How Green is your Green Packaging

Types of green packaging

by: Rod Alire, Chief Scientist

Manufacturers Focus on Green Packaging
Green is in, not only in terms of energy, financial products and food articles, but also in packaging, and packaging materials are increasingly being labelled as green. The research agency Global Industry Analysts estimates the worldwide market for sustainable packaging will be more than 149 billion dollars in 2015. Various businesses are anticipating this market change and are focusing on green packaging. Sometimes prompted by the conviction that better solutions are really necessary, sometimes purely as a marketing instrument. The question therefore arises of actually how green is green packaging? A good example is set by packaging specialist FP International, a company which has been inextricably connected with environmentally-friendly packaging since its founding in 1967, and which adheres to a notable sustainability model in this regard.

The rise of green products can be logically explained if we remember that sustainable development has been a topic of discussion since the end of the 1980s. An oil crisis was enough to make consumers and industry realize that every natural resource is finite. The interest in sustainable development and treating the environment and natural resources responsibly has grown, not least because of the increasingly emphatic role claimed by national and international governments.

Europe Leads Way in Waste Legislation
Due to social, economic, space limitations, and legislation the European standards for waste and recycling are far reaching, and a model for the United States and other countries to achieve. The European Waste Directive 2008/98/EC addresses in detail the effects of waste generation and management on human health and the environment. In this context, the waste management policy is aimed at reducing the use of natural resources, and favors compliance with the so-called waste hierarchy.

This waste hierarchy shows what consecutive measures can be taken to minimize the negative effects of generating waste as much as possible. The hierarchy has the shape of an inverted pyramid (Illustration 1), whereby prevention of waste is of course at the top of the pyramid. The following measures are proposed, in the order given: reduction, reuse, recycling, processing (incineration), treatment and finally, dumping in landfill. This last step is notable since, in many European countries, waste no longer ends up in landfills but is incinerated.

Many manufacturers currently claim they are "green" by focusing on degradable packaging. With this, attention is focused on the final element of the waste hierarchy, while the legislative authorities have in mind a "total approach" to the generation and management of waste.

Illustration 1: Waste hierarchy

This hierarchy facilitates waste collection, reuse and processing, which includes recycling, as much as possible.

Becoming Green
Against this background of rules and the way in which waste can best be combated, it is striking that many businesses use the term "green" or "sustainable" for their efforts. The label "green" is used for various environmentally-friendly solutions. In general terms, there are four types of green packaging solutions.

1. Packaging Based on Renewable Resources, for Example PLA
The first possibility is packaging based on starch-derived PLA (lactic acid). Consequently, the packaging is biodegradable. This biodegradable plastic packaging satisfies the EN 13432 standard, which states that 90% of the packaging must be degraded in 9 months. To meet this standard, an industrial composting facility is required in most cases, which are not generally available in most areas in the United States. PLA is derived from starch (for example, corn, potatoes, sugarcane), which is renewable, but at the same time also draws on resources of items that can be used such as foods, soil, water, energy, minerals and nutrients.

2. Packaging with Additives
There is also packaging to which additives are added in order to make the packaging degradable. On the current packaging market, we come across two types of additives:

A) OXO Additive
The OXO additives are formed by heavy metals that react under the influence of UV rays and - somewhat like rust - break down the plastic. OXO plastic is polyolefin plastic to which has been added amounts of metal salts. These catalyze the natural degradation process to speed it up so that the OXO plastic will degrade resulting in microfragments of plastic and metals which will remain in the environment but will not be seen as a visual contaminant. OXO plastic degrades in the presence of UV and heat but cannot be recycled with normal plastic. OXO plastics will not degrade in a landfill environment due to insufficient oxygen present below a depth of approximately 6 inches (15 cm). The duration and residues of this degradation process vary depending upon environmental conditions. Some regions have banned OXO based products.

