- Consumer perspective and life cycle assessments
- Raw materials and substances
- Trends and alternative materials
- Sustainable packaging design
- Seals, ecolabels and labels
- Production location and logistics
- Waste hierarchy: Material cycle and life cycle
- Conclusion: Why is sustainable packaging so important?
Companies are faced with many questions when developing their products with sustainable packaging in mind. In addition to the resolute desire to produce sustainably and in a way that conserves resources, the increasingly conscious consumer behavior of customers and potential market participants is a particular focus for companies. Because times when children take to the streets for the benefit of our environment as part of Fridays for Future and startups that produce coffee cups out of used coffee grounds show us one thing very clearly: Values such as environmental awareness and the economical use of resources are in the minds of consumers today more firmly than ever. And hardly any area of our lives is not affected by the issue of sustainability.
We consider ourselves as having a responsibility towards our environment and our fellow human beings especially as a sustainable packaging manufacturer. And we are increasingly receiving enquiries from our customers and interested parties with the desire for customized, environmentally friendly packaging. In the course of this positive development, however, we have become aware of something: Opinions on the subject of sustainability differ widely and the specific ideas on sustainable packaging are very different. There is a general lack of consensus about what makes packaging sustainable in the first place.
But it’s no wonder that opinions differ so much. Even the concept of sustainability is a complex phenomenon that cannot be clearly defined. So where do we start when we talk about environmentally friendly packaging?
At this point we venture to attempt an approach: We will reflect our thoughts, consider various sustainable packaging solutions and highlight other environmental aspects. Because from our perspective, the topic of sustainable packaging goes far beyond deciding what materials are to be used.
Consumer perspective and life cycle assessments: Sustainability in people’s minds
First of all we will take a look at the specific packaging requests of our customers from the immediate past. These case studies give us a direct insight into the different views on environmental awareness and sustainability as well as highlight the different requirements for sustainable packaging.
Packaging requests in the area of sustainability
- Jewelry packaging made of recycled marine plastic
- Cardboard boxes made of recycled paper and vegetable-based printing inks
- Boxes with lift-off lid without PP lamination, made in Germany, cardboard inlay
- Sustainable cosmetics packaging with cardboard inserts instead of plastic
- Cardboard packaging made of 100% recycled material and soy-based ink
- Cardboard boxes with a coating of palm leaves
You are also interested in the topic and are looking for advice on the way to your tailor-made, environmentally friendly packaging? Then send us your inquiry now! Our packaging consultants will be happy to help you.
The very specific and sometimes even quite exotic nature of the requests confirms our previous assumption. While awareness of sustainable packaging is increasing, it may not be perceived as a holistic concept from a consumer perspective. In our opinion, the reasons for increased environmental awareness in the packaging sector are manifold and result from customer requirements, marketing interests and last but not least regulatory policy.
Recent studies confirm our assumption and provide an overarching picture of what sustainability means in the minds of consumers. According to a study by Pro Carton in 2017, 96% of respondents in a target customer group believe that sustainable packaging is important to their business. Just over half of the respective target group believe that sustainable packaging is actually crucial to the success of their brand.
The study shows: The requirements for environmentally friendly packaging are not uniform and are not subject to a clear definition.
From the consumer’s point of view, sustainable packaging is often thought of too superficially and often classified solely on the basis of the materials used.
One thing is certain, however: The idea of judging sustainable packaging solely based on the materials used and a possible reduction of these is outdated from our perspective. The new approach today is in fact a holistic view including the life cycle of the packaging and the type of resources.
Life cycle assessments: Holistic view of packaging
Scientific life cycle assessments help to determine the environmental relevance of packaging and provide a fair assessment of its environmental compatibility. They track the life cycle of the packaging from raw materials to production and disposal. The packaging eco-balances record environmental effects such as:
- Energy requirement
- Emissions into the air
- Emissions into the water
- Solid waste & emissions to the soil
In addition to the question of whether some of the supposedly sustainable materials can be classified as such at all when these aspects are taken into account, the environmental impact of the materials examined makes one thing clear: To correctly assess the sustainability of packaging, criteria such as logistics, transport and a possible material cycle must also be taken into account. This holistic view of sustainable packaging is a very complex issue and the perceptions of end consumers can differ greatly from the actual facts of a life cycle assessment.
Example: Natural materials are not synonymous with sustainable production. For example, the energy input in the life cycle of packaging made from natural raw materials can be so high that recycled petroleum-based packaging has a better life cycle assessment.
We will take a closer look at some environmental aspects in the following. There are already significant differences in the use of packaging in terms of raw materials.
Raw materials and substances
For a closer look at the raw materials and substances used to produce sustainable packaging, we differentiate between conventional and alternative materials. Cardboard and plastic are among the conventional materials we use to manufacture packaging. The very clear advantage of these materials in terms of sustainability is as follows: They have institutionalized value chains that have been perfected over the years. And some of the raw materials and the packaging produced from these also move in a closed recycling economy – they work!
