The trend of sustainable packaging is now growing. Recyclable and bio-based packaging has been playing an integral role in industry’s sustainability drive over the past couple of years and these materials will be more and more commonly available as we further head into the new millennium, write Annada Das and Kaushik Satyaprakash

The trend of sustainable packaging is now growing in markets like China and India and it has already been a trend in developed countries. The cause is attributed to a growing middle class in India who is aware of the health and environmental issues of flexible packaging. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is considering imposing a ban to restrict the use of plastics for packaging of all non-essential items. The ban is being considered as a response to address certain health concerns and environmental concerns raised by different public interest litigations. Recyclable and bio-based packaging have been playing an integral role in the industry’s sustainability drive over the past couple of years and these materials will be more and more commonly available as we further head into the new millennium.

History of Sustainable Packaging

The basis for sustainable packaging started during the environmental movement in the 1970s. Americans celebrated their first Earth Day in 1970 and became aware of some of our ecological problems such as pollution and littering through various media outlets. Efforts to develop plant-based bioplastics for packaging accelerated in 2009.

What is Sustainable Packaging?

While sustainable packaging isn’t a difficult concept to understand, it is complex. Is it replacing a rigid container with a pouch? Is it removing a carton and letting a pouch/ tube stand on its own on a shelf? Is it creating one bulk pack instead of multiple single-serve items? Is it using PET instead of PVC because PET can be easily recycled? Is it changing from a round to a square container to be more cube efficient? Is it faster set-up times on the packaging line to minimize the amount of product and packaging waste? Yes, it’s all of this – and more.

Sustainable packaging is the development and use of packaging which results in improved sustainability. This involves increased use of life cycle inventory (LCI) and life cycle assessment (LCA) to help guide the use of packaging which reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint. It includes a look at the whole of the supply chain: from basic function to marketing, and then through to end of life and rebirth. Additionally, an eco-cost to value ratio can be useful. The goals are to improve the long term viability and quality of life for humans and the longevity of natural ecosystems. Sustainable packaging must meet the functional and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability is not necessarily an end state but is a continuing process of improvement.

Production Chain
Production Chain

Definition of Sustainable Packaging developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in 2005:

  1. Sustainable packaging is beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
  2. Meets market criteria for performance and cost
  3. Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy
  4. Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
  5. Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
  6. Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle
  7. Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy
  8. Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed-loop cycles

Sustainable packaging is a relatively new addition to the environmental considerations for packaging. It requires more analysis and documentation to look at the package design, choice of materials, processing, and life-cycle. This is not just the vague “green movement” that many businesses and companies have been trying to include over the past years. Companies implementing these eco-friendly actions are reducing their carbon footprint, using more recycled materials, and reusing more package components. They often encourage suppliers, contract packagers, and distributors to do likewise. For example, researchers at the Agricultural Research Service are looking into using dairy-based films as an alternative to petroleum-based packaging. Instead of being made of synthetic polymers, these dairy-based films would be composed of proteins such as casein and whey, which are found in milk. The films would be biodegradable and offer better oxygen barriers than synthetic, chemical-based films. More research must be done to improve the water barrier quality of the dairy-based film, but advances in sustainable packaging are actively being pursued.

Environmental marketing claims on packages need to be made (and read) with caution. Ambiguous greenwashing titles such as green packaging and environmentally friendly can be confusing without a specific definition. Some regulators, such as the US Federal Trade Commission, are providing guidance to packagers. Companies have long been reusing and recycling packaging when economically viable. Using minimal packaging has also been a common goal to help reduce costs. Recent years have accelerated these efforts based on social movements, consumer pressure, and regulation. All phases of packaging, distribution, and logistics are included.

Sustainable packaging is no longer focused on just recycling. Just as packaging is not the only eco target, although it is still top of mind for many. Right or wrong, the packaging is frequently scrutinized and used as the measure of a company’s overall sustainability, even though it may contribute only a small percentage to the total eco-impact compared to other things, such as transportation, and water and energy use.

