According to Robert Lilienfeld, known as one of our country’s leading “garbologists” (aka, waste expert), something unexpected has happened when it came to waste in the U.S. Back in 2010, the EPA stated that packaging waste would account for nearly 40 percent of all the waste produced in this country. “That didn’t happen. Instead, about 24 million tons of annual packaging waste just didn’t show up.”
So, what happened? Lilienfeld suggests two things have occurred in the past decade that put the brakes on packaging waste:
• The reduce, reuse, and recycle programs instituted in schools, businesses, and homes throughout the country
• The growth of sustainable packaging.
“Engineers have learned how to use as little packaging material as possible,” he says. “Less material [means] less environmental impact, regardless if the material comes from trees, metals, glass, or energy sources, such as plastic. Thus, choosing the right packaging has far reaching environmental consequences.”
What Lilienfeld is referring to comes under the umbrella of what we call “sustainable packaging.” Sustainable packaging is currently in the process of making a very big impact in both the packaging and distribution industries, where packaging materials of all types are used — and are needed — on a daily basis. But virtually all other industries, including controlled environments such as cleanrooms, will be impacted as well.
Controlled environments use an array of packaging materials, probably far more than they realize. As packaging materials become more available that have a reduced impact on the environment, natural resources, and reduce waste, it helps these cleanroom facilities also reduce their environmental footprint, enhance sustainability and promote their own sustainability goals, and possibly save some money as well.
What is sustainable packaging?
To understand what sustainable packaging is all about, we must turn to an organization called GreenBlue. This non-profit has taken a leadership role in promoting, among other things, the use of sustainable packaging materials internationally. Accordingly, they define sustainable packaging materials as meeting some of the following criteria:
• Meets market standards for performance and costs (obviously, if the packaging material does not hold up or is cost-prohibitive, it will not be accepted by the marketplace);
• Is safe for people and the environment throughout its life cycle;
• Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled, using renewable energy sources;
• Is optimized to be reused or recycled;
• Is made using, what are termed “clean production technologies” and best practices.
Benefits of sustainable packaging
The environmental benefits of sustainable packaging, from the materials used to make the packaging, to the renewable energy used to transport and recycle these products, is quite apparent. However, are there dollars-and-cents benefits for the owners and managers of controlled room environments? Yes, especially when a little ingenuity and experimentation are thrown into the mix.
A few years back, Dell Computer — which has been in the forefront of the sustainable packaging evolution for years — started using packaging materials made from bamboo and, surprisingly effective, mushrooms. They of course, have also been reusing and recycling packaging materials and taken other steps to promote what they call a healthier supply chain.
However, it has paid off at both the corporate and environmental levels. The company estimates it has saved more than $20 million annually by using sustainable packaging materials, and reduced its use of packaging materials overall by more than 20 million pounds.
While the administrators of controlled environments may not be able to save $20 million by using sustainable packaging materials, they can develop sustainable packaging initiatives that still can produce cost savings. Among them are the following:
Form a “smart risk” team. Create a sustainable packaging team and encourage the team to look for and take “smart” risks when it comes to packaging. All too often, packaging becomes rote behavior. Products are packaged or unwrapped using the same mechanical procedures over and over again. There is often little thought as to how the process can be performed so it has a reduced impact on the environment and promotes sustainability.
Cradle to cradle. When it comes to the environment or promoting sustainability, terms like “doing good” or “doing less bad” are nice, but they just do not provide enough punch to be effective. Plus, they do not express what sustainable packaging is all about. The term “cradle to cradle” is far more effective. Cradle to cradle refers to the regenerative cycle of nature. Packing materials are used, they create waste, that waste is then reused for new packaging materials or entirely new products. The goal here is to eliminate packaging waste altogether, and with it, reduce the use of natural resources, energy, and with the savings, cut costs.
Don’t do it alone. Controlled environments are invariably involved in research, whether it is some form of electronic technology, medicine, biotechnology, etc. Unless they are in the packaging industry, finding ways to incorporate sustainable packaging initiatives into their operations — and take advantages of its benefits — is likely not their primary focus.
Because of this, administrators are urged to work with distributors and suppliers that can help them transfer to sustainable packaging. Additionally, they can access online “dashboards” systems — at least one of which is free — which provides up-to-the-minute information on these products. These steps help eliminate any trial-and-error purchasing. And because sustainable packaging may be new to many controlled environment administrators, access to such systems take a lot of the confusion and guesswork out of sustainable packaging selection.
Michael Wilson is vice president of Marketing for AFFLINK, a supply chain optimization company providing clients with innovative process such as the ELEVATE process as well AFFPACK, packaging solutions to drive efficiencies in today’s leading businesses. www.afflink.com