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Sustainable Packaging: Why Should We Care?

Sustainability is now an issue of key concern to governments, business and the public throughout the world. The European Union defines sustainability as:

'Sustainable development stands for meeting the needs of present generations without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – in other words, a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come.' (Review of EU Sustainable Development Strategy, 2009)

The US Environmental Protection Agency takes a similar view

'Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.'

A sustainable industry is one which is in equilibrium with its environment; it is concerned with its impact on its suppliers, its customers, its staff, the wider community and the natural world. Sustainable businesses do not just care about today, but about the impact of their activities in the years and decades to come.

We live in a world where we are all consumers and most of us make purchases on a daily basis. Almost without exception, the goods we buy are supplied in some form of packaging to keep the contents in the condition that we would expect. In addition, packaging defines brands and provides the consumer with important information. Sustainability is, therefore, an issue of vital importance to all companies who make use of packaging, whatever their place in the supply chain.

A quick definition of sustainable packaging is packaging that has been manufactured from sustainable materials using energy from renewable sources. The packaging should remain safe and effective throughout its life cycle, after which its component materials should be fully recyclable, thus creating a closed loop of manufacturing and usage. Truly sustainable packaging, however, should still be able to meet the business market's requirements in terms of cost, performance and safety.

Sustainable Packaging: A More Detailed Definition

Sustainable packaging is defined by the presence of a number of key features. These are the issues that a number of packaging companies and users are now trying to address. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition asserts that it should be:

Beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle

The production of packaging is a huge industry employing some five million people worldwide and generating an annual turnover in excess of 400 billion dollars. Given the size of the industry and the ubiquitous place of packaging in all of our lives, the potential for packaging to have a negative impact on the world environment is enormous. Therefore, there is a huge responsibility on the makers and users of packaging to ensure they 'design out' any potential negative impact of their products.

This is an issue of concern throughout the life cycle of the packaging, in other words it is a thread running through the procurement of raw materials used in the packaging, the manufacturing process, the product's distribution and its eventual disposal.

These objectives for developing sustainable packaging that a number of companies have been working on have now been absorbed into the wider agenda of corporate social responsibility which has become an established expectation for companies in the developed world, and is increasingly becoming an aspiration for companies operating elsewhere in the world. The challenge for all businesses, however, is to develop packaging which meets the objective of sustainability, but also performs the tasks for which the packaging is required and does so within the budgetary reach of manufacturers, distributors and consumers.

Meet market criteria for performance and cost

New designs and new materials have, to a degree, helped the packaging industry to make strides towards a more sustainable product in recent years. But, for the industry to continue to survive and prosper, any further improvements will have to be achieved within the limits of cost and without sacrificing acceptable performance criteria. Add to this the tide of legislative change which, in most countries, is shifting responsibility for the disposal of packaging to business rather than local authorities. Like the rest of the EU, Britain now has stringent waste packaging regulations in place which, in many cases, places an extra burden of cost onto business.

But the cost of sustainability cannot be ignored; businesses need to be free to operate economically and make a profit. Profitability allows businesses to grow and develop providing people with jobs, generating tax revenue and supporting communities.

The broader sustainability agenda, however, has in many instances helped companies to improve quality and increase profitability. Embracing sustainable packaging has the potential to help businesses reduce cost, by avoiding emission and disposal levies, and to increase turnover by meeting growing consumer demand for products which are sustainable and have a reduced environmental impact.

Sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy

The overuse of fossil fuels is widely recognised as a primary cause of many of the world's environmental difficulties, including climate change and atmospheric pollution.

Renewable sources of energy, such as wind, tide and solar power, offer an alternative source of power that is both sustainable and has a low environmental impact. Many businesses, including several in the packaging industry, have opted to use at least some renewable energy in their manufacturing processes.

Transportation is another area of activity that companies need to look at. Businesses aiming to be sustainable need to assess their distribution channels to find ways to use them more efficiently and to consider alternative means of transport. Rail transport for goods, where it is possible, has a lower environmental impact that moving the same volume by road.

Optimize the use of renewable or recycled source materials

Many of the materials currently used in the packaging industry are derived from petro-chemical products. Others are sourced from bio-based materials. Any strategy aimed at developing sustainable packaging should ensure that virgin materials are from sustainable sources as well as making the maximum possible use of recycled materials. However, this latter option is limited in cases where the material deteriorates after its first use.

Overall, however, the big challenge for manufacturers is develop alternative forms of packaging to replace those current ones that are made from materials that are not sustainable, and cannot very easily be modified to be made sustainable.

Manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices

The manufacturing of packaging uses considerable quantities of raw materials, water and power. This can, in some cases, result in a considerable negative effect on the environment. A sustainable packaging strategy seeks to refine the manufacturing process to make the best use of clean technologies and best practices.

Made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle

Some of the materials used in the manufacture of packaging can, if poorly controlled, have a detrimental effect on human health and the environment. Public health is of supreme importance. Any sustainable packaging strategy should, therefore, seek to reduce or remove such materials or, where this is not economically possible, put appropriate safety controls in place.

Physically designed to optimize materials and energy

Some seventy percent of the overall impact of a product is determined in the design phase. Packaging designers, while continuing to give due regard to the requirements of cost, performance and compliance with regulations, also need to take account of maximising the sustainability of a product through its entire life-cycle, from the procurement of raw materials through to its final disposal.

Capable of being effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles

By developing a strategy to recover discarded packaging and re-using at least some of that material in the manufacturing process, a closed-loop cycle is established, which can in turn make a significant contribution to sustainability. The chief forms of recovery are:

Biological (managed composting) – on average up to thirty percent of household waste comprises organic matter. A number of UK local authorities now operate community composting schemes. A typical scheme involves collecting garden and food waste and composting it at a central point by means of mechanical shredding, heat and biological action. The resulting compost is distributed to community projects or sold commercially;

Technical (recycling) – recycling is the process of preparing recovered materials to be remanufactured into new products. Metals, some plastics, paper and glass are the most typical materials processed in this way ; and

Energy (waste to energy) – waste to energy schemes produce energy, in the form of electricity or direct heat, from the controlled combustion of waste materials. The material needs to be biogenic: including wood, paper, card and food waste. Modern plants exercise careful controls over carbon emissions.

Designing Sustainability Into Packaging

For some time the central mantra of the sustainable development movement has been 'reduce, reuse, recycle'. In other words, we should try to reduce the amount of materials used, extend the life of a product by reusing it and, once a product has reached the end of its useful life, recycle its component parts.

When we are thinking about the design of a product, including any form of packaging, one further key objective we can add to this list is 'rethink'. Rethinking means that the designer of a packaging product should constantly be looking at alternative, more sustainable materials and designs. The key areas to address during the design process are:

Maximising water and energy efficiency

Without sacrificing the performance of the finished product nor making its cost prohibitive, the designer needs to aim to reduce the amount of water and energy used in the manufacturing process. This can only be achieved by changing the materials used or the production process. Coca-Cola, for example, has a designed a bottle made from renewable bio materials to begin to replace their conventional polyethylene terephthalate (PET) packaging. Reducing the amount of energy the industry needs to use is the only effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Minimising materials

Sustainability goes hand in hand with source reduction. In other words, reducing the volume of primary materials used in the production process by using the optimal combination of primary, secondary and/or tertiary materials. Where possible, reducing the total amount of packaging used with any product is a sensible design objective. However, the view once prevalent that all packaging is wasteful and should be avoided is misguided. In our developed societies, a key role of packaging is to protect goods from damage and prevent spoilage. The industry body, the World Packaging Organisation, argues that far more wastage from spoiled goods would result from not using packaging than any materials that would be saved by not using it. The goal, they say, should be 'right size' and 'right strength' packaging rather than none at all.

Using recycled materials

The greater the volume of recycled materials that can be designed into the manufacture of packaging, the more the industry's environmental footprint can be reduced. Recycled materials generally use less energy that virgin materials and, therefore, produce less greenhouse emissions.

Using renewable materials

Designers should aim to maximise the use of materials from renewable sources, such as paper, card and bio polymers, in the manufacture of packaging products. The computer giant, Dell, have been examining the viability of packing materials based on bamboo, wheat straw and mushroom-derived material. Meanwhile Tetra Pak are experimenting with manufacturing high-density polyethylene made from renewable feedstock. Finding ways to use renewable materials reduces energy use, saves precious natural resources and will make a major contribution toward achieving a more sustainable industry.

Minimising risks associated with potentially toxic and hazardous materials

Packaging containing potentially toxic or hazardous materials poses a risk to humans and eco-systems. The design process should identify such materials and, where possible, remove them from the product. Where this is not possible, appropriate control systems need to be put in place. However, in many cases the cost of designing-out such materials and replacing them with others can be offset against potential savings from avoiding toxic or hazardous disposal costs further down the line.