Goals of Sustainable Packaging

The criteria for ranking and comparing packaging materials based on their sustainability is an active area of development. General guidance, metrics, checklists, and scorecards are being published by several groups. In general, the broad goals of sustainable packaging are:

  1. Functional – product protection, safety, regulatory compliance, etc.
  2. Cost-effective – if it is too expensive, it is unlikely to be used
  3. Support long-term human and ecological health

Factors for Designing a Sustainable Package
Specific factors for sustainable design of packaging may include:

  1. Use of minimal materials – reduced packaging, reduced layers of packaging, lower mass (product to packaging ratio), lower volume, etc.
  2. Logistics efficiency (through complete life cycle) – cube utilization, tare weight, enablement of efficient transportation, etc.
  3. Energy efficiency, total energy content, and usage, use of renewable energy, etc.
  4. Recycled content – as available and functional. For food contact materials, there are special safety considerations, particularly for the use of recycled plastics and paper. Regulations are published by each country or region.
  5. Recyclability – recovery value, use of materials which are frequently and easily recycled, reduction of materials which hinder
    recyclability of major components, etc.
  6. Reusable packaging – repeated reuse of package, reuse for other purposes, etc.
  7. Use of biodegradable and compostable materials – when appropriate and do not cause contamination of the recycling stream
  8. Avoid the use of materials toxic to humans or the environment
  9. Least effects on atmosphere/climate – ozone layer, greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane), volatile organic compounds, etc.
  10. Worker impact: occupational health, safety, clean technology, etc.
  11.  Physically designed to optimize materials and energy

The chosen criteria are often used best as a basis of comparison for two or more similar packaging designs; not as an absolute success or failure. Such a multi-variable comparison is often presented as a radar chart (spider chart, star chart, etc.).


Types of Sustainable Packaging Materials

Recyclable packaging Materials: With the increasing cost of raw materials, packaging made from recycled materials provides cheaper alternatives. The recycling of packaging materials used for food contact applications has to take several factors into account. Even though the technology is now fully functional, certain materials require additional sanitary inspections. Over time, intensive recycling risks saturating the existing application market with certain types of material. So, finding new food contact applications is particularly important to develop a material network ‘from cradle to cradle’ for selectively collected packaging.

More than 50% of glass containers are recycled. Glass, out of all the various packaging materials, has the longest recycling tradition for food contact. Hollow glass shapes have been almost entirely recycled into new packaging for decades. More than half of metallic packaging in Europe is recycled. Choosing the right paper/cardboard packaging for food is important. The recycling of old papers has always been an integral part of the paper industry. The fibres get shorter after every recycling cycle. The presence of virgin fibres in addition to recycled fibres, therefore, remains essential. It is also possible to use a layer of recycled cardboard between two layers of virgin cardboard. The recycling of PET, PP, PS, HDPE in food contact packaging remains limited.

The main concerns in the use of recycled materials are the chances of transfer of contaminants from the post-consumer materials to the food. The intention of many companies to use more and more recycled packaging for food contact is partly driven by economic considerations. Given the rising cost of raw materials, using recycled materials can generate savings. Unfortunately, the legal framework surrounding recycled materials still differs from country to country, although the European Union is working towards harmonization. Consequently, the EU has published a regulation on the use of recycled plastic in food contact applications.

Bio-based packaging Materials: Some authors classified the polymers according to the method of production or their source as:

  • Polymers directly extracted or removed from vegetal or animal biomass such as polysaccharides and proteins;
  • Polymers produced by classical chemical synthesis starting from renewable bio-based monomers such as polylactic acid (PLA);
  • Polymers produced by microorganisms such as polyhydroxyalkanoates, cellulose, xanthan, pullulan (Ruban, 2009) (Nampoothiriet al., 2010) (Mensitieriet al., 2011).

Biopolymer-based packaging materials originated from naturally renewable resources such as polysaccharides, proteins, and lipids or combinations of those components have the potential to replace current synthetic plastics. At this moment, bioplastics cover approximately 5-10% of the current plastic market. Bio-based food packaging can be categorized as edible coatings, flexible films, and solid or semi-solid containers.

