The term “cradle to grave” as it applies to sustainability has been around for some time and it was over eight years ago that authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart took it a step further when they wrote a book partially titled and coining the term “cradle to cradle.” Essentially, they wrote it was no longer sufficient to assume responsibility for a product from its inception to its ultimate disposal at the end of its life cycle. The new goal should be to design a theoretically continuous and never ending life cycle.
How this all relates to packaging materials is probably well condensed in a conversation I had with a fellow industry veteran. He has a knack for simplifying things which I sincerely appreciate and envy. “So, essentially, cradle to cradle means we should worry where a product comes from and where it winds up.”
“Yes,” I replied (with equal and uncharacteristic brevity), “but ideally, where it winds up is where it started.” That, in my mind, is a very elementary but accurate definition of cradle to cradle and in my opinion, where many eco minded packaging manufacturers and designers go wrong.
When Green Becomes a Dead End
Quite often, through design, practice or even policy, we can take a good green idea or packaging material and allow it to sour because there is too much focus on only the product inception and very little on where it winds up.
One of my favorite examples is the common paper/poly bubble mailing envelope which is found in almost every mail room or packing station. The paper exterior may have a substantial amount of recycled content and so may the polyethylene bubble that provides the inner cushioning. The use of recycled content, especially PCW or PCR recycled content, is to be commended and applauded. However, by laminating the two fairly “green” packaging materials together, they both essentially meet a premature and untimely death. The life cycle ends in a landfill because the product design prohibits it from being recycled in any form.
We can take a packaging material like corrugated board that on its own would be very eco friendly, and by applying a coating, also render it useless in terms of recycling. Meat or produce boxes are still often coated in polyethylene or wax, and many users don’t realize that both are petroleum based coatings. These coatings are applied to the board surface to prevent the box from breaking down from moisture during use but unfortunately it also prevents it from being recycled, re-pulped or even quickly degrading as landfill waste.
Recently I saw a “green” shipping box promising multiple uses and it proudly stated its 100% recycled content and FSC certification. I will candidly admit I did not realize recycled content could be FSC certified but let’s assume this claim is accurate. What really caught my attention was the laminated film on the exterior and interior of the box. I could not identify the lamination composition but based on decades of experience, I am willing to bet they basically sandwiched some good, green corrugated board between two sheets of plastic or similar product. Will it extend the useful life of the shipping box? Obviously, the answer is yes. However, unlike a much lower cost, non-laminated corrugated shipping box, this green box can only end up in a landfill rather than back to the cradle through recycling, repulping and re-manufacturing.
Which Are the Best Cradle to Cradle Packaging Products?
Assuming they are properly recycled, there are two that come immediately to mind but the first one will not be a popular choice – plastic. I fully realize their petroleum or natural gas origin, but most plastics including much-maligned water bottles and shopping bags can be easily recycled almost anywhere and re-pelletized to create new plastic products, in some cases extended use and long life plastic components.
I recently met with a sustainability guru from a Fortune 100 company who lamented that his company would love to use more RPET (Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate) than they already use but the supply is limited due to our poor recycling efforts. The market for recycled plastics has grown and is only limited by our own unwillingness or in some cases, inability to recycle more of the waste we create.
The second cradle to cradle packaging substrate I never hesitate to suggest is almost any paper based material including paper, paper board and corrugated board. The sustainability movement probably began and captured broad media attention when protestors chained themselves to trees. Thankfully, however, those are now outdated images since we annually plant more trees than we harvest, providing an ample and guilt-free supply of paper and paper based packaging.
There is no packaging product that can be as easily recycled as paper-based packaging and it must be easy because most of us are doing the right thing at our offices and homes. Recycling figures vary greatly but most will agree we recycle well over 50% of the paper we use.
Coincidently, those same statistics usually tell us we also recycle over 50% of the aluminum cans we use but less than 30% of the plastic water bottles we drink from. I guess that’s what happens when we make recycling easy and/or profitable.
Why Recyclability and Recycling is Important
Whether we like it or not certain, types of packaging are not likely to go away anytime soon. I have absolute confidence that science will continue developing new and greener packaging products made from renewable materials such as vegetables, mushrooms, agricultural byproduct waste or even algae.
In the meantime however, we as consumers will undoubtedly seek and continue to buy the convenience, safety, price or other advantages of less friendly packaging products. That is why it is so important the packaging we make and use today contains as much recycled content as possible and the end waste is able to return to the cradle through an easy and convenient recycling process.
Some will disagree, but I also believe another important component of an environmental solution is mandatory recycling. We all know there is a large portion of the population that will never recycle anything until they absolutely have to. I find it very ironic that the same federal government that feels a need to intrude in our private lives in so many new and different ways, is reluctant to impose what most people agree is needed to reverse the throwaway society we most certainly have become.
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.