Using materials from responsible suppliers

Packaging materials should wherever possible be purchased from companies who have a documented environmental management system and a commitment to environmental sustainability. Certification schemes, such as that run by the Forest Stewardship Council, make the task easier for businesses trying to choose the right supplier.

Designing for transport

More efficient use of transport for distribution can make a significant reduction in energy consumption. Packaging needs to be designed in ways which reduces weight, maximises the use of space and uses bulk packaging where appropriate. 'Cubing out' is the process of filling a shipping container to its most effective potential. Packaging which has been carefully designed, with thought given to how it is packed in bulk not just as a single item, can be of great assistance with the cubing out process. As an alternative approach to the issue, major retailers are now coming under pressure from producers and consumers to source more of their lines locally, thus reducing transport costs and energy use.

Designing for reuse

Packaging which has been designed to be reused can, in cases where it is appropriate, make significant savings in energy and raw material usage. Complete reuse of a packaging product, however, is extremely rare in today's market. The reusable milk bottle for instance, once a staple of UK milk retailing, now forms only a tiny proportion of British milk sales. Recovery for recycling, therefore, offers much more promising opportunities for sustainable packaging designers.

Designing for recovery

Companies which use recyclable materials when designing their packaging and provide the consumer with appropriate recycling information are making a positive contribution towards maximising recovery and recycling rates. Yet still some of the commonest packaging items, such take-away pizza boxes, toothpaste tubes and potato crisp bags, cannot be recycled. Most of us are aware that packaging made from layers of different materials is extremely difficult to recycle. But it is also the case that a generally recyclable product, such as a cardboard pizza box, becomes difficult to recycle once it is contaminated with food waste.

Designing for consumer accessibility

Designing packaging to meet consumer accessibility expectations should take into account a number of requirements. Consumers demand forms of packaging which are safe, easy to open and which provide clear labelling and information. What is more, they expect this to be provided without the cost of the packaging adding excessively to that of the product itself.

Providing the consumer information on sustainability

Consumers, particularly those in the industrialized west, are becoming increasingly eco-aware. There is an expectation now that the packaging on the goods they buy should provide clear information on the materials used, including recycled content, and the recyclability and degradability of the packaging once it has been used.

Why Sustainable Packaging is Important: The Bigger Picture

Sustainable packaging

Sustainable packaging is important because it reduces the ecological footprint of all the stages in the product's life-cycle. It helps both the producer and the consumer reduce their environmental impact.

The impact of humankind on the natural world is one the greatest challenges we face today and in the decades ahead. Our expanding population and the global spread of economic development are both putting increasing pressure on the world's resources.

The planet's resources

Many of the planet's natural resources, such as minerals and fossil fuels, have finite availability. Other precious resources, such as our rainforests, clean water and cultivatable land have natural limits too. Despite this, the demands from industry and agriculture are increasing year on year.

Climate change as a result of human activity is now widely accepted as a fact by most experts. The combination of our widespread burning of fossil fuels together with the destruction of much of the rainforest, planet Earth's 'lungs', has led to a reduction in the ozone layer, the melting of polar ice and shifts in the world's weather systems. Unpredictable weather, droughts, floods and changes to seasonal patterns are all predicted to be on the increase.

Despite improved controls in many countries, many of the world's eco-systems are still being degraded by pollution. The WWF estimates that between 200 and 2,000 species are becoming extinct every year, largely as a result of human activity.

The human aspect

A great deal of the social and political aspect of the drive to encourage sustainability has focussed on the impact the production of packaging materials has on people. The exploitation of natural raw materials, for instance, has a potential not just to affect wildlife and the natural world, but the world's indigenous peoples too.

Manufacturers are now coming under pressure to ensure their processes do not adversely affect their own staff and people who live in the areas where they operate. This pressure is not just coming from governments and the regulatory authorities, but increasingly from some of the major retailing chains who are demanding better standards. Thus, there is a growing expectation on companies to exercise due regard for the health and safety of their employees and local communities, as well as treating their staff equitably and paying them fairly.

Sustainability and business

Up until the last decade or so, the focus of the environmental impact of business was quite limited; it was restricted to the end-of-life of the product, including pollution and recycling. The sustainability agenda, however, has broadened out this agenda into a much more holistic one, following the entire life-cycle of a product and including economic and social factors. Sustainability is now a major agenda issue for governments and public opinion. As a result, industry is coming under increasing pressure to improve its sustainability footprint.

