7 sustainable packaging predictions

Tony Kingsbury began his assessment of where sustainable packaging materials are, and where they're likely headed, with a good news/bad news scenario that represents the defining dichotomy of the planet's future. Kingsbury, the Dow Chemical executive-in-resident at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, noted that according to the United Nations, the earth will have 9 billion human inhabitants by 2050. On the positive side for a company like Dow that's a lot of people who will require a lot of stuff, on the negative side, however, all that stuff requires resources, which in some cases are becoming more and more scarce.

Tony Kingsbury
Tony Kingsbury, the Dow Chemical executive-in-resident at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

"As the world grows more affluent, will we have the resources to meet the needs of nine billion people?" Kingsbury asked. "The answer is no. Big changes will be required, rethinking of entire systems." One such system, according to Kingsbury, is landfills.

"One hundred years from now, people will say, 'How stupid were people that they put all these concentrated resources into things called landfills?'" Kingsbury said, noting that today's landfill will be tomorrow's resource mine.

Prediction #1: Resource efficient packaging will win

"It's not just the bottle, it's how it fits into the overall scheme, from production to shipping," Kingsbury said, explaining that the key drivers will be carbon and water. "We're not just running out of water, we're running out of clean water," Kingsbury said.

Prediction #2 Functionality will be key

As resources become scarce, it will be that much more important to protect product, consider the carbon footprint of cheese, how much goes to waste if it spoils.

Prediction #3 Keeping the molecule in play

Don't landfill, "don't bury or litter plastic." Recycle any content you can. "Once you get a big enough pile of something, someone will figure out how to recycle it," Kingsbury noted.

Prediction #4 Reuse will gain market share

Reuse will keep packages, and the molecules that make them up, in play longer than one use.

Prediction #5 Biobased packaging materials will grow, but not necessarily biodegradable

Kingsbury said this relates to carbon efficiency, but can create conflicts with water usage, and he stressed that biobased materials cannot compete with food. "We don't need the package if it displaces the food it would have packaged," Kingsbury said, forecasting that biobased versions of traditional polymers like PE, PET, and PP will dominate vs. new "upstart" molecules like PLA and PHA, and materials that emphasize compostability will not have a role to play. "Composting is an inefficient way to keep the molecule in play," Kingsbury said. "I think the word biodegradable should be banned. I said it. What does it mean? Compostable yes, biodegradable, no."

Prediction #6 Transparency will drive full life cycle thinking about packaging

At this point in time, most of the discussions are around base materials, but in the future, everything will be assessed, including additives, inks, dyes, glues, coatings, and more. As an early example, Kingsbury cited PVC, where public concern transitioned from the base material and chlorine monomer to today where phthalates get the attention.

Prediction #7 Life cycle data will drive decision making on materials

Reduce what you use and you will save resources and money, states Kingsbury.


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