When selecting materials and raw materials, the complete life cycle of a type of packaging is examined under the microscope. A decision can be made based on the following criteria:
- Raw materials themselves: The raw material basis for packaging made of cardboard or paper is wood or waste paper and thus regenerative, renewable. The raw material basis for polystyrene cases and other plastic packaging, on the other hand, is crude oil and thus a finite fossil raw material.
- The packaging production: In terms of a holistic view, packaging production must take into account not only the raw materials, but also the energy that is used for production and any operating or auxiliary materials that may be used.
- The use of the packaging: How long will the packaging be used? The life cycle of packaging for fast-moving short-lived products is much shorter than the packaging for more permanent products, which may itself serve to store the products. This has an impact on the criteria that packaging must meet: Must it protect the packaged products from spoilage or damage? What are the minimum requirements?
- End of life cycle: Are there any systems for recycling the packaging? Is the packaging being energetically recycled or possibly even improperly disposed of?
Cardboard – a sustainable packaging material
The raw material basis for the production of cardboard packaging is wood or waste paper and thus, unlike plastic, a renewable raw material. More precisely, the final paper used to manufacture packaging is made from cellulose fibers, both virgin fibers and recovered secondary fibers. In the European Union, today, about 86% of the raw materials used in paper production are renewable, and about 14% are non-fibrous, such as calcium carbonate (lime).
About half of the paper consumed in Germany comes from recycled fibers recovered from waste paper. In our cardboard box production, for example, we work with cardboard that consists of up to 100% secondary fibers (recycled paper).An overview of the materials used at LESER for cardboard packaging shows the following:
Sustainable cardboard boxes
- Carton: Solid cardboard, which serves as the body of the packaging, consists of up to 100% recycled fibers and is also recyclable. Alternatively, corrugated board can also be processed. Both materials can also be processed in FSC®-certified versions.
- Paper: The paper used to cover the packaging is optionally FSC®-certified, REACH-compliant, 100% recyclable and biodegradable. Alternatives such as grass paper or stone paper are also used.
- Glue: The glue for fixing the components is a biodegradable natural product made of the main components water and glutin.
- Colors: The majority of the printing inks used to finish our packaging are water-based.
- Inserts: As an alternative to the classic thermoformed inserts, a range of sustainable insert materials are also possible.
- FSC®-certification: Since our company has been certified we are able to produce individual cardboard boxes according to your ideas with FSC® materials as well. You can learn more about FSC® and other labels here: Labels labels.
Packaging with FSC® label
Considering the material and raw material aspects, it is evident that our cardboard packaging is a fairly resource-saving and environmentally friendly packaging solution. Incidentally, about 90% of the wood used by European industry for processing comes from the European Union itself. And about 60% of this originates from sustainably managed forests, according to a study by the Pro Carton folding carton industry association. In addition, the use of different labels enables end consumers to get a certain amount of information about the origin of the materials used. In our case, for example, this is the use of the FSC® label at the request of our customers. Consumers and customers can be sure of the complete control of the wood chain of the cartons and papers used by us. In addition, consumers are always able to carry out an independent certificate check using the license number.
Since our FSC® certification we are able to produce cardboard boxes according to your ideas in compliance with the FSC® standard. Ask us about our options at any time!
Is plastic packaging sustainable?
The raw material basis for packaging made of polystyrene (as in our case) or other plastic packaging is crude oil. The major shortcoming in the use of plastics for packaging is therefore obvious: Crude oil is a finite fossil energy source and therefore non-renewable. In addition, the great variety of raw materials makes the recycling of plastic packaging quite difficult: According to the European Parliament, only 40 - 50% of plastic packaging in Germany is recycled so far, even though there are considerable efforts on the part of the EU to revolutionize the system considerably by 2030.
Nevertheless, when used for packaging purposes, there are a number of decisive advantages that make the raw material virtually indispensable. Particularly in the food sector, plastic has so far been indispensable due to its material properties. After all, what is the point of saving on thin transport packaging, for example, if food becomes perishable and food waste is produced?
But it is not only the barrier properties that make the raw material so versatile. Plastic gives packaging flexibility and protection against environmental influences, which hardly any other raw material can provide to a sufficient extent. For this reason, various plastics are also used for the packaging of durable and very high-quality goods such as watches, jewelry or coins and in this form are anything but inexpensive disposable packaging.
But how can the use of plastic for packaging purposes be optimized beyond a regulated use of the raw material?
Optimization measures for plastic packaging:
Change to black plastic – use regenerated materials
As already mentioned, the recycling of plastics is associated with some challenges due to the high diversity of raw materials. For example, plastics cannot simply be mixed and then recycled without impairing their material properties. If, however, it is possible to collect and recycle plastics of a single type, the raw material is ideally suited for recycling.
