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In Packaging Sustainability, Half a Tree is Better than None

On my way to work every morning, I pass a tree which appears to have suffered a lightning strike, and I admit I have questioned why anyone would leave such a disfigured, “half a tree” standing in an otherwise well manicured empty lot. Then I started to think about how important trees are to the environmental health of our planet as well as what a valuable renewable resource they are for the packaging industry.

Packaging Sustainability Is Not an All or Nothing Proposition

Some people believe that sustainability is a journey too far to begin and impossible to complete. I understand how these feelings of hopelessness evolve as I objectively observe how some passionate environmentalists try to force their thinking on people who may be just contemplating the launch of their own sustainability initiative. There are times when the longstanding “green purists” frustrate others by accepting nothing less than 100% agreement with their point of view. Rather than encouraging and offering praise, some otherwise well-intentioned eco believers will stop progress dead in its tracks by questioning the motives of companies that have more recently started to embrace sustainability.

I never hesitate to point out inconsistencies in environmental statements when companies make green claims about their offerings without valid support. However, I see nothing wrong with eco-capitalism – where companies improve their bottom line while “doing good” for people and the planet. For example, I disagree with those who criticize Wal-Mart by claiming this retail giant is only selling fluorescent and LED light bulbs to achieve profit goals. Profit may be a key driver, but Wal-Mart is in a position to help its enormous customer base have a significant impact on energy savings. As a result, Wal-Mart sells more fluorescent and LED light bulbs than any other retailer in the world. And that, my deep-green or light-green friends, is a very good thing regardless of Wal-Mart’s profit goals.

Consider, too, what Wal-Mart has done on the operational side of their business. Wal-Mart may not have created the current green movement but they deserve the credit for fueling it, in spite of a poor economy, by asking its supply chain to downsize its packaging and reduce weight and waste. When the largest retailer in the world speaks, people tend to listen and we should be grateful Wal-Mart is talking green.

Packaging Recycling and Use

Another area where the green minded often unknowingly work against their own desired objectives is in paper-based packaging products. Corrugated board pricing is on the rise with two increases already passed in 2010 and another on the horizon. This has prompted many companies to consider alternatives to traditional corrugated shipping boxes and the goal is usually to totally eliminate their use. In most cases however, after it is determined that reusable packaging or other corrugated box alternatives will not work for them, those companies continue doing what they have always done rather than considering cost saving options also designed to reduce the amount of virgin fiber used to manufacture corrugated boxes and its environmental impact.

The frequent excuses for not using packaging with 100% postconsumer recycled content are usually about cost, availability or quality. The fact is that they are cost competitive, readily available and testing shows that corrugated boxes made from 100% postconsumer recycled content (PCW) have equivalent strength to boxes made from virgin paper. They present a triple bottom line opportunity for green-minded companies.

Ironically, reluctant attitudes about purchasing boxes with postconsumer recycled content exist within the same companies that boast about how much corrugated paperboard they recycle. During packaging sustainability plant audits, I have heard company representatives proudly say, “We bale and recycle all of our used corrugated boxes and plastic stretch film.” Sadly, the conversation usually ends abruptly when these same employees are asked how much packaging they use that contains postconsumer or even post production recycled content. The ideal is always 100% post consumer content because unless it’s diverted, recycled and reused the next stop is likely a local landfill.

Saving Trees and the Planet

The Environmental Defense Fund provides credible and clear information on the environmental benefits of using boxes made with various percentages of postconsumer recycled content compared to boxes made with no postconsumer recycled content. Manufacturing unbleached corrugated boxes with 100% postconsumer recycled content shows many impressive statistics compared to zero postconsumer recycled content (virgin paperboard):

–No new wood is used (trees are saved)
–33% reduction in net energy
–51% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
–82% reduction in wastewater
–89% reduction in solid waste

Focusing on point number one above, here is another way to look at it based on data also provided by the EDF.  Every time you use 100 boxes made from 100% postconsumer recycled content (assume 12” cube boxes), you save one tree. Since trees are the lungs of the earth and our planet needs all of the lung capacity it can get, it is a minor change you can easily and economically make with great benefits.

Or, as I have learned to appreciate, using fifty PCW boxes and saving just half of a tree, like the one down the street from our office, is well worth the effort.

