How to Design Sustainable Packaging

This how-to design for sustainable packaging checklist was developed by PAC Packaging Consortium to help reduce the carbon footprint of packaging at the design stage. There are many aspects to developing product packaging and the sustainability aspect is an important one. In short, sustainability refers to the environmental impact of the package from the extraction of resources to after consumer use.  To determine whether or not a package meets sustainability objectives within the supply chain of today depends on a number of considerations, however, first and foremost, your product must be adequately protected and preserved. When considering material options, always ensure the package meets the needs of your product.

The checklist gives a good overview of the various components to consider during the design stage.

The 6 Key Elements to the sustainable packaging checklist are:

1. Source – assess what the materials are made from and where they are sourced:

a. Is there a risk to human health?
b. Is the source renewable?
c. Does it contain recycled content?
d. Does it meet regulatory compliance?
e. Are your claims verifiable?
f. What are the greenhouse emissions?
g. Does the labeling clearly identify the recycled content?

The recycled material could result in a higher carbon footprint material depending on where it is sourced.

2. Reduce and Optimize – understand how the sustainable package will be used throughout the entire supply system:

a. Can the primary package material be reduced - size, weight, thickness?
b. Would product formula changes, ie, compaction, result in reduced packaging?
c. Are there containment and transport package reduction opportunities?
d. Would better cube utilization result in reduction?

There are significant opportunities to reduce material usage and/or product damage when the entire supply system is examined and understood. Ensure trade-offs are considered as an increase in product damage that could offset gains.

3. Reuse – explore opportunities for post-consumer reuse:

a. Is there a return system in place, eg., bottle returns for cleaning and reuse?
b. Does the packaging encourage reuse, if so, how many times?
c. Are there opportunities to educate the consumer on the value of reuse?

4. Recycle – examine the systems in place for recycling in your target markets:

a. Is the packaging being collected, sorted, and recycled?
b. Is there an end market for the recycled materials?
c. What alternative options are there for difficult to process materials?

The consideration is not whether the material can be recycled but rather that it is actually being recycled.

5. Compost – determine how the packaging will be discarded:

a. If there are multi-materials, can the package be disassembled?
b. Can it be recycled?
c. How will it break down in the various composting environments such as industrial, backyard, or landfill?
d. What are the risks of consumer confusion?
e. Does the packaging meet regulatory requirements?
f. Are your claims verifiable?

6. Communication – assess whether the consumer understands what to do after use?

a. Are you clearly communicating how the consumer is to dispose of the package?
b. Have you verified your sustainability claims within your markets?
c. Do you conduct testing to determine if your consumers understand your claims?
d. Do your claims meet regulatory compliance?

Conflicting messaging to consumers can result in a loss of material recovery. It is up to all stakeholders in the supply chain to educate consumers and ensure the messaging is accurate and understood.

The Checklist provides additional information about trade-off considerations, hard to recycle materials, optimization examples, reference tools, and additional resources. For more detailed information, download the checklist here – PAC Sustainability Checklist.

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