A sustainable option, which was born from this idea and has been utilized by us for many years: black plastic cases! Because these can be produced in our injection molding facility in the south of Germany from a very high proportion of regenerated material. For this purpose, finished regenerated materials, for example, can be added to the cycle, or injection molding sprues of other color shades can be prepared and fed back into the cycle. Due to the phenomenon of subtractive color mixing, the color remains black. However, the functioning of the respective packaging must be guaranteed. Accordingly, there are types of packaging for which the use of regenerate materials is not suitable due to its properties. The picture shows the watch case 1750.06, a plastic packaging, which consists of 60% regenerated material.
The result of using regenerated materials is a partially 100% recycled product! Switching from your existing plastic packaging to black plastic cases is therefore a sensible step towards sustainability. Feel free to talk to us about our options!
Use of packaging made of PLA bioplastics
Another alternative to conventional plastic packaging is our innovative 1560 EARTH packaging series, which is made of 100% sustainable PLA bioplastic and was the industry’s first PLA packaging at the time of its market launch. PLA, or polylactide, is a real alternative to petroleum-based plastics and is made from corn starch in our case. The plant-based plastic is therefore biodegradable and compostable and, due to its material properties, is another way of dispensing with petroleum-based raw materials. By the way: To convert all plastics processed worldwide to PLA, only about 0.35% of the world’s available cultivation areas would be needed, according to a study by the Plastics Europe association.
The picture shows jewelry packaging of the 1560 EARTH series, which is made of PLA bioplastic. LESER produces packaging made of PLA by injection molding at its Lahr site. Many other options are possible. Feel free to ask us about our options!
Comparison: Sustainability of raw materials and substances
If you are considering switching to environmentally friendly packaging, you must first determine its requirements. The materials play a serious role in this, especially in protecting your goods from environmental influences.
Advantages of cardboard boxes
- Wide range of design options
- Attractiveness for consumers
- Renewable raw materials
- Established recycling
Advantages of plastic packaging
- Protective properties
- Stability and impermeability
- Flexibility and diversity
While paper packaging today has an extremely positive image among consumers, plastic packaging suffers a bad reputation. This is caused by improper disposal of packaging in nature and the lack of recycling possibilities. However, it is precisely in this area that developments in recent years show clear progress.
Since 2018, the EU has been supporting a strategy, which requires that all plastic packaging must be recyclable by 2030, to be implemented through certification and quality standards. Under such a system, the sustainability of plastic packaging would obviously have to be reassessed.
In addition, recycled packaging made of regenerated material and packaging made of bioplastics show how resources can be used increasingly more efficiently.
If you are not able to switch from plastic to cardboard packaging, you may consider switching to recycled packaging made of black plastic or to packaging made of bioplastics.
As already mentioned, however, other indicators must also be used for a holistic assessment of the sustainability of packaging. Across all types, about 30% of the processed plastics are recycled after use, 39% are sent for thermal recycling and another 31% are deposited in landfills. Polystyrene, as it is processed in our injection molding, is also a starting material for food packaging such as yoghurt containers. Polystyrene waste, if not sent to material recycling, is used to generate energy through energy recovery. The heating value of polystyrene is 100 to 400% higher than the heating value of cardboard and thus has a positive effect on the energy balance of plastic packaging.
Paper is an environmentally friendly packaging material. However, paper is only more resource-saving than plastic if it is recycled or has already been reused. The production of paper as a raw material is also rather energy-intensive. A study on the packaging materials used by LESER from 1992 already shows: “If plastic cases are made from recyclable material, the life cycle assessment is clearly better than that of the cardboard / paper boxes examined.”
Classic materials and raw materials for the production of packaging are often more sustainable than they are perceived by the public and are generally superior to their alternatives because of constant development, institutionalized process chains and independent monitoring by third parties. Of course, there are also modern alternatives and disruptive technologies that have potential and may eventually outpace current systems. However, when all factors are taken into account, they are often less ecologically and economically sensible than initially assumed. But more about that in the following!
Trends, alternatives and natural materials
Nevertheless, current developments show that the trend in sustainable packaging is tending to move in a different direction. Alternative packaging materials are increasingly defining the zeitgeist, consumers demand renewable resources and recyclable materials. This is because among the target groups of companies, LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) are gradually displacing the first eco-generation. People with high purchasing power who maintain a sustainable lifestyle and place particular emphasis on the environment and health. However, sustainable lifestyles are not interpreted here as relinquishment, but rather as high-quality consumption and a conscious perception of products.
In addition to customizing, in other words, tailoring the packaging to the individual wishes of the target group, sustainability is therefore the decisive megatrend in the packaging industry. Consumers reject industrial systems that are potentially harmful to their health and are looking for the solution in bio-packaging and natural packaging materials. In general, end users today demand more quality in their products and have the choice at the point of sale due to a wide variety of competing products. So let’s take a look at some useful alternative materials and natural materials!
