Sustainable smart packaging

Picture of John Denslinger
John Denslinger is a former executive VP Murata, president SyChip Wireless, and president/CEO ECIA, the industry’s trade association. His career spans 40 years in electronics

John Denslinger reminds purchasing professionals that company-wide ESG mandates are directing an ever-brighter spotlight on sustainable packaging requirements.

When it comes to sourcing materials, packaging might be last on the list of priorities. Often an after-thought, packaging is getting more attention lately driven by company-wide ESG mandates. Attention procurement: the era of sustainable packaging is here and it offers a number of challenging decisions. 

More than ten years ago, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (a industry working group) defined the criteria for sustainable packaging as follows: 

  • Is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals/communities throughout its life cycle 
  • Meets market needs for performance and cost 
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy 
  • Optimizes the use of renewables or recycled materials 
  • Is manufactured using clean production technologies minimizing waste and emissions 
  • Is made from material additives (inks, adhesives, resins) healthy throughout its life cycle 
  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy consumption 
  • Is effectively recovered and utilized again in closed loop systems 
  • It would seem that list still applies today so choosing to be sustainable won’t be easy or quick. 

It should come as no surprise, e-commerce escalated consumer awareness and the push for sustainable packaging. For industry, e-commerce also highlighted product safety, counterfeiting, and last-mile delivery issues. As a result, the demand for better, cheaper and more environmentally friendly packaging is now an expectation shared by plastic and paper producers, packaging fabricators, the buying community and customers on the receiving end of packaged products. 

Packaging material is part of the circular economy subject to 4Rs: reduce, recycle, re-use and re-think. In the words of EPA: “The circular economy reduces material use, redesigns materials to be less resource intensive and recaptures ‘waste’ as a resource to manufacture new materials and products.” As good as that sounds, recycling may produce some adverse consequences. One EPA study found unhealthy chemicals in recycled materials ranging from flame retardants, solvents, biocides, inks and dyes. Comprehensive sustainability must remedy these secondary contaminants as well. 

Sustainability implies sourcing more eco-friendly materials. Plastic, especially fossil-based, is non grata nowadays. Microplastics, once considered eco-friendly, have entered our food chain and recently been found in human blood. Because of that, compostable and biodegradable replacements are gaining favor with consumers. Substitutes such as bamboo paper, stone paper, and plant-based cellulose alternatives like cotton, corn and hay eliminate the need to harvest millions of trees. In the past, packaging often combined dissimilar materials, but no longer. Mono-material design is now the baseline. Mixed, laminated and composite packaging is difficult to recycle and often ends up in landfills as waste. 

Did you ever think of lowly packaging as a high-tech product? Sustainable packaging is going digital incorporating connectivity. Packaging is pervasive. It’s a common commodity found everywhere and thus provides a tremendous opportunity for data mining. Digital integration features NFC sensors and RFID tags. NFC offers the interactive experience delivering product information, as well as a safe and secure authentication process. RFID, on the other hand, is better suited for asset management and tracking. 

Implementing green strategies for sustainable packaging will take time. As with any newly sourced material, there is the lengthy discovery phase, concept development, design for manufacturing, prototyping, test and evaluation. Optimization may require several iterations given the rapid advancements in Smart technology. Proper environmental stewardship benefits everyone. Thank you, procurement, for your commitment to sustainability.