In Sustainability Every Little Bit Helps

Reducing the use of corrugated boxes is a step in the right direction. Recycling all paperboard is another important step. Minimizing the use of virgin corrugated and using a higher percentage of boxes made with postconsumer recycled content is in the best interest of everyone. Imagine the positive statements that your company can make by taking the next step to reduce resources and expense.

Dennis writes in the area of sustainable packaging with his work appearing in numerous blogs and magazines, including his own blog, Inside Sustainable Packaging. Dennis and his company provide custom eco friendly packaging solutions through Salazar Packaging and stock green packaging products via GlobeGuardProducts, which is the first internet store featuring all eco-friendly packaging supplies. Recently Dennis also made news by launching GreenPackagingGroup, which is a B2B packaging blog and directory for eco minded buyers. He is president and co-founder of Salazar Packaging.

Dennis Salazar
Dennis writes in the area of sustainable packaging with his work appearing in numerous blogs and magazines, including his own blog, Inside Sustainable Packaging. Dennis and his company provide custom eco friendly packaging solutions through Salazar Packaging and stock green packaging products via GlobeGuardProducts, which is the first internet store featuring all eco-friendly packaging supplies. Recently Dennis also made news by launching GreenPackagingGroup, which is a B2B packaging blog and directory for eco minded buyers. He is president and co-founder of Salazar Packaging.
 
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6 thoughts on “In Packaging Sustainability, Half a Tree is Better than None

  1. I agree with Dennis about being turned off by environmentalists who decry any efforts to address sustainability that aren’t 100% top-shelf, best practice.

    Fundamentalism of any kind is unhelpful and generally distasteful, and this goes for the well-meaning kind as well. Companies that are beginning to take sincere steps in the right direction should be commended, not chastised, for their efforts.

  2. Although my gut tells me 100% corrugated is better for the environment, I am not sure the scientific data is as clear cut as you imply. Correct me if I am wrong, but the EDF report that you cite is the Paper Task Force White papers published 1992. There are newer studies (like the FBA’s Life-Cycle Analysis of Corrugated) that show the benefits forests have on carbon sequestration. There are other issues make the case for recycled less clear:
    1. Virgin mills are able to generate a higher percentage of their energy from renewable sources (biomass) compared to recycled mills.
    2. Forest plantations prevent land from being clear cut and converted to agriculture or subdivisions.
    3. With few recycled mills to choose from, paper rolls from recycled mills have to be transported by truck or rail father distances compared to virgin mills.
    To clear the confusion of this issue, there really needs to be a “comparative” Life Cycle Analysis of virgin corrugated versus reycled corrugated that factors all of the above. I want to say the 100% recycled is the best approach but more research needs to be done.

  3. This is a great “real-life” example of a very basic premise: There’s no point being a SUSTAINABLE business if you’re OUT of business as a result. The key is to take any reasonable and prudent steps available to the business, to becoming sustainable. If a well-designed analysis finds that packaging is one such factor that would be benefit from a more sustainable approach the change should be implemented. Some times change has to be incremental as technology and markets catch up with vision.

  4. For those of you that might be interested in showcasing the best examples of Green packaging theres still two weeks to enter the Global Green Awards Best Green Packaging Category. See http://www.greenawards.com

    Best Green Packaging Award

    Of all the design disciplines, packaging design has one of the worst environmental reputations. Whether it’s an excess of card inserts, heat sealed blister packs or layers of plastic wrapping, the designer’s desire to stand out on supermarket shelves can easily result in swathes of needless waste.

    However there is an abundance of options available for the environmentally conscious packaging designer: from recycled or FSC accredited paper for labelling, vegetable inks for print to cellulose based plastics, the judges will be looking for innovative and exciting entries in this category.

    Important notice: To enter the Best Green Packaging Category, the submitted packaging must have been made available between October 2008 and October 2010.

    What we’re looking for:
    • Effective and innovative use of natural, biodegradable and sustainable materials.

    • Sustainable, cost effective and functional packaging.

    • Evidence of a significant reduction of the packaging’s environmental footprint (i.e. water, CO2 etc.) compared to previous or alternative solutions.

    • Demonstrated commitment to conserving resources and facilitating the re-use and recycling of used packaging materials, evidence of the lifecycle or cradle-to-cradle analysis of the materials used.

    • Substantiation and credibility of packaging claims, avoidance of 2 for 1 offer and Bogoffs.

    • Design excellence.

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