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Benefits of Sustainable Packaging

  • The packaging weight and volume has been considered and effectively reduced
  • The waste-to-landfill has been reduced through designed-in recyclability, reusability or degradability of the substrate
  • The packaging has a lower environmental footprint in terms of resources used in production as well as emissions to air and water
  • The packaging effectively reduces waste through extending shelf life and prevents damage or contamination
  • Offers a competitive business advantage
  • The packaging is able to communicate effectively and engage consumers as to brand attributes and sustainable credentials
  • Provides good environmental performance and business value

Cost Considerations for Sustainable Packaging

The process of engineering more environmentally acceptable packages can include consideration of the costs. Some companies claim that their sustainable packaging program is cost-effective. Some alternative materials that are recycled/recyclable and/or less damaging to the environment can lead to companies incurring increased costs, though this is common when any product begins to carry the true cost of its production (producer pays, producer responsibility laws, take-back laws). There may be an expensive and lengthy process before the new forms of packaging are deemed safe to the public, and approval may take up to two years. It is important to note here, that for most of the developed world, tightening legislation, and changes in major retailer demand (Walmart’s Sustainable Packaging Scorecard for example) the question is no longer “if” products and packaging should become more sustainable, but how-to and how-soon to do it.


Efforts toward “green” packaging are supported in the sustainability community, however, these are often viewed only as incremental steps and not as an end. Some picture a true sustainable steady-state economy that may be very different from today’s: greatly reduced energy usage, minimal ecological footprint, fewer consumer packaged goods, local purchasing with short food supply chains, little processed foods, etc. Less packaging would be needed in this economy; fewer packaging options would exist; simpler packaging forms may be necessary.

Future Prospects for Sustainable Packaging

It is forecasted that by 2018, Asia will become the largest market for sustainable packaging in the world accounting for 32% of the overall market share. In the same year consumer demand, technological advancement will push sustainable packaging to a $244 billion mark. The global production of bioplastics is tipped to increase from 1.2 million tonnes in 2011 to 5.8 million tonnes by 2016.

The focus on sustainable packaging is not going away and is likely to increase rather than diminish – it is being driven by the government and further regulation, and by the demands of retail customers who have competing and diverse packaging requirements. Legislation has helped kick-start the market for recycling and the use of recycled content in packaging. 30 countries have regulatory instruments aimed at reducing packaging waste. Of these countries, 13 have implemented some form of packaging tax. In the UK the recently published packaging strategy paper focuses on improving and optimising packaging design and maximising recycling. When passed into law, China’s packaging masterplan will require a range of legislation to be drafted which will restrict, recover, recycle, and reuse all packaging materials. When passed into law all packaging will have to be recoverable, reusable, recyclable or compostable, with some processes and materials being banned and others being severely restricted.

Retailers are seeking cost-reducing or cost-neutral sustainable packaging solutions. Coca-Cola Enterprises and McDonald’s committed to reducing the overall carbon footprint of business operations by 15% (compared to 2007 baseline) and recover the equivalent of 100% of packaging by 2020.


Sustainable packaging is the new buzzword within the packaging industry. Sustainable ideas and environmentally friendly packaging is at the helm of innovation for packaging companies all over the world. The ecological impact and effect on the environment by various packaging solutions is a significant force at present. The mantra is the 3 Rs which can help save our environment is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The latest technologies help the manufacturers to engineer and produce packaging that is simple to use, is eco-friendly, and also creates an appeal amongst the consumers. Sustainable packaging is the solution as it makes less use of resources and materials. There is less wastage and less use of energy and water at the manufacturing level. Four areas of sustainability are identified and they are – energy conservation, reduction in carbon-based resources, waste minimization, and recycling.


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2 Department of Science & Technology, Government of India. Plastic Waste Management in India.

3 FICCI. (Jun 2014). Potential of Plastics Industry in Northern India with Special Focus on Plasticulture and Food Processing – 2014: A Report on Plastics Industry.

4 Helea N, H., Kantola, M., and Kotilainen, E.,2000, A Finnish study of biobased packaging materials for food applications. Proceedings of the Food Biopack Conference, Copenhagen, 27- 29 August, pp. 45-51.


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