Standardizing Sustainability

Industry progresses on setting sustainability standards.

By Pat Nolan, President, DDL

Much has been written about sustainability and sustainable development, but these have vastly different meaning to different people. Sustainability is really the business practice of developing products, processes, systems, and methods that result in a world that will be sustained in a favorable condition for future generations. In the Triple Bottom Line, Andy Savitz states that, “a sustainable corporation is one that creates profit for its shareholders while protecting the environment and improving the lives of those with whom it interacts.” ¹

For packaging development, it could be summed up in two simple words—responsible design. Packaging is often the poster child for unsustainable development and the scourge of the earth, as we hear and see story after story of how tons of packaging materials end up in landfills, in the ocean in swirling eddies and on beaches, and as litter on our highways. I’m afraid packaging will always be “unsustainable,” but our whole world would be much less sustainable without it, or with poorly designed systems. As the ISO Committee Draft 18601 standard puts it so fittingly, in the Introduction, “Packaging plays a critical role in almost every industry, every sector and every supply chain. Appropriate packaging is essential to prevent loss of goods and as a result decrease (the) impact on the environment.” ²

It is far too complex a subject for this article, but suffice it to say that standardization of responsible packaging development is progressing at a breakneck speed. Most are aware of the Wal-Mart Scorecard, which has been around for a number of years. Other retailers are now developing their own versions. These activities can be thought of as industry standardization, although it is not really standardization if each corporation has its own version of a scorecard. Other NGOs such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), and more recently the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA), have developed guidelines for packaging design. Finally and most significantly, international standards writing organizations ISO and ASTM International have been diligently working on standards that will make packaging development effective in sustaining the world’s environment.

Recently, ASTM International began Committee E60 on Sustainability. It is managing sustainable development standards across all business sectors, processes, systems, and social environments. Committee D10 on Packaging is overseeing lateral standards for responsible packaging development. 

The activity of most consequence is progressing within the ISO TC 122 SC 4 committee on “Packaging and Environment.” ³ This committee has been working on international standards for packaging development since the fall of 2009. The committee is striving to develop ISO standards to harmonize environmental aspects of packaging that:

• Reduce the environmental impact of packaging.
• Minimize the risk of technical barriers to trade.
• Do not conflict with existing standards.

The first drafts of the ISO standards were modeled after the EN (European Norm) standards that support the EU (European Union) Directive for Packaging and Packaging Waste. These EN standards have since been revised over a two-year period with global input. The Committee Drafts (CDs) of the standards have been approved with comment and will advance to the DIS (Draft International Standard) stage of development by next spring. The CDs have the following designations and titles:

• ISO/CD 18601, Packaging and the Environment—General requirements for the use of ISO standards in the field of packaging and the environment.
• ISO/CD 18602, Packaging and the Environment—Optimization of the packaging system.
• ISO/CD 18603, Packaging and the Environment—Reuse.
• ISO/CD 18604, Packaging and the Environment—Material recycling.
• ISO/CD 18605, Packaging and the Environment—Energy recovery.
• ISO/CD 18606, Packaging and the Environment—Organic recycling.

There is a relationship between the packaging and environment standards and the hierarchy of implementation, starting with optimization. What is the impact of these standards on packaging development and what does it mean to design responsible packaging? Packaging cannot be evaluated the same way for all industries when it comes to reducing materials or source reduction.

In the medical device industry, for example, the most important purpose the packaging serves is to protect the integrity of the product for the end user. Responsible packaging should be evaluated and redesigned, only if all other product variables remain unchanged or positively influenced. If the end result of a sustainable package means that a medical device is contaminated, it can trigger many unexpected consequences, ultimately resulting in a less sustainable product along the entire “green” product life cycle continuum.

There are many techniques at our disposal to help us make a more sustainable world by designing responsible packaging. One of those methods is to reduce the amount of packaging that is used in the design, while still allowing it to effectively perform its functions. This is sometimes called “source reduction,” but more appropriately called “optimization.” Figure 1 shows that the environmental consequences of loss of goods caused by excessive packaging reduction are far greater than guaranteeing adequate protection through an increase in packaging.

Consequently, overpackaging (using too much packaging) could be less damaging to the environment than underpackaging (not using enough packaging to perform the function of protection). However, overpackaging can be avoided by performing analysis and testing along the whole life cycle continuum.

This model also demonstrates the law of unintended consequences, which states that “an intervention in a complex system invariably creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.” To reduce unintended consequences in the complex packaging system, the overall objective should be to optimize the system, not just reduce the amount of packaging materials.

There are many inputs in packaging development and any change in one input can change numerous outputs along the life-cycle continuum, resulting in unintended consequences and an unsustainable condition. Figure 2 shows how the cost to people, planet, and profits escalates as the probability of unintended consequences increases.  

Other methods of achieving responsible package design include reuse and recycling. Reuse is defined as an “operation by which packaging is refilled or used for the same purpose for which it was conceived, with or without the support of auxiliary products present on the market enabling the packaging to be refilled.” 

Keeping the materials in the productive system longer results in a higher return on the investment of the extraction and manufacturing of the resources. It also decreases the demand for new raw materials (which conserves resources at the source), reduces processing energy consumption, and reduces pollution.

Hopefully, the reusable packaging materials that leave the loop for recovery will be recyclable, as this is the most desirable form of recovery. Materials are recyclable when a product, packaging, or associated component can be diverted from the waste stream through available processes and programs and can be collected, processed, and returned to use in the form of raw materials or other products. This keeps the raw material out of the waste stream longer.

In medical device package development, there are more challenges in designing responsible packaging than most other industries. Given the regulatory nature of the industry and the paramount objective of delivering a product to the end user in a safe condition, it is difficult to use responsible packaging design criteria. However, there are techniques that can be used.

For example, optimization is always a possibility for medical device packages. Reducing the amount of material in a medical device package is possible by using thinner-gauge thermoform materials or lighter-weight flexible materials. However, due diligence is essential in evaluating the effects of these changes.

Another tactic to consider is the use of bioplastics and recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET). As the burden of hospital waste increases, more and more pressure will come to bear on the medical device manufacturers and packaging manufacturers to reduce packaging materials, provide recycling processes, and maybe even develop reusable packages for medical devices.

So like it or not, sustainability issues are becoming a significant factor for users of packaging including medical device packaging engineers. The issue is being driven by the impending international packaging standards, which invariably will lead to regulatory implementation around the globe. The best option is to reduce the effect of packaging on the environment at the source. However, other tactics for responsible design may be the consideration of reusable systems and recyclability. The primary objective in all of this is to eliminate or at least delay the materials from reaching the waste stream.

 1. Andy Savitz and Karl Weber, The Triple Bottom Line: How Today’s Best-Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social and Environmental Success—and How You Can, Too, Jossey Boss, 2006.
2. ISO CD 18601 Packaging and the environment — General requirements for the use of ISO standards in the field of packaging and the environment, ISO TC122 SC 4, 2010-11-30.
3. ISO CD 18602 Packaging and the environment—Optimization of the packaging system ISO TC122 SC 4, 2010-11-30. 0

No votes yet