As an absolutely sustainable alternative to the conventional thermoformed inserts made of plastic, we offer cardboard inserts to hold your products in their packaging perfectly. These are developed specifically for each product in our production facility in the south of Germany. It makes no difference whether the inserts are to enclose only one product or several in the packaging. The recesses for your products are punched by machine and are flexible in design. Cardboard inserts can be made of corrugated cardboard as well as solid cardboard. They are generally suitable for all our packaging and boxes with lift-off lid. However, cardboard inserts reach their limits somewhat faster than thermoformed inserts. When used in round packaging or boxes in special shapes, feasibility must first be checked individually. But cardboard inserts are the perfect, sustainable packaging insert for rectangular and square boxes.
- Individual development for your products
- Made of solid cardboard or corrugated cardboard
- In different colors
- Machine production
- Different product levels possible
Grass fiber cover paper is currently an alternative option for all those who want to avoid industrial materials when designing their cardboard boxes and packaging. Due to the flexibility of the material, it is possible for us to use it to refine packaging in the most diverse dimensions. In other words, consistently green packaging, because with grass paper packaging you make a statement to your consumers and, moreover, you use renewable resources that offer a number of advantages:
- Grass is a renewable and natural resource
- Harvested three times a year
- Available in large quantities
- High flexibility in processing
- Is not destroyed by the harvest
- Available in different grammages and mixing ratios
- Provision of habitat for bees and insects
- Subsequently refinable in many variations
Paper and cardboard
Paper or cardboard, especially in recycled and reused form, does not represent an alternative in our case. Nevertheless, especially if you have been using plastic packaging up to now, you should think about switching to cardboard packaging! Paper is resource-saving and efficient and because of its recyclability it is a wonderfully sustainable product. You can find out more about our sustainable cardboard boxes and our possibilities under the heading Raw materials.
The SizzlePak insert material can be a substitute for classic inserts, especially for large-volume and heavy goods. The environmentally friendly material is basically recycled kraft paper cut into strips and is ideally suited as a filling material for large cardboard boxes due to its shock-absorbing effect. SizzlePak is:
- 100% recyclable
- not suitable for small products
PLA packaging is an excellent alternative to conventional packaging made of plastics such as polyethylene or polyethylene terephthalate. Bio-based PLA plastic is made from natural raw materials, more precisely, it is obtained from sugar by a multi-stage synthesis. Due to its compostability, packaging made of PLA is in many cases a far more ecological solution than regular plastic packaging.
Thermoformed inserts made of PLA
You remember our packaging made of the popular PLA bioplastic? Today we are also able to offer thermoformed inserts made of exactly this material. If you are not yet able to switch to alternatives made of cardboard or natural materials because of the requirements, PLA inserts are a solid option for the time being. The only difference is the environmentally friendly raw material. Sustainable thermoformed inserts cannot be distinguished from conventional ones with the naked eye. However, there is a small draw-back in the use of bio-thermoformed inserts: Due to the low material thickness, they tend to deform at temperatures of about 60° Celsius and are therefore not suitable for every product!
SeaFlock: Thermoformed inserts made of rPET
In addition to corn starch-based organic PLA plastic, thermoformed inserts made of rPET are also a sustainable option. This is because these are generated directly from recycled PET bottles. Even as a version with a flocked surface, the inserts are a mono-material and therefore consist only of PET. In addition to the use of a recycled source material, the material can therefore be recycled again. Due to this renewed recyclability of the material, the life cycle is considerably extended. Thus the material can function in a closed material cycle. Important points of sustainable thermoformed inserts:
- Crystal clear and in flocked form
- Flexible colors and sizes
- Different depth levels possible
- Suitable for practically any product
Cotton jewelry wadding
Cotton is quite ideal for jewelry wadding as an alternative filling material for packaging. Especially in the jewelry sector it is often used to avoid classic foam inserts. Because cotton provides protection for the jewelry, protects against unwanted tarnishing and is variable in use for different pieces of jewelry. In addition, the material consists exclusively of renewable raw materials and can be processed without any problems thanks to its properties.
Another useful alternative to conventional plastic thermoforming inserts are packaging inserts made of paper pulp. The starting material for the production of the inserts are sheets of cardboard or sugar cane material, which are processed with the aid of water to form a dough, that is then pressed in a mold, dried and finished. One result of the production are sustainable packaging inserts which, due to their function, production and appearance, are somewhat reminiscent of the external appearance of egg cartons. In addition to this product, however, high-quality products with very smooth surfaces are also possible. Thanks to their excellent properties, paper pulp inserts are particularly suitable for product packaging and articles in the cosmetics industry. The advantages:
- