This question was recently asked of me by an author friend in need of an “industry insider” perspective. He did not realize just how relatively narrow my view point is of an extremely broad industry that is very diverse and includes a variety or packaging materials including metal, glass, plastic and, of course, paper-based products. The point being that the answer would be neither brief nor complete.
Late last year I attended the bi-annual Chicago Pack Expo show where I was able to see nearly 2,000 of the industry’s finest and largest packing equipment and materials manufacturers. More recently, I participated in the International Housewares Show also in Chicago so I was able to confirm what I had already suspected. The most honest answer to the question is – not a whole lot in terms of innovation, but much in terms of approach.
The Decline of Product Innovation
At Pack Expo 2012, it was quite obvious that there were far fewer, new green packaging products being launched and shown compared to the two previous shows in 2010 and 2008. Undoubtedly, at least some of that decline in R&D and new product development can be attributed to the continued weak economy and manufacturers re-focusing on proven products and markets.
“The green market was not what we expected it to be,” was a response I heard more than once as I walked the show and questioned the lack of new green products on display. However we all know that manufacturers are usually very eager to make products that sell and at least some of the negative sales results were due to half hearted attempts at sustainability, as well as products that were of poor quality, and often times, higher prices. Many suppliers learned the hard way that success in the sustainable market requires a lot more than a quick coat of green-wash and a name that included the term “eco.”
Certainly there is always a new product or two that are highly acclaimed because they are unique and make for a good story and headline. This includes products, especially those made of organic, renewable materials such as seaweed, mushrooms or concepts that make new packaging out of waste such as marine plastic. I admire the effort and innovation but are they the “game changers” capable of being produced, economically for large volume, commercial use? Sadly, in most cases the answer is no.
An Increased Focus on Minimizing Consumption
What I find most encouraging is the change of attitude that is more back to basics; packaging design that is green by default. Don’t misunderstand, I am not at all critical of this approach, in fact I am convinced it is the only way we can drive positive, long term change. It will be successful because it is based in economics, not guilt and because in most cases the savings they produce are immediate with minimal upfront investment.
Even though this economically driven change may not have the green banner on it, the results happen to be basic in regards to sustainability. Many of the products I now see being promoted can easily and accurately be categorized in the three basics R’s of sustainability.
Reduce – the new focus is on thinner, stronger materials able to do the same job with less material. This is consistent not only in paper products but especially in plastics after another turbulent year of resin prices, negatively impacting all forms of transparent, flexible packaging, and non-film products like plastic strapping, and carton sealing tapes. We are most definitely using less, not necessarily for the sake of the planet but for the sake of the bottom line.
Reuse – I see a lot more products that permit or encourage their reuse. Paper products such as boxes with specialty coatings designed to extend life and the increased popularity of returnable, reusable packaging such as totes, mailers, and other containers designed for multiple reuse. Companies love the economics of packaging that is not designed to be used and tossed, and they are taking full advantage of closed loop or internal return/reuse capabilities.
Recycle – if there is a long term positive impact to what appears to be for many companies a short term interest in sustainability, it is in this most important area. More products than ever before are being made with a large percentage of recycled content and even more are able to be easily recycled and are labeled as such. I would also say that most of the manufacturers I know use recycled materials because it saves them money and allows them to minimize the impact of multiple price increases on new or virgin materials.
Sustainable Design Brings It All Together
The other really positive, long lasting change I see is an increased interest in sustainable design incorporating the three techniques above. The end result of an application audit is almost always an immediate savings because so often companies are basically using the wrong product, or in some cases the product design they are using is simply outdated.
Imagine being able to use less packaging, that is 50% recycled content and is 100% recyclable after many repeated uses? Those types of goals are being met every day and that is good for the bottom line and for the environment.
The best eco friendly packaging solutions are those that are appealing to the company or consumer using them and also make economic sense. Yes, in some cases a compromise is made and perhaps it is not as green as some would like or the motives are not as pure as others would protest. However, positive change is positive change even if it is not perfect.
We recently replaced one Hybrid company car with a different make and model that delivers about 10% less highway mileage but in my opinion provides 100% greater comfort. After all what good is 44 MPG if no one wants to drive or even ride in the more “green” vehicle?
It’s kind of like that in packaging. We have to appreciate the effort, and understand that there are some things we are not willing to give up in the interest of green. We also have to learn to accept that it is the end result that really matters.
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.