Sustainable packaging

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Molded pulp uses recycled newsprint to form package components. Here, researchers are molding packaging from straw[1]

Sustainable packaging is the development and use of packaging which results in improved sustainability. This involves increased use of life cycle inventory (LCI) and life cycle assessment (LCA)[2][3] to help guide the use of packaging which reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint. It includes a look at the whole of the supply chain: from basic function, to marketing, and then through to end of life (LCA) and rebirth.[4] Additionally, an eco-cost to value ratio can be useful[5] The goals are to improve the long term viability and quality of life for humans and the longevity of natural ecosystems. Sustainable packaging must meet the functional and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[6] Sustainability is not necessarily an end state but is a continuing process of improvement.[7]

Sustainable packaging is a relatively new addition to the environmental considerations for packaging (see Packaging and labeling). It requires more analysis and documentation to look at the package design, choice of materials, processing, and life-cycle. This is not just the vague "green movement" that many businesses and companies have been trying to include over the past years. Companies implementing eco-friendly actions are reducing their carbon footprint, using more recycled materials and reusing more package components.[8] They often encourage suppliers, contract packagers, and distributors to do likewise.

For example, researchers at the Agricultural Research Service are looking into using dairy-based films as an alternative to petroleum-based packaging. [1] Instead of being made of synthetic polymers, these dairy-based films would be composed of proteins such as casein and whey, which are found in milk. The films would be biodegradable and offer better oxygen barriers than synthetic, chemical-based films. More research must be done to improve the water barrier quality of the dairy-based film, but advances in sustainable packaging are actively being pursued.[9]

Environmental marketing claims on packages need to be made (and read) with caution. Ambiguous greenwashing titles such as green packaging and environmentally friendly can be confusing without specific definition. Some regulators, such as the US Federal Trade Commission, are providing guidance to packagers[10]

Companies have long been reusing and recycling packaging when economically viable. Using minimal packaging has also been a common goal to help reduce costs. Recent years have accelerated these efforts based on social movements, consumer pressure, and regulation. All phases of packaging, distribution, and logistics are included.[11]

Sustainable packaging is no longer focused on just recycling. Just as packaging is not the only eco target, although it is still top of mind for many. Right or wrong, packaging is frequently scrutinized and used as the measure of a company's overall sustainability, even though it may contribute only a small percentage to the total eco impact compared to other things, such as transportation, and water and energy use.


The criteria for ranking and comparing packaging based on their sustainability is an active area of development. General guidance, metrics, checklists, and scorecards are being published by several groups.

Government,[12] standards organizations, consumers, retailers,[13] and packagers are considering several types of criteria.[14][15][16][17]

Each organization words the goals and targets a little differently. In general, the broad goals of sustainable packaging are:

  1. Functional[18] – product protection, safety, regulatory compliance, etc.
  2. Cost effective – if it is too expensive, it is unlikely to be used
  3. Support long-term human and ecological health

Specific factors for sustainable design of packaging may include:

  • Use of minimal materials – reduced packaging, reduced layers of packaging, lower mass (product to packaging ratio), lower volume, etc.[19]
  • Energy efficiency, total energy content and usage, use of renewable energy, use of clean energy, etc.
  • Recycled content – as available and functional. For food contact materials, there are special safety considerations, particularly for use of recycled plastics and paper. Regulations are published by each country or region.[20][21]
  • Recyclability – recovery value, use of materials which are frequently and easily recycled, reduction of materials which hinder recyclability of major components, etc.
  • Reusable packaging – repeated reuse of package, reuse for other purposes, etc.
  • Use of renewable, biodegradable and compostable materials – when appropriate and do not cause contamination of the recycling stream[22][23]
  • Avoid the use of materials toxic to humans or the environment
  • Effects on atmosphere/climate – ozone layer, greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane), volatile organic compounds, etc.
  • Water use, reuse, treatment, waste, etc.
  • Worker impact: occupational health, safety, clean technology, etc.

