The CCME’s Extended Producer Responsibility Task Group (EPRTG) is developing a national sustainable packaging strategy for Canada. As a first step it has retained Five Winds International to undertake an inventory of sustainable packaging initiatives with a view to proposing, “…a definition for sustainable packaging and to develop (and/or adopt) guidelines that promote the design and use of more sustainable packaging.”
CCME’s inventory of 11 sustainability approaches is timely, coming at a point when a number of commercial interests and governments are making efforts to define and implement packaging initiatives designed to increase product and packaging “sustainability.”
CCME recognizes that a plethora of definitions, standards, criteria and “score-carding” tools — what it calls “individual approaches” — might, “…confuse consumers and other stakeholders…”, and that, “…it is important for industry, governments and other interested stakeholders to work together toward sustainable solutions.”
Notable amongst these individual approaches are those of Wal-Mart — the world’s largest retailer. With its significant market power, Wal-Mart has the ability to significantly influence brand-owner/supplier product and packaging decisions that, depending on the alternative product delivery system that its suppliers are encouraged to adopt, might have very different environmental and economic outcomes.
In this regard the CCME’s agenda to create a harmonized national sustainability framework with a rational and intelligible common set of principles, criteria and guidelines is a good one. Should CCME be successful, the process by which product and packaging sustainability is assessed should be easier, involve less duplication and be more intelligible to the entire product lifecycle from product producers through retailers to consumers and finally to end-of-life resource recovery businesses. Moreover, based on the course the CCME is taking, the result should be a framework that facilitates product and packaging system decisions that are the product of holistic, systemic (i.e., cradle-to-cradle) and systematic (step-by-step) approaches to assessing environmental burdens and economic considerations.
The CCME consultants firmly establish the need for a lifecycle or systems approach to assessing sustainability — a critical recommendation given the unintended “pushing” of environmental and economic burdens elsewhere in the product or packaging lifecycle associated with approaches designed to meet limited commercial objectives (e.g., reducing transportation costs through packaging “reduction” or light-weighting”).
As an example, Wal-Mart’s Packaging Scorecard requires the consideration of environmental burdens from raw material extraction necessary for packaging production all the way through package filling by the product brand owner or “filler”. However, the scorecarding effort excludes environmental burdens associated with Wal-Mart’s own global product supply chain and retail distribution system (from brand-owner or “filler” to Wal-Mart’s distribution centers and from those centers to its stores). As a simple example of an unintended effect consider a producer 10,000 kilometers away producing a given product using a marginally lighter package than a local producer of a like good. In this case the distant producer could actually score better on the Wal-Mart scorecard notwithstanding the much lower overall energy consumption associated with reduced transportation of the locally produced product.
A key element of the CCME effort is defining packaging sustainability. In this regard the study consultants suggest that the CCME adopt the definition of sustainability as put forth by Australia’s Sustainable Packaging Alliance (SPA):
1. Effective: social and economic benefit. The packaging system adds real value to society by effectively containing and protecting products as they move through the supply chain and by supporting informed and responsible consumption.
2. Efficient: doing more with less. The packaging system is designed to use materials and energy efficiently throughout the product lifecycle. Efficiency can be defined through reference to world’s best practice at each stage of the packaging lifecycle.
3. Cyclic: optimizing recovery. Packaging materials used in the system are cycled continuously through natural or industrial systems, with minimal material degradation. Recovery rates should be optimized to ensure that they achieve energy and greenhouse gas savings.
4. Safe: non-polluting and nontoxic. Packaging components used in the system, including materials, finishes, inks, pigments and other additives do not pose any risks to humans or ecosystems.
While functional in the context of our conventional understanding of environmental issues associated with product and packaging, the SPA definition is somewhat insipid (consensus-based definitions based on broad consultation usually are) and fails to convey the fundamental transformation of our current economic systems necessary to create a “closed-loop” economy. Perhaps a more compelling vision of cradle-to-cradle sustainability is offered by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry:
“… .an innovative approach to sustainability that models human industry on the integrated processes of nature’s biological metabolism — its productive ecosystems — by developing an equally effective technical metabolism, in which the materials of human industry safely and productively flow. Products can be developed for closed-loop systems in which every ingredient is safe and beneficial — either to biodegrade naturally and restore the soil, or to be fully recycled into high-quality materials for subsequent product generations, again and again.”
But such a vision is an anathema to the current one-way system for the production, consumption and waste management of products and packaging. To date, most of our solutions to mitigate the effects of this one-way system amount to little more than band-aids on fundamentally unsustainable consumptive practices.
While a common understanding and definition of sustainability may be a critical first step in “fixing” our current approach to products and packaging, the future holds the real challenge of re-inventing our economic systems (and the public policies that might help shape them) in such a way that the new definition of sustainability is prosperity.