The packaging industry

The packaging industry has been pushed to the forefront of the sustainability agenda, not necessarily because it is the biggest source of environmental problems but because, from the consumer's point of view, it is one of the most visible. But when considering the packaging industry's sustainability footprint, we should focus on qualitative issues as much as quantitative ones. In other words, it is not just about reducing the amount of packaging produced, but about addressing the issues such as design that we have already touched on.

Reducing the Sustainability Footprint of Our Packaging

A rigorous life-cycle analysis (LCA) is the packaging industry's key tool for examining the environmental impact of their products. The process allows one to assess how making an improvement in one stage of the life-cycle of the product can have an impact on another. The objective of an LCA is to trade-off improvements in one area of the life-cycle against the impact it has in another with the aim of improving overall sustainability.

The production of packaging consumes both energy and raw material resources. Using and transporting the resulting packaging then consumes further resources. If no recovery and recycling processes are built into the life-cycle of the packaging it ends up in the general refuse chain or littering our streets before it reaches its final destination of the landfill site.

Burying our discarded packaging in landfill facilities is extremely wasteful of our precious land, water, mineral and energy resources. But a number of packaging manufacturers and commercial users are beginning to come up with solutions to these problems and are working towards creating a more sustainable product.

Steel and aluminium, for instance, are good examples of 'closed-loop' recyclable materials. In most countries now, steel and aluminium from canned goods is recovered and fed back into the manufacturing chain. Other forms of packaging, such as the cups now used by a major high street coffee chain, are designed to be biodegradable and suitable for disposal via local authority composting schemes.

But the responsibility for reducing the sustainability footprint of the packaging we all use every day does not just lie with the manufacturers and business users of packaging; we all have a role to play.


Recycling is the primary means by which the consumer can make a positive contribution to towards the sustainability of the packaging we all rely on. Currently some 25 percent by weight of UK household waste is discarded packaging. Taking into account the bigger picture, recycling helps us all to save energy, reduce landfill, preserve resources, protect wildlife and boost the economy. On a global scale it helps us to reduce the impact of climate change.

Recycling schemes
Most UK local authorities now operate recycling schemes. These can be operated by means of doorstep collections or from community collection points. Many councils provide special bins so that the householder can pre-sort his or her recyclable material. There are also a variety of recycling containers for the home on the market.

Materials such as paper, steel, plastics and glass are widely recovered and channelled into the recycling stream. Many areas also have schemes to collect and compost garden and food waste. Some countries, such as Denmark, find that adding a small refundable deposit charge to drinks in bottles and cans improves the recovery rate. The products can then be reused or recycled. Whatever the scheme, they all rely on the consumer taking the responsibility to sort their waste and place it in the right collection container.


Many people still do not understand the importance of recycling and how failing to do so affects all of us. Writing about sustainability, the World Packaging Organisation (WPO) concluded that: 'In most cultures, the general public doesn't know what to do with used packaging materials, or doesn't care.' Education in environmental issues and recycling has an important role to play, particularly with young people, as they are the generation who will have to live with the decisions we are currently making. Many schools in England and Wales are introducing children to the concept of sustainability by setting up eco-councils and working towards obtaining the Green Flag Award for environmental action. Often schools will combine education on sustainability with other initiatives, such as healthy eating.

Litter reduction

Litter reduction is an important strand within an environmental education strategy. Litter is not only unsightly but employing people to collect it drains public resources, degrades the environment and, in many cases, litter that has been collected ends up unsorted in landfill rather than being channelled towards recycling. With litter reduction, recycling and other initiatives, education is the key to changing attitudes and altering behaviour.

Consumer choice

The choices we make when we are shopping are very important, particularly when it comes to the types of packaging we select with the goods we buy. By consciously favouring packaging that has been manufactured in a sustainable way from materials that can be renewed or recycled, we send an important message back to the manufacturers, a message that will influence their future actions. Packers, in turn, need to provide the information that consumers need to make these informed choices.

Spreading the word

Recycling is not just something we need to do in our own homes; it is a behaviour that should be practiced everywhere. If your school, college, workplace or local shop does not provide recycling facilities, encourage them to do so. Many public buildings already have facilities to recover plastic bottles, glass, cans and other materials which can be recycled. But, as those of us who have walked around a town centre for some considerable time to find a recycling bin for our empty plastic bottle can testify, provision is not yet as widespread as it could be.


UK industry has been subject to legislative controls and levies on waste packaging for some time now and, to a large degree, this has changed behaviours. When the legislation was introduced in 1998 just under three million tonnes of packaging waste were being recycled annually. The figure now is nearer seven million tonnes. The statutory powers are now widening their attention to include consumers. In Wales a levy is placed on the consumer for each plastic carrier bag they are issued with, the aim being to encourage people to reuse their bags. The scheme has been successful in that it reduced the number of carrier bags issued by up to ninety-six percent in its first year. A similar scheme is now set to be introduced in England.

So why do some people still not recycle?

Despite all of these initiatives, there is still a substantial minority of people in the UK who do not recycle. Their reasons for not recycling vary, but can be broken down into five main categories:

They believe it is inconvenient – true, recycling needs a little thought and effort, but most local authorities make it easier with kerbside collections;

They find it difficult and hard to understand – better labelling by packers and retailers and more advice from local authorities would help. Councils should use the resources they already have: many householders will take more heed of a recycling message explained by their bin-man than any carefully-argued leaflet;

They think it makes no difference – education about the effects that not recycling has on the environment will help people to understand the importance of doing 'their bit';

They'd do it if there was an incentive – true we do not operate a deposit scheme in this country. But failing to recycle is not cost free; in the long-run we all pay for landfill and wasted resources through higher bills;

They don't have the house-space to store recyclable items – this is definitely an issue for flat-dwellers and those in smaller homes. Most local authorities employ recycling officers who will be glad to advise and suggest solutions.

How does Ebro Color Ensure Sustainable Packaging?

Ebro Color is a long-established company based in the small German town of Albstadt and specialise in the production of folding cardboard boxes. The boxes are designed as packaging for a wide variety of goods and they are made-to-measure with bespoke printing according to the requirements of the customer. Ebro Color are an international business with over a thousand customers, including major manufacturers, SMEs and start-up businesses. They are very much part of the community in this rural area of Germany and pride themselves on their commitment to being a responsible, model employer.

Ebro Color's philosophy centres on the company's commitment to sustainability: 'The foundation for our success is an intact environment, successful clients, motivated employees and a functioning society. Our success is therefore only sustainable if our environment, clients, employees and society at large all benefit equally from our activities.'

Sustainable materials

The cardboard used in all Ebro Color boxes is entirely FSC-certified material. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an independent not-for-profit organisation dedicated to ensuring responsible management of the world's forests. The FSC label on all Ebro Color products provides the business customer with the assurance that their cardboard is made from high-quality material sourced from forests managed in an environmentally-friendly, socially responsible and commercially viable way.

Forest Stewardship Council

The FSC seeks to 'provide businesses and consumers with a tool to influence how forests worldwide are managed.' Timber production is an international business so the FSC, in response, is an international body with certification standards that apply worldwide. They role is to ensure that forests are renewed, clean air and water is maintained, workers are fairly rewarded and communities are protected. All of Ebro Color's products feature the FSC certification label, so the companies which use the packaging will send an important message to their customers about their corporate commitment to sustainability.

Best Practice

For Ebro Color the commitment to sustainability goes beyond the production process and the choices the company makes about the raw materials they source. They are also committed to best practice in the way they manage and reward their employees. All of Ebro Color's products, as they put it, are 'manufactured with our heads and our hearts.'

Climate protection

Climate change and the problems that it brings is now widely-understood to result from human activity. The principal cause is the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, and the resultant levels of CO² emissions. At Ebro Color one hundred percent of the electricity used in production comes from renewable hydro-electric sources, most of it from local power stations on the Scmiecha River. As a result, all of the power the company uses is free from the CO² emissions and radioactive waste other electricity generation systems produce.

A responsible employer

Ebro Color has adopted the ten green principles of the Forest Stewardship Council as well as its fifty-six good practice criteria. The company regards itself as a responsible employer, which they feel goes hand-in-hand with success, 'because production is about both results and a sense of humanity'.

The Future

Environmental issues are presenting humankind with one of the greatest challenges we have ever faced. Climate change, the exhaustion of our natural resources and the depletion of our natural environment are all very real concerns.

The way we have produced packaging up to now, although it is not the sole cause of our environmental concerns, still raises issues that business, governments and the public need to address. Only by manufacturing packaging that is fully sustainable can we achieve the twin goals of providing a product that performs the task for which it is designed, but at the same time avoids having any form of negative impact on the environment.

The good news is that the industry is at last moving in the right direction. In the last five year the proportion of packaging that can be deemed to be sustainable has increased by over ten percent. Some companies are taking the lead in this field. Ebro Color, a German company serving the international market, provides us all with a positive example of how to produce high-quality, affordable packaging products that are fully sustainable.


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Address & Contact

Ebro Color GmbH
Ehestetter Weg 10
72458 Albstadt