How sustainable is plastics packaging? Here’s what the numbers tell us: Page 2 of 2

other materials (e.g., paperboard, metal) are used when those materials make more sense. So, for a different set of applications, paper or metal or glass may be the best choice. This is the reason that different reports may show different materials as being preferred for different applications—because they are!

Here’s the apparent icing on the cake: At first glance, it seemed a bit strange to me that wood packaging increased by 12.4%. However, a deeper dive into the EPA data indicates that much of this is used for pallets. So, if we did get more goods with less packaging, it makes perfect sense for pallet volume to increase, especially since the increase is very much in line with both population growth (13.0%) and real GPD growth (14.0%).

There are three important takeaways from this analysis

1. First, source reduction is still the best way to minimize environmental impact. Less weight means less energy during production and transport. Less energy means less CO 2 generated.

2. Second, a strict interpretation of Circular Economy thinking would not lead one to this analysis and its conclusions. It’s only by stepping up to the more strategic perspective of Sustainable Materials Management that we can see both the forest and the trees.

3. Finally, this analysis very much supports the growing awareness that we should stop being so concerned with tons of waste and more concerned with tons of generated CO 2, especially as it applies to energy consumption. Ironically, this was the reason that recycling took hold in the first place: It is more cost efficient, economically and environmentally, to produce new aluminum cans from old aluminum cans than from bauxite.

By changing our focus, we are forced to look at the entire picture of both product and package design, production, use, recovery and disposal when making sustainability decisions. Not only is CO 2 measurement the great normalizer, it may also be the best way to mitigate the world’s most pressing environmental conundrum, which, of course, is climate change.

Make sense?

You can learn more about the value of this big picture approach by reading the AMERIPEN white paper entitled Maximizing the Benefits of Circular Economy and Sustainable Materials Management Models For Product-Packaging Systems .

Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved with sustainable packaging for more than 20 years. He is editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a marketing and communications consultant to AMERIPEN and other organizations and is also a professional photographer. His website is

You’ll find cool options for packaging and plastics in Minneapolis November 8-9 during the 15th anniversary of MinnPack that’s co-located with 5 other exhibitions including PLASTEC. For more information, visit the MinnPack website .

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