State of Sustainability

By Dr. Gerald Rebitzer, Director Product Sustainability, Alcan Packaging
and Nina Goodrich, Director Sustainnovation, Alcan Packaging

Sustainability and its implementation in industrial practice have been on the rise throughout recent years. Sustainability events are well attended as companies show a willingness to learn what it entails. The first step is often a commitment to screen new projects, capital investments, or research activities using social and environmental aspects in addition to the traditional financial ones.

What had been missing in the past, however, was a clear understanding what these aspects are, what their scope is, how to measure them, and finally how to embed them in routine decision-making processes. This is where we see three relatively new and important trends:

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Consensus building around the scope and nature of the aforementioned aspects. With initiatives of the SPC (Sustainable Packaging Coalition) in North America, EUROPEN in Europe, and joint global activities such as the Global CEO Forum Project “Packaging and Sustainability,” a clearer terminology as well as a framework for measurement and action is created.
Life-cycle thinking and the usage of the associated life-cycle metrics (such as the carbon footprint over the life cycle of a packaging system). Such analysis is more and more accepted as the most appropriate way to address sustainability in the supply chain.

The industry is increasingly seeing sustainability as an important element for value creation and business decision making rather than a “nice-to-have” add on.

One of the biggest changes is that many companies have realized that sustainability is a powerful driver for enhancing and differentiating the product offering. Sustainability is seen more and more as an element of total quality that needs to be developed and managed just as conventional quality management. Alcan Packaging, for instance, has a comprehensive program that includes its plants, products, people, and partners. This 4P program was designed to help implement and communicate internally and externally the related aspects that circle around continuous improvement, management of its products along the complete value chain (life cycle), and a comprehensive look at all three dimensions of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic.

Many companies are surprised to learn that a large part of environmental and other impacts happen when producing the materials they use to create products, such as outside of their direct control. This is the case with most packaging materials. A great deal of the impact happens producing the resin, paper, glass, foil, etc. Alcan Packaging has developed the program ASSET (Alcan Sustainability Stewardship Evaluation Tool) to measure the impact of each packaging we make that takes into account the raw materials, the manufacturing processes, the use, and the end of life of the package. In the pharmaceutical industry, this can get quite complicated when part of the process is done by the pharmaceutical company itself. Thermoforming blisters, for instance, represent part of the package footprint. It’s important that packaging manufacturers work with pharmaceutical and medical companies to get an accurate picture of the footprint of the package. It’s also important to remember that the package is protecting a product, which usually has much larger footprint than the package itself. True life-cycle assessment should consider both the package and the product together—at least the relevant interactions. Packaging is hired to do a job. Sometimes the job is just protecting the product until it’s used, but packaging is also important in anticounterfeiting, product safety, and compliance—all aspects that are related to sustainability performance. In evaluating a product’s sustainability footprint, it’s important to consider all of the jobs that the package is hired to do.

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