media landscape. However, the use of digital print technologies eases the burden.
“In what seems to be a universal problem, supply chain issues have not escaped the flexible packaging industry,” confirms Halkyard. “Demand for materials is high, and supply is tight because there are not as many suppliers for these sustainable materials as there are for single-use plastics. We do our best to manage inventory to meet our customer’s demands, but no industry is immune to the supply chain problems of today.”
Langstaff agrees, noting that global supply chains have come under pressure over the last year or so, with some suppliers of key raw materials unable to meet the growing demand, or unable to supply at all. He says the increasing capacity of some materials takes investment and time and it only takes one set-back to result in manufacturers not being able to meet promised quotas. “For example, the growing demand for recycled polymers far outstrips current supply. Therefore, we need to ramp up the collection of flexible and rigid polymer materials so that they can be recycled and reused within the supply chain. It is a fact that recycled materials now command a higher value than virgin materials in the market.”
“As we all know, the past several years have seen many supply related challenges,” comments Drew. “Some of these challenges have pressured customers and brands to adjust or be more flexible in the materials that they use and we have seen many switching to filmic material for both face and liners due to market disruptions and availability within the paper supply chains. Still, we see these challenges as an opportunity to make packaging more sustainable in the long term by helping our customers to consider and quality alternative materials.”
Collins says components used in both sustainable options and virgin films have absolutely been affected by the worldwide supply issues. “Lead times have extended to months compared to traditional weeks, and sourcing has been a challenge with allocations set by many. “These supply chain challenges have not slowed down the work being done to provide sustainable options to the flexible packaging industry,” she assures.
However, with the increased use of digital print technologies, there is some reprieve. “Digital printing allows you to only print what you need, thus reducing aged inventory and obsolescence concerns. No make ready, no press approvals, no plates required, no ink waste, reduced prepress costs, and reduced inventory costs. When this is all put together, digital printing has a 30 percent lower carbon footprint compared with traditional methods. Digital printing provides better printing solutions especially as supply is limited and there are longer lead times,” says Kirit Naik, global director, digital printing technologies, UPM Raflatac, citing a 2014 article from William Reed Ltd.
Naik points out digital printing also provides flexibility at the SKU level and customization options “Improved speed-to-market with quick prototyping, shorter runs, on demand printing, and managing multiple SKUs to keep up with changing legislation.”
The technology allows converters and brand owners the ability to manage SKU proliferation and management of seasonal promotions, national brand competing local brand, targeted marketing and product testing, quick turnaround, and improved speed to market with rapid prototyping. “To execute these types of programs requires fast design and approval cycles and fast execution. Digital printing makes this possible,” adds Naik.
“Supply chain disruptions and constraints are impacting sustainable production just as they are non sustainable. Additionally, there is still scale for both end of life—sustainable, compostable—infrastructure and bio-based resources that need to be reached and will evolve for many years to come,” says Gobris.
Sustainable State of Mind
As plastics continue to gain notoriety for their long-term effect on the environment and human health, alternative options are in demand. It is important to back up all sustainability claims and partner with media suppliers that do the same.
Oct2022, DPS Magazine