Within the packaging industry, sustainability is often focused on the “consumer” side, a market that is set to grow year on year by 3.5% reaching a total value of $997 billion by 2020. However, there is now a greater awareness among brand owners and suppliers to deliver more environmentally acceptable packaging right through the supply chain. Today “behind the scenes” packaging, i.e. transport packaging, b2b packaging, institutional packaging and industrial packaging is changing. Materials and processes are being bought in alignment with a more environmentally conscious society.

The view of Adam Gendell, Associate Director at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, who is presenting a session entitled “The State of Sustainable Packaging” at the forthcoming Industrial Pack 2018 trade expo taking place on April 4 & 5 in Atlanta, is interesting:

“The pressure for the use of sustainable packaging is coming from product manufacturers and retailers, as they respond to a variety of pressures, and this will affect the entire supply chain. There are two overarching philosophical frameworks that are currently making the headlines, these are the ‘circular economy’ and ‘sustainable materials management’. Retailers and brands strive to align with both frameworks, and their packaging supply chain partners must help with those pursuits while also staying attuned to additional regulatory and reputational risk management considerations”.

Finding solutions to these issues is a challenge for the packaging industry as a whole and industrial packaging materials will play an important part. Adam Gendell went on to say, “there is a lot of untapped potential for industrial packaging. I think this will be a topic that the industry needs to address. Efficiency in many ways is the driver for a more sustainable future, material efficiency, energy efficiency, transport efficiency, are all subjects that are discussed when addressing the subject of sustainability”. That conversation has already started with discussions about the use of bulkier pallets and crates. And now bioplastics are starting to enter the market and are forecast to grow from 2017–2022 at an annual average rate of 17% to a market value of almost $7.2 billion.

It is expected that regulation will eventually result in the banning of some packaging, with restrictions on expanded polystyrene, plastic bags, and single-use plastic packaging in general. These might not be of direct importance to industrial packaging, but the theme and direction is clear: make a concerted effort to demonstrate responsible action, or face heavy-handed regulation.

The futuristic focus revolves around the circular economy. Within that vision, all packaging products will need to be responsibly sourced whether wood, fiber or paper. And as society moves away from conventional petroleum made plastics, plant based plastics and recycled content will form the bulk of plastic packaging. Similarly, metal packaging will have a far greater recycled content.

But the biggest challenge of today, especially on the plastic side, is the investment required to strengthen the current recycling programs. Also, a switch to more sustainable feedstocks almost always carries a price premium and that has to be recovered. The solution has to be a holistic one, beginning with the supply source, through industrial packaging to retailer packaging and finally reuse and recycling.

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