Sustainability - what does that really mean?

Submitted by Donna Fiedler on Tue, 2012-05-08 14:43

The buzz word of new millenium has been "sustainability".  So many companies are claiming to be "sustainable" or "green".  But what does it really mean and are those companies REALLY doing what is considered "sustainable"? 

The True Definition

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, permitting for the fulfillment of the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.

Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have, the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.

Now What?

That's a pretty lofty goal and one that should be taken seriously.  But how do we get there?  Especially since the "bottom line" is really the driving force when it comes to most business decisions.  As it happens, when you really sit back and figure out how to become more sustainable, you can affect your bottom line in a very positive way:  reducing the amount of packaging used to package your product (less energy overall to manufacture and less waste); reviewing how much various components that go into your finished product are affected by inefficient logistical planning (using supply chain sources that are not local to your manufacturing plant or within a reasonable amount of distance causing weeks or maybe months to get to your receiving dock), etc.  How can you make your product more sustainable?

Stick it in a Bag!!

It's true!  Flexible packaging is probably one of the most sustainable options available on the marketplace today!  This is not a bias - it is backed up in scientific data.  Packaging in plastics (flexible packaging) is light weight, it's convenient and easy to transport, it enables single-serve packaging so that certain types of fill products (primarily food and beverage type products) stay fresh until we're ready to enjoy them, and it is extremely resource efficient!  A small amount of packaging can contain a large amount of product.  In addition, flexible packaging offers a "hidden" environmental benefit of using less material when being manufactured, less energy to produce it and saves varying amount of resources from further waste. 

Here's some Green for you to chew on:

Let's take a 10 oz. potato chip package as an example.  Of those 10 ozs., .02 ounces is the flexible plastic package.  This package is the investment that is protecting the quality and integrity of those potato chips.  Without proper packaging (barrier properties being kept in mind), many foods would go stale or spoil after just a few days.  If the potato chips being discussed here hadn't been properly packaged and went stale before eating them, they would have been thrown away.  Effectively wasting the resources to create the potato chips themselves.  Since 10 ozs. of potato chips takes more energy and raw materials to make than it does to create the .02 ozs. of packaging to protect them, the impact of discarding the potato chips exceeds the impact of discarding the packaging.  Using a small amount of resources to make the packaging to protect a larger investment of resources needed to make the product makes a lot of Green sense.

Recycle Intuition can be Misleading

Most consumers are unaware of the amount of energy it takes to manufacture a glass jar or metal canister or a flexible plastic pouch.  Some scientific principles will help us to understand the impact of these different packaging choices:  A typical flexible package is made up of several different materials.  These materials are combined via the lamination process and each material is selected to provide a specific benefit.  Foil or a metalized polymer film provide barrier protection, polyester provides toughness and a high-quality print surface, and polyethylene provides the sealability needed to hold the package together.  I know what your asking - can this be recycled?  The short answer is not in it's laminated form; however, finding alternatives to landfill disposal for used flexible packaging is something the flexible packaging industry is working hard to address.  But even without recycling a single package, this type of package can help us meet our sustainability goals.  How you ask?

Let's begin with assuming the well-intentioned consumer wanting to reduce landfill waste by switcing from a flexible packaging to a more recyclable material such as a glass jar with a metal lid.  Let's use packed nuts as an example.  A typical flexible package containing 16 ozs. of nuts weighs about 12 grams.  A glass jar with a metal top, for those same 16 ozs. of nuts, requires a total of about 338 grams of glass plus the metal for the lid.  Let's assume that glass jar is recycled at a very high - and currently unachievable - rate of approximately 90 percent.  If 90 percent of the glass jars are recycled and 10 percent are sent to a landfill then, on average, about 34 grams of glass will be sent to a landfill for every 16 oz. of nuts sold.  If every single flexible packaging is sent to a landfill, a total of only 12 grams of flexible packaging will be landfilled for every 16 oz. of those same nuts - nearly two-thirds less!!  So although the intent of the consumer was to reduce landfill discards by switching to a more recyclable container, the actual result, which is not intuitive to most consumers - is that landfill waste has actually increased when switching away from flexible packaging.  This also means that more raw materials are consumed to manufacture the glass packaging.  Whereas flexible packaging uses only about one-sixth the amount of energy to manufacture as the glass container.

This example doesn't mean the flexible packaging is always the best choice.  For some items glass or metal or even paper are the better choice.  However, this example does demonstrate the importance of using scientific principles to determine the best sustainable or green solution that should be considered.  

Using scientific principles to assess performance against multiple criteria over the entire  product lifecycle will help us in making a sound "green" decision.  And THAT is what sustainability is all about!