B) BIO Additive
Packaging may also contain BIO additives. As soon as this packaging unexpectedly ends up in the environment and comes into contact with microorganisms, the additive stimulates the growth of microorganisms on the packaging accelerating the degradation. The microorganisms adapt to use the plastic as food and then ensure that the packaging is broken down into water, inert compost and CO2. FP International's products will degrade in the presence of microorganisms in one to five years or more depending on conditions. Since end of life conditons vary, it is impractical to state specific times for degradation. The more microbial activity, the faster the products degrade. This additive does not affect the performance or the shelf life of the product, because biodegradation only occurs in the presence of microorganisms which are present in landfills, home and commercial composting, and other areas where they exist in nature. These eco-friendly packaging products will biodegrade in aerobic (with air) and anaerobic (without air) conditions.

3. Use of Recycled Material
Another - much more obvious - method for making the packaging more sustainable is the use of recycled resources. This approach is higher in the waste hierarchy (see the pyramid in Illustration 1). Recycled resources can come from waste from the production process (pre-consumer recycling) or from plastic already used by the consumer and then disposed of (post-consumer recycling). The plastic waste once again becomes a resource, which means fewer new sources are needed and less CO2 emission takes place. This packaging is once again recyclable.

4. Optimization of Packaging
Finally, the environment can benefit by optimization or prevention of packaging. The reduction of packaging is an area where many companies are focusing their efforts. However, the elimination of packaging is rare, because the actual function of packaging is to protect products during storage and/or transport.

Sustainability Model
As stated, the waste hierarchy makes it clear that sustainable packaging can be achieved not only by making packaging degradable, but that different activities are possible that jointly determine how sustainable and green packaging actually is. Packaging manufacturer FP International uses a notable model in this, which seems to bring together all aspects. In the sustainability model (Illustration 2), sustainability cannot be seen in isolation from social, environmental and economic aspects of a packaging product. In summary, sustainable packaging is a product that is friendly to the environment, socially acceptable and economically appealing for both manufacturer and user.

Illustration 2: Sustainability model

The company's sustainability philosophy is focused on providing products that deserve a position high on the inverted waste pyramid. All of FP International's biodegradable products (both the loosefill and air cushion film) have been especially developed according to EU regulations which are set at a higher standard than that of the United States.

As such, sustainability is deeply rooted in the company. The company has its origin in Redwood City, California, where the production waste of paper drinking straws was reused and recycled as packaging material. After being the first company to make packaging from 100% recycled material, the company has recycled more than 145 million pounds of EPS since 1990. It is clear that there is a vision on the generation and management of waste in which the analysis of products' lifecycle always plays a major role. In this, attention is not only focused on the various waste stages (recycling, reuse, etc), but also on the energy that is needed to make a product, and to recover or renew resources. With modern recycling facilities, the company saves energy, minimizes waste and uses sustainable products (such as water-based ink). Moreover, the company provides products that consist 98% of air.

Our SUPER 8® green loosefill (packing peanuts) is made from 100% recycled materials, is reusable and recyclable, and contains the addition of a BIO additive. The BIO additive is used as a backup solution in the event the product is disposed. The BIO additive ensures no harmful substances are left behind and does not use natural sources such as starch. Air cushion films from FP International that contain this additive are also reusable and 100% recyclable, thus making them more sustainable. Initially, air cushions based on renewable materials such as PLA were considered. Even though the product would be degradable, under limited conditions, the company decided that this type of packaging is not consistent with its sustainability philosophy for environmental, socio economic and practical reasons. The reasons are simple: in order to obtain the PLA derived from starch, food must be sacrificed, similar to the case with biofuels. A careful lifecycle analysis should be performed on PLA products taking into consideration the cost and energy required to grow, fertilize, maintain, harvest and process these materials. There is also the concern that PLA products, which are compostable, will be inserted into our recycle stream contaminating that channel for reusing valuable resources. PLA products lack the performance characteristics that FP Internationals customers require.

The packaging market calls for products that are recycled and recyclable, but which also provide a solution if the product ends up somewhere as litter in the environment. When determining the type of packaging to use, it is always important to investigate a lifecycle analysis. Ask yourself, how is the product made, where is it made, what types of materials does it incorporate, is it reusable, it is easily recyclable, and how is it disposed? Look beyond the convenience, price and the labelling to determine how green your product really is.

About the Author
Rod Alire is Chief Scientist for FP International. Mr. Alire carries more than 20 years experience in polymer processing with particular expertise in polymeric foam and film extrusion processes. His projects have emphasized environmental impact mitigation and sustainability through new product design and manufacturing technologies.