Green Packaging: Waste Not, Want Not

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By moving beyond conventional packaging methods and materials, companies can reduce their carbon footprints as well as their transportation spend and warehousing costs.

Whether they call it eco-friendly, sustainable, biodegradable, or natural, companies are looking for ways to "go green" with their packaging.

While helping the environment is one benefit of eco-friendly packaging, packing products using fewer and more sustainable materials reaps additional rewards:

Saving money. Reducing excess packaging results in lighter and smaller shipments that cost less to transport. And greater quantities can fit on pallets, in shipping containers, in warehouses, and on retail shelves.

Maintaining business. Switching to green materials can help meet or anticipate customer demands for eco-friendly suppliers.

Attracting consumers. Many shoppers will choose an environmentally friendly product over a conventional package.

"While eco-friendly packaging is a recent phenomenon, it is already a large and rapidly growing trend," observes Susan Selke, Ph.D., acting and associate director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, East Lansing.

"Source reduction in packaging has been going on for decades as a way to reduce costs. Until recently, however, few companies were doing it to increase sustainability."

Appliance manufacturers, for example, are reducing or even eliminating the amount of corrugated cardboard they use in packaging, replacing it with foam blocks at corners and shrink wrap around the product. The foam is lighter than the corrugate and reduces shipping costs and damage that can occur during loading/unloading and transportation.

"Reducing damage by using foam is a huge cost saver for all supply chain partners," explains Esther Palevsky, an industry analyst for Cleveland, Ohio-based market research company Freedonia Group.

On the negative side, foam is not as recyclable as corrugated cardboard, she notes.

Cutting transportation costs is of particular interest to companies considering eco-friendly packaging, according to Anne Johnson, director of the Charlottesville, Va.-based Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), an industry group focused on creating a robust environmental vision for packaging.

"Transportation is tied so closely to energy that, when you manage logistics well, you also manage costs well," Johnson says. For SPC member companies, designing packaging to optimize transportation is a major goal. It involves using packaging materials and physical design to minimize fill and waste, and increase cube efficiency.

Packaging specialists are also investigating new ways to recover materials. Shopping centers and strip malls that group grocery stores and other retailers of different sizes in close proximity, for example, offer a great opportunity.

"Individual stores may not have a lot of discarded material," she states. "Collectively, however, they end up with high volumes and frequent deliveries." In these situations, the economics of recovering materials for recycling are very efficient.

Packaging should be designed to optimize materials and energy consumption, while maximizing the use of renewable or recycled materials, according to a 2007 survey by the SPC and Packaging Digest magazine. Seventy-three percent of respondents report that their companies have increased their emphasis on packaging sustainability over the past year.

Here's a look at how four companies are leading the way in green initiatives.

Unilever: Washing Away Waste

Consumer goods manufacturer and SPC member Unilever looks at packaging in the context of the total product lifecycle.

"We want to reduce packaging and make it more sustainable, but always consider the impact on the product," explains Humberto Garcia, packaging manager for environmental sustainability for North America.

To date, the Greenwich, Conn.-based company is making excellent progress in packaging reduction and removal. In 2007, for example, Unilever was named Wal-Mart's Supplier of the Year for Sustainable Engagement. One element of the award was related to eco-friendly packaging.

The Unilever product that has received the most publicity to date is "all small & mighty," a laundry detergent introduced in 2006 that is three times more concentrated than regular detergents.

"Laundry liquids are perfect candidates for concentration," says Garcia. "We reformulated the liquid so consumers can wash the same volume of clothing with one-third the product—reducing the package from 100 ounces to 32 ounces. This allowed us to cut the amount of plastic by 55 percent.

"We were also able to reduce the amount of corrugate by 45 percent, which allows more product to fit on pallets and store shelves." This means that retailers don't have to restock shelves as often.

"all small & mighty" is just the tip of the iceberg for Unilever, however. With products on sale in more than 150 countries, the company realized that it needed a coherent and sophisticated packaging strategy. Its approach to responsible packaging takes into account environmental, social, and economic considerations.

In 2007, the company formed a Responsible Packaging Steering Team to create a new strategy. The team focuses on five packaging principles:

1. Remove: Eliminate, where possible, unnecessary packaging layers, such as outer cartons and shrink-wrap film. "By changing the shipping case of Wishbone salad dressing, for example, we were able to save 2,100 metric tons of corrugate each year," says Garcia.

2. Reduce: Shrink packages to the optimal size and weight for their contents. Unilever's redesigned Suave shampoo and conditioner bottle is 16 percent lighter with a 12-percent lighter cap, reducing the amount of resin each year by 670 tons in the United States alone.

3. Reuse: Reuse packaging from the materials Unilever receives at its factories. "Some cap suppliers ship product in reusable totes," says Garcia. "When we are done, we return the totes to the suppliers to reuse."

4. Renew: Maximize the proportion of packaging from renewable resources, and investigate the technical feasibility of biodegradable and compostable material.

5. Recycle: Increase the use of recycled, recyclable, and single-material components in packaging for easy sorting and recycling at the end of its use. "We transitioned Hellman's Real Mayonnaise from glass to a recyclable plastic jar," says Garcia.

Unilever cites numerous other examples of eco-friendly packaging:

It redesigned bottles of Vaseline hand lotion, reducing pack weights between four percent and 15 percent since 2003, depending on pack size. This is equivalent to 45 tons of plastic.

It reduced the width of Lipton soup cartons, cutting material use by almost 16 percent, leading to 6,437 fewer pallets and 132 fewer trucks per year.

It introduced Ragu and Bertolli pasta sauces in flexible pouches, which is a first for the category. The pouch weighs 13.5 ounces—less than just the metal lid on the 26-ounce glass jar.

