The Green Packaging Challenge: Think Wholistically

Published On: March 21, 2024

Consumer demand for “greener” products, as reflected in packaging and their support for environmental regulation, combined with wide-ranging economic benefits for brands looking to make a positive impact, continue to drive “green packaging” farther up to the top of the mind for companies in every segment of the economy.

And no wonder.  Brands see the social and commercial benefits of green packaging, consumers are willing to pay more for it, and at the end of the day, packaging costs and logistics benefit from it.

Which begs the question: What does “green packaging” actually mean? The answers are plural and extend beyond “sustainable materials” or a visible recycling symbol on a box. After all, while we often think of sustainable packaging as anything that cuts down on waste and utilizes more sustainable materials, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC)  suggests five principles designed to help the packaging value chain approach sustainable packaging through a comprehensive systems-wide lens, minimizing the negative environmental and social impacts of the product package system while maximizing the performance and purpose of packaging.

According to the SPC, moving towards sustainable packaging will require designers and engineers to incorporate as many of the five principles as possible, and continuously improve and innovate to accomplish more of the principles:

  1. Use SMART design: Systems approach, Material health, Accessibility, Reduction and elimination, Life-cycle thinking
  2. Advances the use of recycled materials and/or sustainably-sourced renewable feedstocks
  3. Is designed for reusability, recyclability, or composability and labeled with appropriate end-of-life instructions
  4. Engages with reuse and refill models
  5. Invests in the growth of recycling and composting infrastructure, collection, and access

When you think about everything packaging intends to do, protect, explain, entice, etc., it should become immediately apparent that re-creating all that functionality while creating actual green packaging is a real challenge. Equally clear is the path successful brands – in partnership with JohnsByrne – take to meet it: a genuinely holistic consideration of end-to-end packaging sustainability.

  • Creative structural design that reduces total paper use (and provides a host of downstream, real-world cost benefits).
  • FSC certified virgin fiber and PCW (post-consumer waste) content offer advantages in the development of sustainable packaging solutions as virgin fiber is needed to maintain the recycling of PCW content which contributes to a circular economy.
  • For PCW content materials, the best green packaging companies can provide guidance on how levels of PCW can impact aesthetics, price point, performance and availability.
  • Reducing waste by replacing paper inserts/instructions with such information printed inside the packaging itself.
  • Accelerating the move away from vacuum-formed plastic trays (and other plastics) and toward paperboard replacements.
  • Greater use of low-VOC inks, with more environmentally-friendly formulations that still produce bold, vibrant colors.
  • Highlight brands’ environmental stewardship with prominent package markings, logos, and contents such as “FSC/SFI logos”, etc.
  • “Smart packaging” features – intelligent labels, QR codes and such – provide links to product information, reduce paper and promote recycling.

When design innovation, manufacturing/printing innovation and supply chain innovation are considered in concert, each effort towards reducing waste, optimizing material use and reducing energy consumption in one area materially impacts success in the others. Choosing partners/suppliers that have integrated sustainability into their entire operational culture is essential, from sourcing and supply chains to design, manufacturing and fulfillment.

Design innovation for sustainability

Let your mantra be “skip the plastic, do more with less paper.” Replacing plastic trays and windows with creative paperboard designs and using less across the board must become SOP to achieve the intended results. Waste reduction should be a leading element of package engineering and design.

JohnsByrne design teams work hand-in-hand with clients to grasp product vision, brand direction, and expectations in the context of green package design. No better, proven path exists to generate concepts that minimize environmental impact, ensure manufacturability/performance, deliver distribution efficiencies, and delight buyers.

Increased use of recycled paperboard (post-consumer waste or PCW) and more recyclable rigid and flexible plastic substrates to replace various PVCs, plastics and foams helps keep plastics out of landfills (and oceans). Designing for reusability, for example, multi-pack refills can reduce material use across the board. Even replacing paper inserts/instructions with such information printed inside the packaging itself can minimize waste in production and at point-of-sale.

