As sustainability remains a hot topic in the packaging world, companies try to focus on practices that will help meet the goals of that word as it is defined in the industry. One trend toward the sustainability goal seems to be using less packaging. In some sense, this means smaller quantities of a product. However, not every case of less packaging will necessarily mean more sustainability.
Of course, sustainability is not defined as less packaging or even smaller packaging, though there may be some benefit to both. Less packaging will usually lower the costs in that it means using less material. Smaller containers will arguable lead to less waste, both by the packager and the consumer. Note that both statements are qualified, however, as neither is a definite in regards to true sustainability. As is often the case when discussing sustainability, the analysis must go much farther than just the size of the package or the amount of materials used to create the package.
Instead, the producer of goods must look at the entire life cycle of the packaging process as well as several alternatives to the chosen container. For instance, in the food industry, some 420 packaging may be used to extend the shelf life of the product inside. If the product itself were downsized, an argument could be made that this would lead to less waste of the food product. However, if consumers were buying one of the larger sized products and using it over a four week period, there may not be product waste where the packaging helps keep the food fresh. Moving to a smaller portion may force the consumer to buy four packages over that four week period, in the end using, or discarding, twice as much packaging than if the larger portion were purchased. In such an instance, the smaller package actually creates more waste, the exact opposite of the intended goal.
Those producing goods must also keep other consumer concerns in mind. Accessibility and usability are topics in the industry that sometimes must compete with sustainability. Consumers want water and other beverages in an easy to open, easily portable container. As noted above, portion size matters as well. Foods, beverages, shampoo, toothpaste and other household items need to be easily stored and easily accessible while also providing the amount of product desired by the consumer. This is not to say that less packaging and/or smaller sizes must sacrifice these other desires, but only that they must be kept in mind as a part of the entire packaging process.
On the production side, less material is almost always a good idea, but smaller packages will not necessarily translate to less material. Smaller packages, alone, may simply mean more packages. In producing the actual containers, smaller packaging may also lead to more material waste. Also, while almost all packaging equipment – filling machines, capping machines, conveyors – will be able to handle a range of container shapes and sizes, there may be modification necessary to accommodate smaller packages. In the worst case scenario, additional packaging machinery may need to be added to handle smaller bottles, smaller boxes or other reduced containers.
In the end, reducing material, and even packaging size, may be beneficial in beginning to create a more sustainable packaging process. The danger lies in thinking that smaller packages and less material automatically equals a more sustainable process. Though cliche, packagers must “think outside the box” – to the production, delivery, packaging process and recycling process – to determine if changes in the package itself will make the packaging process more sustainable.