Transport Packaging: First, Let's Define Sustainable

Feb. 1, 2007
Let's forget about mandates and think about continuous improvement.

During January's material handling extravaganza, ProMat, I spoke with a number of folks involved with, or sustained by, transport packaging. Looking over my notes I see that virtually all of them mentioned sustainability, the big buzzword in the transport packaging world these days.

Not a few were confused by, and concerned with, Wal-Mart's formulas for getting points, or not getting points, on its packaging scorecard. The goal at the end of the game for Wal-Mart is a 5% reduction of its packaging material by 2013. Its 60,000 suppliers will start being scored about a year from now.

Like asking someone what is their favorite tune, sustainability has various definitions and meanings. (A side issue in this drive for sustainability is the growing interest in products that have been around for a long time. I'll address that issue in the future. I just wanted to plant a seed.)

Let's forget about mandates and think about continuous improvement. First, let's see if we can find a definition for sustainability or sustainable packaging. Something we all can understand. One of the better places to start looking for a definition is the website for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition ( There, you can find no fewer than three sizes of definitions. It's kind of like going to Starbucks and asking for a cup of coffee—tall, grande or venti?

The coalition's nine-page version is, obviously, most comprehensive and includes a cool cradle-to-cradle diagram, which is worth an additional thousand words. It can also make your ears ring a bit. The tall, er, small, definition, which takes up nearly a page, outlines criteria and objectives, and is probably what many people are looking for, and can give you a comforting little buzz.

As one of the coalition's definitions of sustainability points out, "[the definition must] blend objectives with business considerations and strategies that address the environmental concerns related to the life cycle of packaging."

Edited and not listed in order of priority, here's my even smaller version of the coalition's definitions, or criteria, for sustainable packaging material:

  • Beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
  • Meets market criteria for performance, cost;
  • Sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy;
  • Maximizes use of renewable or recycled source material;
  • Manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
  • Made from material healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios;
  • Physically designed to optimize material and energy;
  • Effectively recovered and utilized in biological and industrial cradle-to-cradle cycles.

The coalition's worthy vision seems like a near-impossible order to fulfill. It does, however, resolve a problem that I have with many definitions of "sustainable," that we must hang on to what we have. I think a more appropriate goal, or definition, might be to go beyond the level of what we have, to achieve what is actually needed.

Clyde Witt has been reporting on transport packaging issues and trends for more than 20 years.

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