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The Latin derived word ‘Sustain’ means “maintain", "support", or "endure”, which itself is self explanatory. Sustainability as per definition is an ability or capacity of something to be maintained or to sustain itself. It’s about taking what we need to live now, without jeopardizing the potential for people in the future to meet their needs.

The situation even worsens more in Packaging industry. Whilst there is agreement about the growing importance of sustainability as an issue there remains a great deal of frustration in the industry at the “disproportionate” focus placed on packaging and confusion about what “sustainable packaging” actually means. Faced with pressing issues of over capacity, low prices and high raw material costs, should ‘sustainable packaging’ be a top concern for packaging senior executives? Will the issue have any real, lasting impact on how the industry does business, and how will package shape up? Let us discuss this in detail.



The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) defines Sustainable Packaging as packaging which (8 criteria):

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

(Source: Sustainable Packaging Guidelines by SPC)

Sustainable packaging is becoming a fact of life and will in time be seen as just another requirement for doing business alongside pricing, product performance and service. The industry is beginning to recognize this but still needs to do more to help shape the debate and the future state of the industry.



Packaging waste is highly visible to consumers – it’s what’s left over when a product has been used – and provokes strong reactions.

In a typical developed country like the UK, it makes up around 20% of domestic waste and around 6% of total waste by weight. One of the key sustainability issues with packaging is the conservation of resources, including energy, which is wasted if packaging goes to landfill. Recycling or recovery of the energy through incinerating the waste packaging is one way to resolve this.


(Source: Unilever Report)

Sustainable packaging could be considered to be the packaging design with the lowest environmental impact that provides the required functionality. It is important that analysis of the sustainability of packaging takes into account social, environmental and economic considerations across the whole lifecycle of the product that it contains to avoid misleading conclusions.




Various efforts are being made by major brands all over the World to attain Packaging sustainability. Most of the cases entail the following points:

  1. Reducing packaging weight and volume.
  2. Reducing landfill waste through designed-in recyclability, reusability or degradability of the substrate.
  3. Creating lower Packaging environmental footprint in terms of resources used in production.
  4. Reducing waste through extending shelf life & prevents damage or contamination
  5. By engaging consumers as to brand attributes and sustainable credentials.

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. Some of the latest efforts are mentioned below.


  • Government Regulations: India notified the Recycled Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules, 1999 (as amended in 2003) prohibiting the use of recycled plastic bags for storing, carrying, dispensing or packaging foodstuff. These rules also provide that minimum thickness of bags should be 20 microns and the size should not be less than 8” x 12”. Thin plastic bags have little value and their segregation is difficult and it is assumed that rag pickers would be keen to segregate thick for recycling purposes. Various States have notified more stringent standards and requirement for greater thicknesses of plastic carry bags than as notified in the PWM Rules. For e.g. Goa has notified 40 microns, Himachal Pradesh 70 microns, Maharashtra 50 microns, Meghalaya 40 micron, Punjab 30 micron, Chandigarh 30 micron, West Bengal 40 micron, and Kerala 30 micron as the minimum thickness of plastic carry bags required in their states.

Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) estimated that in India we need to manage 0.573 MMT of municipal solid waste per day of which about 60% is organic waste amounting to 0.292 MMT/d. There are only 110 facilities in the country for treating hardly 50% of the organic waste generated. Therefore, there is a need to enhance the capacity of these plants.(Source: 2010 report by Ministry of Environment and Forests, New Delhi).


Within the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) at least 30 countries have regulatory instruments aimed at reducing packaging waste. Of these countries, 13 have implemented some form of packaging tax.

Korea’s strategies include Regulations on Packaging Material which bans the use of some substances like PVCs and polystyrene in packaging and encourages the use of environment friendly packaging material and Deposit Refund System for Glass Bottles and Packaging Container Reuse System to promote collection and reuse of used containers and packaging material etc,.

In Japan, waste is seen not simply as things to be disposed off, but rather as a valuable resource. Japan has reinforced its policy measures toward tackling waste issues and strengthened its “3R” (recycle, reduce, and reuse) framework.

USA has introduced strategies like Jobs Through Recycling programme which awards grants for fostering recycling initiatives, Pay as You Throw which requires customers who place more solid waste at curb for disposal pay more for the collection and disposal service, Resource Conservation Challenge which seeks to increase the rate of municipal solid waste recycling and helping the country meet a national goal of 35 percent. 

  • Retailers: Somewhere along the way, sustainability lost its earthy- crunchy stigma and become the cost-saving buzzword of the customer products world, in part, thanks to mega- retailer Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart began the drive toward sustainability to save money and says “It actually saves money if you reduce excess packaging, energy consumption and materials waste.”

Wal-Mart reduced amount of packaging in the supply chain by 5% by 2013. M&S aims Reducing weight of non-glass packaging by 25% by 2012 and No packaging to be required to go to land fill by 2012.

Cadbury’s Purple Goes Green program aims to Reduce ‘absolute’ carbon emissions by 50% by 2020.

Coca-Cola Enterprises Commitment 2020 aims Reducing overall carbon footprint of business operations by 15% (compared to 2007 baseline) and recover the equivalent of 100% of Packaging by 2020.

McDonald’s is aiming for 100% sustainable packaging by 2010.