The chosen criteria are often used best as a basis of comparison for two or more similar packaging designs; not as an absolute success or failure. Such a multi-variable comparison is often presented as a radar chart (spider chart, star chart, etc.).[24]


Some aspects of environmentally sound packaging are required by regulators while others are decisions made by individual packagers. Investors, employees, management, and customers can influence corporate decisions and help set policies. When investors seek to purchase stock, companies known for their positive environmental policy can be attractive.[25] Potential stockholders and investors see this as a solid decision: lower environmental risks lead to more capital at cheaper rates. Companies that highlight their environmental status to consumers can boost sales as well as product reputation. Going green is often a sound investment that can pay off.[26]

Alternatives to plastics[edit]

Materials have been developed or used for packaging without plastics, especially for use-cases in which packaging can't be phased-out – such as with policies for national grocery store requirements – for being needed for preserving food products or other purposes.

Optical appearance of self-assembled films of sustainable packaging alternative to plastic.webp

A plant proteins-based biodegradable packaging alternative to plastic was developed based on research about spider silk which is known for its high strength and similar on the molecular level.[27][28]


The process of engineering more environmentally acceptable packages can include consideration of the costs.[29] Some companies claim that their environmental packaging program is cost effective.[30] Some alternative materials that are recycled/recyclable and/or less damaging to the environment can lead to companies incurring increased costs. Though this is common when any product begins to carry the true cost of its production (producer pays, producer responsibility laws, take-back laws). There may be an expensive and lengthy process before the new forms of packaging are deemed safe to the public, and approval may take up to two years.[31] It is important to note here, that for most of the developed world, tightening legislation, and changes in major retailer demand (Walmart's Sustainable Packaging Scorecard for example) the question is no longer "if" products and packaging should become more sustainable, but how-to and how-soon to do it.[4]

ISO standards[edit]

The ISO's series of standards relating to packaging and the environment were published in 2013:[32]

  • ISO 18601:2013 Packaging and the environment - General requirements for the use of ISO standards in the field of packaging and the environment
  • ISO 18602:2013 Packaging and the environment - Optimization of the packaging system
  • ISO 18603:2013 Packaging and the environment - Reuse
  • ISO 18604:2013 Packaging and the environment - Material recycling
  • ISO 18605:2013 Packaging and the environment - Energy recovery
  • ISO 18606:2013 Packaging and the environment - Organic recycling


