Leading the Pack: The challenges of sustainable packaging

Leading the Pack: The challenges of sustainable packaging

When you hear the word “package”, what comes to mind? A cardboard box, a glass bottle, plastic wrap? Packages are made of diverse materials, and have many shapes and sizes, as well as functions and uses. Yet packages also have life cycles that span from design, to manufacturing of components, to production and transport, and finally use and disposal.

It’s vital to think about the sustainability of materials used as well as the processes used throughout the supply chain, and repercussions on the consumer and environment at every level.

A package has a special function in the industrial world. It’s been called “the silent salesman” because often, consumers buy products that look a certain way. A package functions as a link between various industries and the end user. From agricultural produce, food and beverage products, to household goods, office supplies, and beyond, everything nowadays comes wrapped in a package.

 

A Fast Growing Industry

Packaging is used to preserve and protect products, as well as to transport, distribute, store, sell and use them conveniently. Many objects require packaging to protect them from factors in the environment (like shock, vibration and temperature). Some liquids, powders and gaseous products require packaging for containment. A package also conveys information to the consumer, and communicates a brand image for the product.

The revenue of the worldwide packaging industry was $429 billion in 2009, and is expected to grow to $530 billion by 2014 according to  a study titled “Sustainable Packaging Environmentally Responsible Packaging for Consumer and Industrial Markets: Market Analysis and Forecasts - 2009”. Meanwhile the sustainable packaging industry is expected to reach $170 billion worldwide by 2014, compared to $88 billion in 2009, proving a much faster growth rate than the overall packaging industry.

The growth of the sustainable packaging industry reflects innovation of manufacturing methods and involves using more recyclable and compostable materials.

Paper is the most common material for packaging, while plastic comes in second, representing around a third of global packaging. Eco-friendly biodegradable plastics - a sustainable alternative to petrochemical-based plastics - are having a huge impact on the industry, and according to one study, plastic is projected to be the fastest-growing sector of the sustainable packaging market by 2014. Glass can be used, especially for bottles, and is easy to recycle and reuse. 60% of metal-based packaging - one of the easiest materials to recycle - is projected to be environmentally friendly by 2014.

 

Throughout the Supply Chain

Another important aspect is ‘Life Cycle Assessment,’ used to help reduce the environmental impact and ecological footprint of the package at every level on the entire supply chain through which it passes without increasing it in another area. Sustainability pressures and trade-offs exist on the packaging value chain from the extraction of raw material, to energy and water usage in production, to the existence of a recycling system. Some measures include trimming energy requirements to manufacture packaging, and reducing the amount of packaging used to prevent wasteful packaging.

The UAE’s Masdar Institute, like other research centers, aims to improve supply chains by examining every aspect of production to make sure it is as efficient and environmentally sustainable as possible. Designing a supply chain for sustainability includes reducing the amount of packaging and waste, assessing suppliers based on their environmental performance, developing more eco-friendly products and reducing carbon emissions from transportation, manufacturing and deforestation. The solution involves formulating a mathematical model representing the chain, taking account of as many factors and inputs as possible. Realistically, factors are interconnected and integrating them all is impossible.

 

A New Generation

Several efforts by organizations in Lebanon like the Lebanese Packaging Center - more commonly known as LibanPack - are helping set the trade on the right track. LibanPack is an NGO founded in November 2008 with the support of the UNIDO - MACLE project, and Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the Association of Lebanese Industrialists (ALI) and the syndicate of packaging industries in Lebanon. It aims to address key issues in the industry, from improving packaging and labeling, to increasing market access of Lebanese products for export markets.

“Packaging is essential. You cannot sell anything without it,” says Soha Atallah, director of LibanPack. “It gives the product an identity. It’s the communication between the product and the consumer,” she adds. But what the product communicates to a consumer also depends on what the consumer is looking for. Are the Lebanese really concerned with sustainability?

Atallah believes sustainable packaging in the country is still in its early phases. “It needs a lot of awareness as all environmental issues in Lebanon,” she says. Ziad Bekdash, vice president of the ALI, agrees that in Lebanon there has been a lack of awareness, whereas in Europe this started 30 years ago. But he says things are changing; schools are now teaching children about recycling, and asking the ALI and companies to facilitate student visits to recycling facilities.

