Packaging Is Wrapped up in a Planet-Wide Call for Sustainability

Following a hot, wet, and wildfire-smoke-filled summer in the Northern Hemisphere, packaging’s contribution to the carbon footprint necessitates a closer look.

By Marc Lefkowitz, SWE Contributor

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest findings — that climate crisis impacts are presenting more rapidly and with greater magnitude than previous models had forecast — will test the resolve of a global marketplace of consumers and suppliers.

The food industry represents an outsized share, or 34%, of the global carbon footprint. The question industry partners and suppliers must face together is how to address issues including food and packaging waste, which represents not only a $1.5 billion loss to business but also is a virtual hot potato between industry and consumer.

Working toward a totally renewable package

Consumers are pushing industry in ways not seen previously. Companies such as Tetra Pak — the Swiss-based multinational package producer that brought in $12.5 billion in net sales in 2022 — are well-positioned to respond. According to Babitha George, a portfolio manager for packaging solutions at Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada, the company stands to gain from the shift in consumer and investor preference for environmentally sound products. She confidently noted that Tetra Pak’s founding mission was preservation of food and environment, adding that the company has not rested on its laurels.

“Customers’ priorities have changed and are leaning toward being sustainable in their lives,” George said. “We are moving in that direction. When it comes to sourcing, we’ve been able to influence suppliers to produce sustainable solutions.”

Tetra Pak was established more than 70 years ago by Ruben Rausing and built on Erik Wallenberg’s innovation, a tetrahedron-shaped plastic-coated paper carton from which the company name was derived. George said the company started with a simple motto: A package should save more than it costs.

A Tetra Pak carton essentially consists of six layers, including polyethylene, paperboard, and aluminum. George points out the application of aseptic technology, enabling Tetra Pak’s customers to ship and store products on shelves without refrigeration, as establishing the company’s sustainability bonafides early on.

“Customers’ priorities have changed and are leaning toward being sustainable in their lives. We are moving in that direction. When it comes to sourcing, we’ve been able to influence suppliers to produce sustainable solutions.”

— Babitha George, portfolio manager, packaging solutions, Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada

“The structure of [the] package was created in a way that was intended to protect the values of shelf stability and protection of food and the planet,” she said.

While Tetra Pak cartons are recyclable — they can be shredded and heated and turned into a feedstock for markets such as building material manufacturers or sent to papermills where the pulp can be turned into paper products — as of late, the focus is on increasing the share of renewable content for the carton’s layers. Doing so is key in the company’s ambition to deliver the world’s most sustainable food package made solely of responsibly sourced renewable or recycled materials, fully recyclable and carbon neutral.

A few years back, the company started sourcing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paperboard. Today, all of the paperboard the company uses is responsibly sourced from FSC-certified forests and other controlled sources. Recently, the focus on increasing renewable materials led to replacing the fossil-based polyethylene (PE) with a plant-based PE offering for the carton’s cap and coatings. It is certified under Bonsucro, a leading global sustainability platform and standard for sugarcane. The London-based organization ensures “people are treated fairly and creates long-lasting, traceable supply chains.”

The final step — replacing the aluminum layer — is in process. George said a fiber-based material is being tested in Europe and the aim by 2030 is to have a simplified package structure with higher fiber content.

Preserving more than product

Perhaps it is that level of confidence that led Johan Rockström, Ph.D., director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and chair of Tetra Pak’s four-member advisory council, to go out on a limb earlier this year when he expressed concern that six of nine planetary boundaries that are needed to maintain a steady state for Earth’s ecosystems had already been breached. In an editorial for Euronews in May, Dr. Rockström challenged the food industry to make interweaving planetary boundaries such as atmospheric carbon, land use, water consumption, and ethical treatment of animals simultaneously the new metric for sustainability.

“A full planetary boundary approach (to operating a global food system) is necessary to ensure that improving the impact on one boundary does not have a negative impact on another, such as reducing climate change through circular economy practices at the expense of an increase in freshwater use due to the method of recycling,” Rockström wrote.

“A lot of innovation (needs to) happen because paper-based packaging is not water resistant and given the need for shelf life, trying to replace it is not sustainable (from a food preservation standpoint).”

