Nina Goodrich is Director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and Executive Director of GreenBlue - a nonprofit that provides science and resources to make business more sustainable. Nina has held leadership positions in Sustainability and R&D with Alcan Packaging, Amcor, The Guelph Food Technology Center and Magic Pantry Foods.

The rush to leave plastics behind has the potential to cause increased environmental impact. In the mad dash to replace plastics, it’s important that we remember the “job we are hiring packaging to do”.

Plastic and microplastic pollution in the environment are unquestionably bad, and we must increase our efforts to create collection infrastructure for all materials. Simply moving from one material to another without addressing the collection, recovery and next markets will lead us to make trade-offs that can have higher environmental footprints and potentially more damage and loss of shelf life. We often lose sight of the idea that climate change is the umbrella over our efforts to make packaging more sustainable. It is crucial to balance carbon footprint and recycling. Before we make our choices, we must understand the tradeoffs so we are able to make those choices consciously and not by accident. 

Let’s revisit the “job that packaging is hired to do”. Package development has been driven by consumer convenience and functionality, product protection, image, and cost. Sustainable packaging is a relatively recent driver. The priority has not been focused on designing packaging for the environment. We are just beginning to define and build the frameworks for what ‘good’ packaging looks like, and we have competing drivers for carbon footprint and recyclability. It’s not one or the other. We should strive for optimising both.

We should also be striving for responsible sourcing and material health. It is also fair to say that our collection/sortation systems and package reprocessing capabilities have not kept pace with packaging development. Our packaging mix of materials and formats has exploded and our infrastructure has not kept up. This does not mean we should go back to traditional formats. We need to continue to create collection infrastructure for traditional and new packaging formats, and we need to incorporate design for sustainability thinking into package development. It will be important to communicate what future packaging will look like early to those folks involved in the collection and reprocessing of packaging. We can’t expect them to guess what will be coming next.

For example, the rise of flexible film packaging has been driven by low cost performance and by new processing technologies in the food industry. Food waste, a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, has been reduced by new processing technologies like high pressure processing and microwave assisted processing. These food processing technologies need packaging made from polymers to work. They can significantly extend the shelf life in combination with refrigeration of some foods like smoothies, juices, salsas, avocadoes, shellfish and meats. We shouldn’t separate the package from the product it is protecting. Instead, we need to put the lifecycle of both package and product in context. Flexible packaging has a lower carbon footprint than rigid alternatives, so we have to invest in and develop new technologies for collecting and reprocessing flexible polymers. 

What can we do?

Limit single use packaging in all materials.

Create reusable packaging systems.

Increase recycled content. Increasing the use of recycled content will lower the carbon footprint in plastics, aluminum, and steel. The more recycled content used, the lower the carbon footprint of the package. 

Embrace chemical recycling. Chemical recycling is not incineration. It is not one type of technology. Today it is a family of many approaches to create chemical building blocks that can be reused to make new products. It is evolving rapidly and will continue to expand in scope and capability as our experience with these technologies grow. Mechanical recycling will always have a place, but as we get better at recycling, we will need chemical recycling especially for polyolefins and flexible packaging.

Let’s be careful not to define circularity with too narrow a lens. Recycled metals have a wide range of products where they can be used. Some are on packaging and others are in construction and durable goods. The same should be true for plastics. As we break polymers down into their chemical building blocks, we need to expand the options for use. Our current end markets are too limited to provide resilient options.

Should it matter if a polymer is recycled from carpets, clothing or packaging? Should it matter the type of product where the polymer goes next? We have to think beyond recycling a biscuit tin to a biscuit tin and start thinking about how we might create and sell chemical building blocks into a wide variety of markets. We have to widen our lens and think beyond packaging.Circularity needs a network of options. What is the job that packaging can be hired to do in enabling a circular economy?