As a long-time packaging journalist, I’m just smart enough to know a little about a lot of things across such an expansive market. It’s the industry professionals who make their careers in a segment of the market who are the Subject Matter Experts.
Thus, when I wanted to check the pulse of sustainable packaging halfway through a tumultuous 2020, I reached out immediately to Robert Lilienfeld, an SME in sustainability. I’ve known Bob now for about half of his 40-year career as an author, photographer, TV commentator, and recognized expert in the areas of waste prevention, environmental trends, and packaging. He remains as reliable as ever as a go-to resource stretching back to his early days managing the Use Less Stuff Report. In fact, Bob’s far more knowledgeable now than then, as this Q&A attests.
In packaging, what's the Sustainable State of the World in 2020?
Lilienfeld: Thanks to the pandemic, the Sustainable Packaging Union is in flux. Concern for health and safety, and the value that packaging delivers in this regard, have clearly moved the social needle in a positive direction. No one recognizes the value of hidden benefits until those benefits are no longer hidden, and that’s the case right now.
Economically, historically low oil and natural gas prices have driven down the cost of a great deal of plastic packaging. This is all to the good, as far as virgin materials go.
It’s the environmental component of the sustainability stool that now needs work. The rather ambitious 2025 recycled content goals set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and committed to by many global consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies no longer look feasible if they ever did. That’s because the cost of virgin material is too low to make recycled materials look attractive. Further, the subsequent reduced demand for recycled materials, and the fact that the pandemic is crimping municipal solid waste budgets that have been used to subsidize recycling, are producing a double whammy regarding the collection and use of these materials.
Give us the bad news first: What’s your biggest concern?
Lilienfeld: My biggest concern has little to do with packaging. It has to do with global consumption. Packaging is a trailing indicator of resource use and waste generation. To truly understand this, take the greenhouse gas and solid waste generation of all the packaging used in the world and multiply it by 20. The real issue is how to generate sustainably high qualities of life across the planet, and do so with significant reductions in habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and resource consumption.
We can all use good news...what can you tell us?
Lilienfeld: Obviously, it’s good that the media and the public are recognizing that packaging is a major line of defense regarding the safety of the products that are purchased. This holistic view of packaging and product is exactly the way in which sustainability should be measured. To me, the ultimate sustainable package is the one that delivers 100% of the value that consumers pay for, and does so with the minimum amount of waste needed to do that job.
What’s the most common thing about sustainability that the public gets wrong?
Lilienfeld: The key thing that the public doesn’t understand is that sustainability requires behavior change, in terms of what they buy and how they buy it. Instead, we have allowed people to think that recycling and compostable/biodegradable packaging are all that’s needed to solve the problem. The public has been led to believe that the only change they have to make is to decide which bin they should toss their used packaging. As I’ve said above, nothing could be further from the truth.
What do packaging professionals get wrong?
Lilienfeld: Professionals in packaging have been put by their marketing folks in the unenviable role of delivering on these consumer perceptions, rather than meeting the reality of the situation. My advice is simple: Fight back for what you believe and what science tells you to be true. And drag your top management into the fight as well. Encouragingly, companies like P&G, Unilever, and Nestle are already listening and using their leverage with both consumers and retailers to try new things in the quest for true sustainability.
What advice do you have for plastics industry professionals?
Lilienfeld: If you’re a plastics industry professional, don’t let the current wave of packaging acceptance deter you from the longer-term course of delivering more value with less waste. And, if you’re not willing to get involved by helping your customers, their customers, and consumers to reduce, reuse, and recycle, you will not be on the playing field in 20 years.
PS: I’m specifically speaking to those of you who believe that chemical recycling is a silver bullet, and all you need to do is “build the plant and they will come.”
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve come across recently?
Lilienfeld: There are two trends that I find interesting, and both relate to supply chains.
The first trend is a move towards shoring up the sustainability of product delivery during palletization and transport (see The Sustainable Packaging Evolution: Rapid Bander’s Stretch Wrap Solution, published April 2020).
The second is the retail rationalization that the pandemic is causing. For example, Coca Cola is significantly reducing its number of SKUs. This will, in turn, enhance efficiency and reduce the economic burden that is placed on mass market brands, which generally must subsidize the unprofitability of niche products.
For example, if it weren’t for Porsche’s Macan SUV business, there would be no new Porsche 911s on the road. Ditto for Leica, which can only design and market its higher-end photographic products because of the cache and demand they generate for their lower-priced equipment.
Anything else you want to mention?
Lilienfeld: Thanks for asking! I’ve just completed a series of papers on critical thinking, that can serve as primers in the quest to make better decisions. The papers are on Reasoning & Logic, Sound Science, Statistics, and Risk Assessment. They’re at www.robertlilienfeld.com/critical-thinking.
Click here for a list of Lilienfeld’s articles at PlasticsToday.
Click here for a list of Lilienfeld’s articles at sister publication Packaging Digest.