— Rafael Auras, Ph.D., professor, Michigan State University School of Packaging

His charge for business is to rise to the challenge of a six- to eight-year window in which to act to preserve the planetary boundary of 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise. It occasioned SWE to ask: “How will industry respond?” The answer depends on understanding the hydra-like aspect of the climate crisis, as Dr. Rockström pointed out.

In the complex environment of food production, the goal of zeroing out environmental impact involves systems-level changes as seen in regulations being adopted in Europe and in states from California to Michigan to Maine. Regulations governing organics and minimums on product recyclable content at the state level are coming on the heels of some damaging reports of the recycling industry, namely that only 5% of materials are being recycled in the United States.

The recycling industry is due for an overhaul, according to Rafael Auras, Ph.D., professor and Amcor Endowed Chair in Packaging Sustainability, School of Packaging at Michigan State University (MSU). The goal should be a system that places a greater emphasis on equity so that plastic does not end up in the ocean and on the shores of developing nations, he said.

“Regarding packaging, it would be good to concentrate on the worst problems,” Dr. Auras said. “We need to solve for the low-income places so that the amount of plastic in the ocean isn’t so high. We have a situation we don’t know how to manage. We have to work on circularity, so these materials are sources; so that we’re not sending it to a landfill.”

MSU’s packaging engineering program, one of the oldest in the United States, focuses simultaneously on design and materials science so that graduates are encouraged to address the underlying need for packaging without sacrificing sustainability goals such as Tetra Pak’s move away from nonrenewable sources. Dr. Auras’ graduate-level course on sustainability provides students the toolkit, including a life cycle analysis, to weigh the cost-benefit of moving away from petro to bio-based chemicals, or sourcing paperboard from renewable sources versus taking it out of the waste stream.

“A lot of innovation (needs to) happen because paper-based packaging is not water resistant and given the need for shelf life, trying to replace it is not sustainable (from a food preservation standpoint),” Dr. Auras said. “I try to emphasize to my students, there is not one material, you need all of them. There are perceptions of bio-based materials — that they have a low environmental footprint. In some cases that could be, and in some there are not so many emissions when growing the crop, but it takes more water and land” to grow.

“Innovation means to create systems that lower the environmental footprint,” he said, “and also is set up so that the consumer knows how to handle it in a complicated worldwide environment.

“I hope that we change the conversation in the future because society, we know, cannot exist without packaging.”

A Look Inside the Packaging School

Rafael Auras, Ph.D., Michigan State University professor and Amcor Endowed Chair in Packaging Sustainability, back row, shares a moment with students in the program. CREDIT: Michigan State University

Michigan State University School of Packaging is thought to be the oldest of its kind in the country, according to Rafael Auras, Ph.D., professor and Amcor Endowed Chair in Packaging Sustainability. The program dates back to 1952; in the postwar era, the United States was growing its export economy and had to solve the issue of shipping goods in bulk.

“We’ve been so long in the field that most of our graduates are becoming faculty in the United States and overseas,” Dr. Auras said. “We teach the teachers.”

When the program started, the country was shipping a lot of goods to Europe. The program began as part of the university’s forestry department, Dr. Auras said, adding that wood pallets were one early invention. Soon it became apparent that many items required containers to be shipped efficiently.

The Michigan State University (MSU) program initially offered a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s program was added later. Today 550 students are enrolled in the bachelor’s program and 60 students in the graduate program. To receive a bachelor’s degree in packaging, students complete a core curriculum of 10 classes with minors available in medical packaging, supply chains, and sustainability, among others.

“It’s a program that combines engineering, supply chain design, and classes that focus on food packaging, supply chains, and logistics,” said Dr. Auras, who joined the faculty in 2004 and teaches courses on sustainability. “The students in the bachelor’s program have a class on metal and a lot of hands-on training. They use this knowledge to package and cut-and-tool to design packages. Students have a strong basis in materials science.”

Early on, students take a number of classes about how to create a package and bring design thinking into it, he said. “That is the beauty of the program, because you can take a minor in design, or if you’re more interested in supply chain, the program can be adapted to fit [your] needs.”