by Dan Mishkind, guest columnist
As a planet, we cannot escape the mountainous challenge that our throw-away lifestyle presents. Three years ago the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the United States produced 11.9 million tons of plastic packaging. Over 90% of this was sent to a landfill after just one use.
Add to this a forecasted 3.7% per year increase in demand for snack food packaging, coupled with the rise of singleserve packaging, and we have a situation that is overwhelming in its implications for the environment. As manufacturers, what are we to do?
We should aim for sustainable packaging. Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a working nonprofit industry group with members as diverse as Coca-Cola and Earthbound Farm, defines sustainable packaging as "packaging [that] is sourced responsibly, designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle, meets market criteria for performance and cost, is made entirely using renewable energy, and once used is recycled efficiently to provide a valuable resource for subsequent generations. In summary: a true cradle-to-cradle system for all packaging."
Sustainability is a long-range goal that bakers may meet by utilizing a combination of less packaging (source reduction), post-consumer recycled materials, environmentally friendlier materials such as the new bio-based plastics, renewable energy in manufacturing facilities, and endoflife management (creating packages that are easy to recycle).
In its entirety, there is no doubt that creating sustainable packaging has challenges, but remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And companies already are taking those steps, successfully. Wal-Mart has begun to switch from petroleum-based to bio-based plastic packaging. This plastic is called polylactic acid (PLA) and is available from NatureWorks (www.natureworksllc.com), a division of Cargill. It is made from corn, a renewable resource, and claims 31% less fuel use during manufacturing and 32% less greenhouse gas emissions. It is created without heavy metals, which is an important advantage, as there are problems with heavy metals in our oceans. The difficulty with this plastic is that it requires special industrial composting facilities in order to be broken down and reused. Wal-Mart, notorious for the power it wields over consumer goods, can be a force for good in this instance, potentially encouraging the creation of these composting facilities worldwide.
Another excellent possibility, especially for the baking industry, is NatureFlex. This package, created from wood pulp with specialty barrier coatings, is certified biodegradable and able to be turned into compost. It is suitable for high-speed form-fill-seal machines and heat-sealable on both sides. NatureFlex may be eliminated with compostable materials in areas where there is curbside collection. Consumers who compost at home can add it to their bins.
A 2005 study suggests that sustainability is becoming a key motivator in consumer purchases. According to the The Natural Marketing Institute, 48% of the general population sample indicated that they would choose a product that was grown using "sustainable agriculture"-practices. Thus, almost half of the general population is sufficiently aware of the importance of sustainable practices for our earth to the point that they will buy a product made sustainably over one that is not. We may assume that this also is the case for packaging.
For manufacturers interested in being a force for change in this area, I recommend joining the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as well as striving for sustainable packaging in your own choices for your products. We all live in this world together. Let's do our part to keep it a world worth living on.
Dan Mishkind is principal of Pure Design Co. LLC, an award-winning agency that specializes in branding and packaging design for natural products. Prior to founding Pure Design Co., Dan was a design director for The Walt Disney Co. and he taught publication design at Harvard University. Dan will be leading an educational seminar on sustainable packaging at Natural Products Expo East, Oct. 4 to Oct. 7 in Baltimore. For more information, go to www.puredesignco.com