The Packaging Sustainability Assessment
These Guides ask the User to assess options for packaging sustainability with both environmental and socio-economic considerations in mind. The Sustainable Packaging Option Categories are adapted from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF)’s hierarchy of upstream solutions. Both the considerations and option areas are described in more detail below.
Packaging Environmental and Effectiveness Considerations
- Consumer Choice, Availability, Accessibility & Convenience
- Ensuring Compliance with Food Safety Regulations
- Minimizing Food Waste
- Cost & Return on Investment
- Labelling, Branding and Marketing
- Minimizing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Other Environmental Impacts
- Minimizing Plastic Waste
- Minimizing Plastic Pollution
What is Upstream Innovation?
“Upstream innovation is about tracing a problem back to its root cause and tackling it there. It means that rather than working out how to deal with a pile of waste, we prevent it from being created in the first place. Upstream innovation requires a shift in mindset, beyond focusing on incremental packaging improvements. It is about rethinking how we get products and services to users without creating waste”
Working through these options and considerations, and challenging your company to apply the upstream solutions mindset, will lead to the inevitable and difficult task of managing trade-offs.
Packaging Sustainability Assessment – Environmental & Effectiveness Considerations
Assessing overall packaging sustainability includes accounting for important and challenging environmental and effectiveness considerations.
In addition to assessing whether a package change will reduce waste and pollution, there are other important non-negotiable considerations – packaging ‘effectiveness’ which deliver important social and/or economic outcomes. That said, sustainability is a blend of considerations: for example, preventing food waste provides not only economic benefit, but also a significant environmental benefit in preventing GHG emissions typically generated when organic material ends up in landfill.
These packaging considerations apply to all guides, and all packaging sustainability decisions.
1. Consumer Choice, Availability, Accessibility & Convenience.
Market demand for high quality food, variety and choice over the whole calendar year puts considerable pressure on the food and produce supply chain. Packaging plays an integral part in allowing for the effective transportation and maintenance of quality food, while also maximizing the choice and availability year-round.
Furthermore, consumers seek convenience, simplicity and ease of accessibility once the food or produce is in the kitchen. Packaging design needs to account for the range of consumer abilities, notably seniors and others with limited mobility.
2. Ensuring Compliance with Food Safety Regulations
Ensuring food safety is the most important outcome when selecting a food or produce packaging. As such, federal regulations apply to ensure packaging does not adversely impact consumers from a health and safety point of view. Key initiatives also seek to mitigate the inclusion of any chemicals of concern into packaging supply chains, such as the Clean Packaging initiative.
3. Minimizing Food waste
Packaging has a direct and measurable impact on the impact of transportation and handling from the field to the table. Loss of food in transit, when sitting on store shelves, or when at the consumer’s home is a major factor in choosing packaging design and composition.
4. Cost & Return on Investment
Packaging design and construction has a direct impact on the cost of operations from the field to the grocery store exit. Packaging impacts the cost of movement of food and produce along the entirety of the supply chain, from food packing, transportation and distribution, thru to retail storage, consumer access and transportation to home. The choice of packaging design and construction also directly impacts capital investments for packaging manufacturing and product fulfillment – costs which can ultimately impact the affordability of food and produce for consumers.
5. Labelling, Branding & Marketing
Packaging plays an integral role in communicating the type, source and quality of food, as well as provide key information of interest to consumers seeking to make informed food decisions. Regulated labelling requirements must also be addressed, such as ingredients, caloric and nutrient data, and increasingly environmental information such as recyclability.
6. Minimizing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Other Environmental Impacts
Climate change is recognized globally as threat to human and ecosystem sustainability. As a result, tracking and reporting on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) is an increasingly important consideration for any organization. For most companies this involves examining their own operations, and their supply chains. Beyond GHG emissions there are other very important environmental impact categories, such as energy consumption, acidification and water and land use. One way of systematically addressing these (including GHGs) is through Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), which also typically include human health related categories such as human toxicity.
7. Minimizing Plastic Waste
As noted by the Government of Canada, the way plastic waste is managed in Canada is an issue of growing concern. A high percentage of plastic packaging in Canada is disposed of as managed waste (i.e., landfilled). This waste represents billions of dollars of lost economic opportunity. An increasingly important goal is to select packaging which minimizes the creation of plastic waste while addressing the above effectiveness considerations.
8. Minimizing Plastic Pollution
Along with plastic waste, packaging must limit the likelihood of plastic pollution, in the form of plastics discarded intentionally or inadvertently into the environment. When plastic waste leaks into the environment, it is pollution that can threaten both ecosystems and human health.
Sustainable Packaging Options
With the considerations above in mind, now consider the following action options to improve the overall sustainability of your food and produce packaging:
The first sustainable packaging option, as informed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s hierarchy of upstream solutions, is to seek the full elimination of the packaging under consideration, by way of simple elimination of use, or innovative means to mitigate the impact of elimination. This sustainable packaging option also includes the partial elimination of the packaging under consideration, consequently reducing the total packaging material used.
The second sustainable packaging option is to consider the adoption of reusable and refillable packaging, thereby eliminating or minimizing the adverse impacts of single-use packaging. This sustainable packaging option may involve the adoption of non-plastic packaging materials.
The third sustainable packaging option seeks to incorporate recycled content into current packaging forms and designs, thereby enabling a circular economy that is not possible when relying exclusively on virgin packaging material. This sustainable packaging option includes the adoption of recycled content for food and non-food contact applications, as well as considering recycled content provided thru traditional mechanical recycling as well as advanced recycling pathways.
The fourth sustainable packaging option considers the benefits of new packaging design or construction to increase the recyclability of packaging, both for current recycling infrastructure, as well as planned infrastructure – essentially designing for recyclability. This sustainable packaging option also includes adopting new packaging designs or construction which provides a measurable improvement in actual recycling within current recycling infrastructure. Elimination of mixed material construction, as well as the adoption of more homogeneous packaging designs are examples.
Lastly, the fifth sustainable packaging option seeks to mitigate adverse environmental impacts by substituting problematic plastics with materials with proven recyclability or other sustainability benefits. This sustainable packaging option includes the consideration of alternative recyclable materials such as glass, aluminum, or papers. It also includes the consideration of biodegradable materials – notably certified compostable materials and packaging designs which can be processed by current and planned industrial composting processes.