 Mariella Jaeger, a graphic design professor at the Lebanese American University and the division marketing and business development manager at INDEVCO Paper Containers (IPC) add that the initiative is coming from the private rather than the public sector, but she is hopeful too: “This is the birth of sustainability in Lebanon.”

The Lebanese are becoming increasingly educated and aware about the environment and their health, according to Jaeger. Bekdash says, “People are not ignorant anymore; you even see children reading the packages of things they want to buy.” It’s the growing global need that IPC caters to because sooner or later everyone will come around, Jaeger explains, adding, “even if the consumer in Lebanon is still not aware, we want to bring this awareness and offer the solution.”

  

Starting Young

Experts agree that it’s important to start encouraging such ideas at a young age. “Change is hard,” Jaeger says, “If we really want to seek change the most important thing is to educate. We need to start convincing people while they are young, because when they are convinced nothing will change their behavior...”

 In March, LibanPack organized the Lebanon Student StarkPack competition for the third year in a row. The event aims to encourage youth in Lebanon to develop better packaging in terms of design and sustainability. “I’m really happy about the link that we are establishing between students and the industry. We are reinforcing the relationship,” says Atallah, explaining that having students working to improve packaging of specific Lebanese products encourages them to be part of the industry.

LAU recently introduced a Packaging minor, a joint project between the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Graphic Design departments. According to engineering professor Ramy Harik - who was a jury administrator at the StarPack competition - this shows the needs of the market.  “The program was established to address a major need in the industry,” says Harik, explaining that the minor was suggested by members of the school’s advisory board, comprised of industry professionals, who are also prospective employers of graduates. The fact that it’s the only minor in his department only emphasizes its necessity.

 

 Misconceptions Unraveled

Companies also need awareness about sustainable packaging as there are a lot of misconceptions. Being sustainable is not necessarily more expensive. “It’s a wrong perception that if you want to be environmentally friendly it’s more costly. It’s not always the case,” Atallah says.

LibanPack always uses the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), whether or not clients have sustainability concerns. “There is a lot of over-packaging that goes on. When you reduce the amount of packaging, you save money. We design packages with minimal material, and try to use recyclable materials,” she says. There are also misconceptions about recycling; people forget that the process takes energy too. Jaeger stresses that the entire life cycle of a package needs to be sustainable, saying IPC reduced emissions by improving machinery and changing boilers from oil to water. Harik points out that another big hazard is transportation, and encourages people to buy locally-made goods.

Bekdash says today the trend is to use carton packaging because it’s seen as the most recyclable product. However Atallah makes it clear that it’s not the only recyclable material. “Actually metal and glass are easier to recycle than carton,” she says.

 

 

The Problem With Plastic

Plastic has developed a bad reputation because of its frequent appearance as a biohazard in nature. According to the 2011 UNEP study “Keeping Track of our changing environment From Rio to Rio +20”, about 50% of plastic is used for single-use disposable applications, such as packaging, agricultural films and disposable consumer items. But plastics are necessary, and in the food industry such packaging uses significantly less space than glass, which also weighs more and leads to higher fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

One solution has been to develop biodegradable plastics, either made of renewable raw materials or normal plastics containing additives such as D2W or Reverte, that decompose under the right conditions. Many businesses - especially restaurants with take-away services - are increasingly taking advantage of the environmentally friendly material. However this comes with trade offs too.

Recycling seems to be the main solution to the problem with plastics. The GCC is a major producer for plastic packaging materials manufacturing. Packaging is the largest sector in the region, and there are 20 packaging companies in Dubai alone. Approximately 3,000 tons of PET bottles are produced in the Middle East and North Africa every month. Part of the reason for this is that the raw material used to produce many products is resin, a by-product of petroleum - a material abundantly available in this region and consequently available at lower prices. However studies show that only a third of that is actually being recycled. According to Dubai authorities, over 20% of the UAE’s waste is plastic.  As part of efforts to reduce the amount of recyclable waste by 10% in Dubai, 3,700 free waste recycling bins were distributed to households this year.

Speaking at the GPCA Summit in April Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun, secretary general of the GPCA, pointed out that, “the responsible disposal of plastic is a major concern: it is not the material that is harmful but often the behavior.” He urged for a better recycling infrastructure, indicating it is an opportunity for new businesses and employment in the region. Globally, the recycling industry is worth around $500 billion, with plastics making up a significant part of this. In fact, in the GCC the municipal solid waste per person per year is around to be 667kg and 26% of this is plastics. Yet the recycling rate is only 10%.

