Thursday, 18 July 2024

A Articles

Is Sustainability Important? How About in Packaging?


Sustainability is a “buzz” word in today’s world, especially when it comes to packaging. Sustainability in its simplest form is using methods that do not rely solely on the use and destruction of natural resources. Sustainability focuses on achieving present needs without jeopardizing future generations’ ability to fulfill their needs. This is important because it improves our quality of life, helps protect our ecosystem while limiting the use of natural resources, and ensures that future generations have the potential to meet their own needs. To achieve these things, all human beings must realize that they have a moral obligation to help sustain the planet.

When it comes to moral obligations, recycling seems to be commonly overlooked. Regarding plastic in the United States, an alarming 91.3% of all waste was not recycled in 2018. Waste regarding packaging materials is a hard problem to tackle when looking at this statistic. When these materials do not get recycled, they either end up in natural environments or landfills. Eight million tons of plastic pollution endangers marine wildlife every year and can detrimentally affect these ecosystems. The plastic waste sent to landfills is burned to ashes that emits toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, reducing our air quality. Neither situation is better than the other.

How can we improve this? The short and simple answer is to stop producing as much plastic as we currently do. “Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. We’ve also seen a shift away from the production of durable plastic, and towards plastics that are meant to be thrown away after a single use. More than 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal — all of which are dirty, non-renewable resources. If current trends continue, by 2050 the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption” (

The introduction of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) helps achieve this goal of sustainability and makes it easier for people to fulfill their moral obligations. The advantage of using PET is that it is 100% recyclable and is the most recycled plastic in the world. PET is a lightweight but strong plastic that is commonly used for packaging foods and drinks, mainly regular-sized sodas, and juices that you will see in stores. Most single-serving and 2-liter bottles that are sold in the United States are made from PET. A key factor of PET being energy efficient is its lighter weight that allows more products to be delivered in one trip with less packaging.

Even though PET is such a sustainable material, these packages still find their way to landfills. Regardless of how environmental-friendly a packaging material is, people still need to fulfill their moral responsibilities of making sure that they can recycle as much of this material as they can. The recycling rate for PET in the United States is 31%, behind Europe at a rate of 52%. This number keeps growing year by year in the United States, but it is still not enough to ensure a clean future for the next generation.

Although sustainability in the broad picture is important, how can development teams across the world engineer packaging materials to be more sustainable, or make the production of these materials more environmentally friendly? Packaging materials are deemed sustainable if they are made of reusable material, can be recyclable, or reduce the carbon footprint left behind. Packaging material is deemed not sustainable if the material does not possess one of the preceding qualities or produces excess waste once its product life is over. The materials being used can be altered, but using existing materials more strategically can also result in a more sustainable solution.

A great example of altering packaging materials to reach a more environmentally friendly goal is using biodegradable material. Biodegradable material is one of the most efficient ways for a company to alter current packaging materials to become more sustainable. A biodegradable material is a material that is capable of being decomposed by bacteria or living organisms. This allows the material to practically dissolve and leave behind no waste. An example of a biodegradable material is cornstarch. Cornstarch is derived from corn grain and is obtained from the endosperm of the kennel. When molded, cornstarch has very similar properties to plastic. When cornstarch is combined with fermented sugars it creates a plastic known as polylactic acid. This plastic is extremely biodegradable if there is an adequate amount of oxygen and light in the surrounding environment. Before the invention of cornstarch biodegradable packaging peanuts, styrofoam peanuts were commonly used to fill in gaps in packages. These styrofoam peanuts are also known as EPS (expanded polystyrene foam), which is very dangerous for our environment - EPS is not biodegradable or recyclable.

A reduction in carbon footprint is crucial when it comes to achieving a more sustainable package and environment. A carbon footprint is described as the amount of carbon dioxide emitted when using fossil fuels. An example of reducing a carbon footprint is reducing the amount of energy required to produce packaging products. Let’s take the weight of packaging material for example. A packaging material with a higher overall weight will require more energy to produce than a packaging material with a lower overall weight. A lower overall weight will result in limiting unnecessary packaging. Limiting unnecessary packaging design is crucial to a package’s final design and must be meticulously thought through. Typically, unnecessary packaging is a result of attempting to extend the shelf life of a product and ensuring the integrity of the product. Without all the unnecessary packaging, a development team will need to come up with other solutions to extend product shelf life and quality.

Lots of companies in today’s packaging market are trying to make the switch to eco-friendly materials. At the same time, consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious and are increasing the demand for more sustainable packaging. The amount of growth in the packaging used in recent years for average consumers plays a big part in the increase in waste produced. Minimizing our impact on the environment is important and the main goal of sustainability. With as much waste on this planet already, adapting newer types of material like biodegradable packaging will help clean up Earth’s environment by a significant amount.


Packaging Connections

Packcon Magazine

Powered By

TAPPI Student Chapter 
Gadomski School of Engineering, Christian Brothers University (Memphis, TN, USA)