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Sustainable Packaging – A Fad or Fab?


2017 was a breakthrough year for sustainability when the United Nations launched the #CleanSeas campaign to save our seas from plastic pollution at the Economist World Ocean Summit. This campaign urges governments to “pass plastic reduction policies”, industries to “minimize plastic packaging and redesign products” and consumers to “change their throwaway habits.”

So what does that have to do with sustainable packaging practices? Read on to find out.

Let’s look at some hard facts – courtesy World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company:

    A. Plastic production increased twenty-fold over the last 50 years – from 15 MT in 1964 to 311 MT in 2014.

    B. As per the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Each year, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism, and costing at least $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems. Up to 80 per cent of all litter in our oceans is made of plastic. According to some estimates, at the rate we are dumping items such as plastic bottles, bags and cups after a single use, by 2050 oceans will carry more plastic than fish and an estimated 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic.”

    C. Only 14% plastic is recycled presently.

    D. The below infographic from a 2014 UNEP report presents the findings related to the cost of natural capital in Consumer Packaged Goods industry – natural capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things. To put things in perspective, “the total natural capital cost of plastic used in the consumer goods industry is over $75bn per year.”

Note: the risk in the above infographic is the percentage of natural capital cost per $1m of annual revenue.

The upstream impact of plastic in packaging is the release of greenhouse gases during extraction/production of plastic using fossil fuels and the downstream impact is related to littering and disposal. Consumer goods industry has already embarked on initiatives to better manage their natural capital cost of plastic. Some of these are highlighted below:

    A. Companies are minimizing single use plastic in their packaging as part of reduce initiative.

    B. Buybacks and Downcycling – all recycling is downcycling i.e., “turning waste material or unused products into new materials or new products, but of lesser quality and functionality. The objective is to reduce the use of virgin material” – courtesy: recyclenation.com

    C. Use of bioplastic or biodegradable plastic – plastics made from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch or microbiota. Word of caution: this initiative, while having definite benefits in reducing upstream impacts, is useless if downstream impacts such as disposal is not addressed through a dedicated network of collection system for bioplastic material.

With a definitive UN deadline of 2022 to end wasteful usage of single use plastic, sustainable packaging is the way forward and companies are investing in research and innovative practices of their own volition. The most recent quantifying exercise by UNEP reports that $4 bn is the amount saved by consumer goods companies globally through good management of plastic such as recycling.

Courtesy: Aravind Ravi, Technical Documentation Manager at ManageArtworks.

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