(Source: Pricewaterhousecooper report on Sustainable packaging: threat or opportunity?)


Environmental sustainability and business don’t always go hand in hand, especially when it comes to product packaging. The main problem is, when it comes to packaging, most companies focus on two priorities: ‘how will this drive consumer to my product and how much does this cost’. For some, environmental sustainability is a third, less important concern but realistically, most look at the first two. There is a barrier where consumers want sustainable packaging but are not prepared to pay for it.

Again, 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. Sustainable packaging ironically is only dominated by a narrow focus on reducing packaging weight and arguments around whether one material is more or less sustainable than another. However, the concept of sustainable packaging is more complex; what may be the most sustainable solution for one product, or particular market, might not be the same elsewhere.

Below are some technical evidences where we failed to understand sustainability concept:

The typical snack chip bag is made from up to seven layers of foil and plastic. Companies like this because these bags are light, reduce shipping volume, don’t take up much space on a shelf, and are graphics friendly. But on the contrary there is currently no machinery to separate these layers, so they aren’t recyclable therefore it’s not a sustainable packaging. Size and material are two of the biggest factors for recyclability: in general, the smaller a package and the greater its mix of materials, the less recyclable it is. While consumers and businesses may think that sleek, recyclable containers are sustainable; experts note that single-serving foods, including yogurt and coffee cups, are especially problematic. Their small size and – in the case of yogurt cups, difficult-to-recycle plastic – tend to make them a tough sell for recyclers.

While plastic bottles, which are popular with both beverage manufacturers and consumers, have come a long way when it comes to recycling, there is still room for improvement when it comes to the percentage of bottles that are recycled. Sellers on the eCommerce network, like eBay deliver products through the mail often over-package, putting a pre-boxed item in a second box, and sometimes even a third one. This practice which is also known as “Russian doll” approach is exceedingly wasteful. Pizza boxes – and many other takeout containers – are made of recyclable materials, but when cheese or other food scraps stick to the cardboard, they are no longer recyclable. In India, the major problem in recycling is Mixed Waste; all waste whether it is bio-degradable, recyclable, construction, hazardous or soiled are mixed together. No system of segregation at the sources level exists here.


The industry needs to become more involved in developing packaging systems that minimize impacts across the value chain. Ensuring that the choices of materials and design are compatible with the systems for recovering and recycling post-consumer waste will be essential.

Life Cycle Analysis, when used effectively, is a useful tool to understand the environmental footprint of the value chain and will also help the industry to illustrate more effectively the strides that it has already made in improving the environmental footprint of packaging. Life Cycle Analysis has long been used to understand the overall environmental footprint of products and the trade-offs between reducing the impact of a product in one area but increasing it in another. While some niche beauty brands always followed this eco-friendly route, here’s why large corporate boards are now pushing for sustainable measures an how packaging supplier innovating with new methods and materials, even in slow economy. It is applied with its 7-R’s i.e. remove, reduce, reuse, recycle, renew, revenue & Read.



  • Pantene Nature Fusion

The Pantene brand has developed Nature Fusion bio-resin bottle—constructed of up to 45% plant-based materials, excluding the cap. Having first launched the bio-resin bottle in Western Europe and the United States in 2011, and then launched it in Russia, Turkey, and Poland, Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan in 2012.



  • Gillette Fusion ProGlide

By partnering with a molded fiber supplier, Gillette developed a breakthrough package for Gillette Fusion ProGlide. This resulted in a 57% reduction in plastic, 20% reduction in gross weight and a 100% removal of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). The design uses material made from bamboo, sugarcane, and bulrush.

  • Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC)

PlantBottle packaging is the latest breakthrough from The Coca-Cola Company designed to change the way the world thinks of plastic bottles. It is the first ever fully recyclable PET plastic beverage bottle made partially from plants. The material looks and functions just like traditional PET plastic, but have a lighter footprint on the planet and its scarce resources. The five-member Collaborative consisting of The Coca-Cola Company, Ford Motor Company, H.J. Heinz Company, NIKE, Inc., and P&G was created with the intent of increasing sustainable production of plant-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Established in April 2012, the Collaborative is a strategic working group focused on the research and development of plastic polymers made entirely from plant-sourced materials.


The packaging industry is fragmented over sustainable packaging and, to date, has made a poor case for the essential nature of its products. Unless the industry becomes more proactive in the debate about the definition and role of sustainable packaging, it runs the risk of packaging continuing to receive disproportionate attention for its environmental impact. However, whether by regulation or by manufacturer, retailer or consumer pressure, the demand for sustainable packaging solutions is becoming a fact of life. Companies that fail to actively address the issue as part of their commercial strategy may forego opportunities and eventually lose business to their forward-thinking competitors. The growth in demand for sustainable packaging is no more a threat to the packaging industry than volatile raw material costs, industry overcapacity and the hypersensitivity of customers to price. Packagers will need to learn how to deal with demands for sustainable packaging in the same way as they have had to deal with all the other commercial difficulties that have hit this most competitive of industries. However, the wide uncertainty about what sustainable packaging actually is, and how and when different customer groups will adopt it, presents those commercially astute companies with a golden opportunity to steal a march on their competitors and use sustainability as a differentiator and source of added value in their market place.