Efforts toward “greener” packaging are supported in the sustainability community; however, these are often viewed only as incremental steps and not as an end. Some people foresee a true sustainable steady state economy that may be very different from today's: greatly reduced energy usage, minimal ecological footprint, fewer consumer packaged goods, local purchasing with short food supply chains, little processed foods, etc.[33][34][35] Less packaging would be needed in a sustainable carbon neutral economy, which means that fewer packaging options would exist and simpler packaging forms may be necessary.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wood, Marcia (April 2002). "Leftover Straw Gets New Life". Agricultural Research.
  2. ^ Zabaniotou, A; Kassidi (August 2003). "Life cycle assessment applied to egg packaging made from polystyrene and recycled paper". Journal of Cleaner Production. 11 (5): 549–559. doi:10.1016/S0959-6526(02)00076-8.
  3. ^ Franklin (April 2004). "Life Cycle Inventory of Packaging Options for Shipment of Retail Mail-Order Soft Goods" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on December 17, 2008. Retrieved December 15, 2008.
  4. ^ a b Jedlicka, W, "Packaging Sustainability: Tools, Systems and Strategies for Innovative Package Design", (Wiley, 2008), ISBN 978-0-470-24669-6
  5. ^ Wever, R; Vogtlander, Joost (June 2013). "Eco-efficient Value Creation: An Alternative Perspective on Packaging and Sustainability". Packaging Technology and Science. 26 (4): 229–248. doi:10.1002/pts.1978.
  6. ^ World Packaging Organization (17 April 2008). "Position Paper on Sustainable Packaging" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 January 2010. Retrieved 6 February 2009.
  7. ^ "What is Sustainable Packaging? Our Vision". EUROPEN, European Organization for Packaging and the Environment. May 2009. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  8. ^ Amcor (2014). Sustainability Review 2014. ( Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  9. ^ "Potential of Dairy-based Wraps Outlined". USDA Agricultural Research Service. January 22, 2010.
  10. ^ "Environmental Claims". Federal Trade Commission. 2008-11-17. Retrieved 17 November 2008.
  11. ^ Fecourt, Adrien; Li, F. (2013), "Report No. E2013:015" (PDF), Improving transport packaging sustainability – a case study in a production logistics company, Gothenburg, Sweden: CHALMERS UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, Department of Technology Management and Economics, retrieved 28 February 2014
  12. ^ "Packaging, Product Stewarship". US Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 2008-12-18.
  13. ^ "Wal-Mart Unveils Packaging Scorecard to Suppliers". Wal-Mart. November 2, 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-29.
  14. ^ "Sustainable Packaging Metrics and Indicators Framework". Sustainable Packaging Coalition. December 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-10-06. Retrieved 14 December 2009.
  15. ^ "COMPASS, Metrics for Rating Packages" (PDF). Sustainable Packaging Coalition. 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 November 2011. Retrieved 6 Sep 2011.
  16. ^ "Towards Sustainable Packaging" (PDF). Sustainable Packaging Alliance. October 2002. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 July 2008. Retrieved 22 December 2008.
  17. ^ "PRINCIPLES, STRATEGIES & KPIs FOR PACKAGING SUSTAINABILITY" (PDF). Sustainable Packaging Alliance. July 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 March 2012. Retrieved 5 Sep 2011.
  18. ^ anon: "Packaging Matters", Institute of Packaging Professionals, 1993
  19. ^ Jason DeRusha. "The Incredible Shrinking Package". 16 Jul 2007. WCCO.
  20. ^ Guidance for Industry: Use of Recycled Plastics in Food Packaging: Chemistry Considerations, Contract, US Food and Drug Administration, 2006, retrieved 22 Feb 2015
  21. ^ Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations, Section 176.260 (Pulp from reclaimed fiber) (PDF), US Government, 2009, retrieved 22 Feb 2015
  22. ^ ASTM D6400, Standard Specification for Labeling of Plastics Designed to be Aerobically Composted in Municipal or Industrial Facilities
  23. ^ Ammala, Anne (2011). "An overview of degradable and biodegradable polyolefins". Progress in Polymer Science. 36 (8): 1015–1049. doi:10.1016/j.progpolymsci.2010.12.002. Retrieved September 21, 2018.
  24. ^ Svanes, Erik; Mie Vold; Hanne Møller; Marit Kvalvåg Pettersen; Hanne Larsen; Ole Jørgen Hanssen1 (2010). "Sustainable Packaging Design: a Holistic Methodology for Packaging Design". Packaging Technology and Science. 23 (3): 161–175. CiteSeerX doi:10.1002/pts.887.
  25. ^ "Benefits For Being Green". Archived from the original on 2008-11-07. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
  26. ^ More Benefits For Green Companies
  27. ^ "'Vegan spider silk' provides sustainable alternative to single-use plastics". Retrieved 11 July 2021.
  28. ^ Kamada, Ayaka; Rodriguez-Garcia, Marc; Ruggeri, Francesco Simone; Shen, Yi; Levin, Aviad; Knowles, Tuomas P. J. (10 June 2021). "Controlled self-assembly of plant proteins into high-performance multifunctional nanostructured films". Nature Communications. 12 (1): 3529. doi:10.1038/s41467-021-23813-6. ISSN 2041-1723. PMC 8192951. PMID 34112802.
  29. ^ Seidel, Manuel; Shabazpour, Tedford (2007). "Sustainability in Practice, a case of environmental packaging for ready to assemble furniture" (PDF). Talking and Walking Sustainability. Auckland, New Zealand: The New Zealand Society for Sustainability Engineering and Science. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 October 2008. Retrieved 23 December 2008.
  30. ^ "Packaging - Global Citizenship". H-P. Archived from the original on July 20, 2008. Retrieved 23 December 2008.
  31. ^ Is Going Green Worth It
  32. ^ Standards New Zealand, ISO Standards for packaging and the environment, Touchstone, published 7 March 2013, accessed 3 November 2020
  33. ^ Kunstler, James Howard (2012). Too Much Magic; Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-9438-1.
  34. ^ McKibben, D, ed. (2010). The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century Sustainability Crisis. Watershed Media. ISBN 978-0-9709500-6-2.
  35. ^ Brown, L. R. (2012). World on the Edge. Earth Policy Institute. Norton. ISBN 9781136540752.
  36. ^ Speigleman, H, and Sheehan, B. (2010). "Climate Change, Peak Oil, and the End of Waste". In McKibben, D (ed.). The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Centery Sustainability Crisis. Watershed Media. ISBN 978-0-9709500-6-2.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

Further reading[edit]