Beyond brand recognition and positive environmental buzz, of course, reside a host of real-world, dollars-and-common-sense advantages in this approach to green packaging. Especially given that the approach includes continuous attention to making packaging smaller and lighter. Result: cost savings end-to-end:

  • Reduced cost per package since less paper – and much less plastic – is utilized.
  • Reduced cost for fulfillment since thoughtful structural design delivers paper packaging that is faster/more straightforward to assemble.
  • Smaller, lighter packages = more packages per skid. In many cases, it is considerably more, adding logistics efficiency to the equation.
  • A smaller carbon footprint because fewer pallets with more packages each equates to shipping more units while burning less fuel. And money.

Manufacturing innovation for sustainability

A terrific green package design will include the specification of the most appropriate sustainable stocks. It will also extend to more environmentally friendly inks, recyclable cold foils, hot-stamping and coatings and, in fact, to the entire manufacturing process itself.

Zero-emission printing technologies are now available, allowing large production runs with near-carbon-neutral impacts. JohnsByrne, for example, recently installed a CO2-neutral Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 8+L eight-color press. Leveraging AI and big data, it is one of the most energy-efficient, highly automated presses available. It is explicitly designed to address sustainability and speed-to-market.

Recognizing the impact of CO2 emissions on climate change, the press offsets the environmental cost of building it: Heidelberg determines total greenhouse gas emissions, then purchases “certificates” representing carbon offset by planting trees that soak up the CO2.

The new press will continue to contribute while in operation, given that the faster it runs, the more energy it saves per 1000 printed pieces. Energy efficiency gains since the 1990s suggest the press will double the Kyoto requirements for efficiency improvement to a remarkable 41.7% energy savings.

As part of the company’s continued commitment to sustainability, JohnsByrne recently installed a Scodix digital enhancement press. The press offers environmentally friendly production with less waste to produce differentiating tactile coating and foil embellishments that are fully recyclable.

Supply chain innovation for sustainability

Ensuring that sustainability is embedded in every aspect of packaging demands the same holistic approach to supply chains. Developing strategic vendor relationships domestically and globally is essential in creating “vendor partners” that deliver on time and budget and contribute to product sustainability through sharing their innovative solutions and options. A focus on open communication and sharing the best eco-friendly practices and ideas makes this level of collaboration good for business and the planet.

Intrinsic in this approach, of course, is a long-term perspective. Nurturing supply chain relationships for sustainability is no place for quick fixes.

That is especially true with local sourcing; supplier diversification and genuine innovation go hand-in-hand when striving for sustainability, especially when local sources can offset offshore cost advantages with much lower carbon emissions from transporting materials. Domestic end-to-end solutions should be sought out and leveraged.

In any event, choosing partners and suppliers for which sustainability is integrated into their business – from sourcing and supply chains to design, manufacturing and fulfillment – is one key to continuous improvement in sustainability efforts.

Sustainability and JohnsByrne

Headquartered in the Midwest, JohnsByrne is wholly focused on providing innovative solutions and options with single-source accountability in the U.S.A.

This tradition of innovation and domestic, vertically integrated business model is the foundation for a successful transformation to green packaging: it leads inevitably to effective “institutional memory:” the solution to a sustainability challenge for one client can be retained, ready to cross-pollinate as a possible solution for subsequent projects. At the same time, current market trend awareness means we not only grasp all the positive implications of eco-friendly packaging but also see the impacts of the very latest developments.

It also means our structural engineering and creative teams can contribute genuine improvements to clients’ artwork/design ideas, including approaches and options they haven’t considered. (At one point, four design approaches to a green packaging project became 10 for discussion.)

JohnsByrne’s teamwork and talent, commitment and passion, and ability to push the envelope further and revolutionize package design with sustainability foremost in mind is the differentiator. Best people, best tools and best practices together in a single-source packaging solution. We think that’s worth sustaining into the future, too. Learn more about our commitment to sustainability and sustainable packaging solutions.


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