The least eco-friendly way to dispose of plastics is in landfills, which unfortunately is the dominant method in the GCC. If one ton of recycled plastic is recycled though, one and a half ton of carbon dioxide is prevented from being released into the atmosphere. The GCC is trying to remedy such problems by launching initiatives such as Pack It Safe: Right Step for Safe Food campaign and publishing the Standard and Specification for Oxo-Biodegradation of Plastic Bags and Other Disposable Plastic Objects.

 

More Than Environment

Another misconception the public has is that sustainability is just about the environment. According to Atallah, sustainability does not stop at being environmentally friendly. In fact, companies must consider three pillars: social, economic, and environmental. During one of Harik’s field trips, students studied a chicken factory where workers were standing uncomfortably while they labored. By suggesting two simple solutions - providing stools and slightly better equipment - the students learned that the workers became more comfortable, happier and were able to work faster, which in turn benefited the company.

Harik is also keen on teaching students the importance of not only materials used, but also effective sustainable design, as well as best practices. His students have worked on various case studied and visited multiple factories. In one project students tried to improve the package of the famous Lebanese food product “warak aanab” (stuffed grape leaves). Students created a smarter, better-shaped package that saves space, and changed the material from aluminum to recyclable plastic.

 

Labeling Standards

 Those in the field agree that many challenges still face the industry, and further government support is badly needed. “There are a lot of effort in Lebanon to be more sustainable but this is not enough,” Harik says. Although LibanPack is affiliated with the esteemed World Packaging Organization, Atallah admits that there’s only so much she can do. “We tell them you should do this and you shouldn’t do that. But we can’t force them because we’re an NGO,” she says. According to her there’s a lack of regulatory framework and implementation in Lebanon. To remedy this, LibanPack recently worked with the Lebanese Standards Institution (Libnor) to create standards for both packaging and labeling.

 Bekdash explains that while the Ministry of Environment inspects whether companies abide by certain standards, it mostly “focuses on emissions and residue produced by the factory. No one audits other environmental criteria,” he says. “It is not our responsibility as an association to audit what is going on, but we are trying to support companies,” Bekdash adds.

When it comes to exports though, Atallah says companies are much more eager to play by the rules. “If they don’t abide by the regulations, their shipments get rejected and they lose money,” she explains. There was a time before the establishment of LibanPack when many Lebanese exports would return because of labeling irregularities, Atallah recalls. In fact, labeling is one of the biggest issues with packaging in Lebanon. Labeling in other countries is considered imperative. Labels reveal information about the product, including ingredients, nutrition information, directions on use, and recycling. Labels - especially those on food and pharmaceutical packaging - can impact consumers’ health directly, while recycling labels help reduce environmental waste.

Examples include the ISO standards that monitor interaction with the environment, and symbols for Rainforest Alliance and WWF Panda, which indicate compliance with sustainable practices (refere to the tables on previous pages). This is why the issue should be taken very seriously.

In the USA, not only is the information in the labels scrutinized, but there are even regulations about font and color of lettering. In Lebanon laws are not nearly as strict, and - more problematically - not always implemented. Products for the local market don’t face the same regulations, but as consumers become increasingly aware, the private sector is feeling the pressure to improve their labels, regardless of regulations. In the GCC regulations are much stricter. All imported food and beverage products must have food labeling tags in Arabic or English that specify the usual nutrition information as well as specific data for the local market, like the percentage of all animal fats (which should be Halal) and whether the product contains pork.

Bekdash says things need to improve further since the industrial sector is essential in influencing Lebanon’s trade balance. “Our export to import ratio is around 20% but it should be at least 40%,” he states. To achieve this, he says the industrial sector must grow, and even more importantly its constituents need to spread awareness and educate the public to trust Lebanese products. He says the fact that Lebanon exports to many parts of the world is evidence that the quality of products is in fact good.

Like many other companies, IPC is committed to international standards, Jaeger says, regardless of whether it’s for export or Lebanon. “We are catering to the global need because it will sooner or later convert to our local market. We are a global company looking for the needs of the community,” she says. Harik thinks it’s about even more than just the community. “We should be more responsible people,” he says. “We need to respect the planet so that it respects us.”

 

SourceResponsible Business Magazine

 

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All, 2012

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