Estee Lauder: Pretty in Green

Estee Lauder is one cosmetics company with a long-term commitment to eco-friendly packaging. In 1991, the New York-based company released its Origins cosmetics line, which features environmentally friendly ingredients and packaging, plus a built-in recycling program.

Estee Lauder's Corporate Social Responsibility Program strives for zero waste, defined as 100-percent efficiency of energy, material, and human resources. The company also joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Leaders Program to help further quantify its carbon footprint.

Estee Lauder's packaging program is based on the SPC's definition of sustainable packaging. It designs packaging that:

  • Meets marketing criteria for performance and cost.
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy.
  • Maximizes the use of renewable and recycled source materials.
  • Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices.
  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy.
  • Can be effectively recovered for re-use as a resource after the product has been consumed.

"As a corporation, we recycle about 55 percent of everything that comes out of our factory that otherwise might go to waste," says John Delfausse, vice president, global package development, and chief environmental officer for Estee Lauder Corporate Packaging. He is responsible for package development for Estee Lauder's Aveda, Clinique, and Origins brands, and is a founding member and executive committee member of the SPC.

"The rest goes to incineration for energy. We don't landfill any materials."

The company also creates bundle packs and wraps to reduce materials and costs. The chipboard (paper) carriers it does use are made from 100-percent recycled material.

Recently, Estee Lauder developed an innovative cap collection program through its Aveda division.

"Polyethylene bottles may get captured and recycled," Delfausse says, "but polypropylene caps usually do not." A

veda recently set up an infrastructure to collect the caps, ship them to one of three consolidation centers around the United States, then send them to a facility in Troy, Ala., where they are reground and made into new products.

Estee Lauder is even taking its green initiatives into retail stores. It introduced its new point-of-sale merchandising display units in a three-step program, which should be in place during the next 18 months to two years.

"The first step is redesigning the units so they can be easily broken down and recycled," says Mike Jaklitsch, vice president, global environmental affairs and safety for the company. "They can be shipped compactly, then assembled at the store. The smaller boxes optimize transportation."

Second, the units will be made of more simplistic materials, such as one type of plastic or one type of paper, instead of mixed materials. "At the end of life, they can be easily recycled," Jaklitsch says.

"Third, we will take responsibility for the recycling," he adds.

Hewlett-Packard: Setting the Right Tone

In 1992, Palo Alto, Calif.-based personal computer company Hewlett-Packard (HP) created a Design for Environment Program, which assigns a product steward to each product.

The steward is responsible for identifying, prioritizing, and implementing environmental improvements for that product, including its packaging.

In early 2007, HP redesigned its print cartridge packaging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in North America by 37 million pounds annually, the equivalent of taking 3,600 cars off the road for one year. The packaging was designed to eliminate about 15 million pounds of materials, including three million pounds of corrugated cardboard, and almost seven million pounds of PVC.

In fact, since 2003, HP has reduced the overall package weight of its inkjet cartridge multipacks by 80 percent and quadrupled the number of packages that can be carried in a single truckload.

HP's new LaserJet toner cartridge packaging uses 45 percent less packaging material by weight, which reduces shipping volume by 30 percent. A standard shipping pallet that once held only 144 cartridges can now hold 203.

"These initiatives are reducing truck traffic in the United States and Canada by about 1.5 million miles a year because we can fit more product in each truck," explains Jean Gingras, HP's North American supplies environmental marketing manager.

"We have also been able to reduce the inkjet multipack's front surface area by 80 percent, allowing retailers to fit more products on their shelves," she adds.

HP will soon begin packaging its high-end printers to halve the current volume of packaging and shipping materials. The new clear packaging design eliminates the need for an outer corrugated box and extensive foam packaging.

"Instead, it uses minimal foam and supports, along with a durable transparent film to encase the product for shipping," says Gingras. The outer transparent plastic film is made of polyethylene, the same material as plastic milk jugs, which can be recycled in many locations.

Dell: Serving Up Savings

In mid-2007, Round Rock, Texas-based computer and accessory manufacturer Dell Inc. introduced a new server packaging option called Multipack, which reduces packaging materials by up to half. The environmental impact from saving paper and cardboard will be equivalent to preserving about 52,000 trees a year, Dell estimates.

The new design delivers up to four full-size rack servers or 10 slim, compact blade servers in a single box instead of packaging each separately. In addition to reducing packaging, collateral materials can be reduced up to 75 percent when only one set of product manuals and CDs is included in each box.

Dell expects annual savings of 2,000 tons of cardboard, 1,000 tons of pallets, 300 tons of paper, 80 tons of polyethylene foam, and 40 tons of plastic.

Glenn Keels, director of marketing for Dell's PowerEdge servers, recalls the genesis of the initiative.

"In 2006, members of our customer advisory councils were talking about 'green IT,'" he says. "They noted that they were ordering from 50 to 200 servers, and receiving multiple CDs and boxes."

Dell evaluated the space these packages occupied on docks and in trucks and the time required for customers to unbox a 50-server implementation.

"Multipack is our way of delivering simplified packaging to make things easier for customers, as well as being environmentally sensitive," Keels says. "Multipacks are designed for implementation of 20 to 50 servers, or more, but they are also useful in implementations of just four servers or a blade chassis of 16 servers."

Dell can deliver a fully-configured blade chassis, or storage frame, in one box. According to Keels, a competitor uses 78 boxes to deliver the same product.

"We asked a third party to do a comparison," he says. "It took four times as long to deploy the competitor's blade system as it did ours. Ours also involves 75 percent less paper packaging waste than the competitor's packaging."

Going green in packaging offers multiple benefits—reducing the costs associated with creating packaging, decreasing weight and volume to reduce transportation costs, making it easier for customers to unpack products, and creating less packaging-related waste.

Oh, and helping the environment.

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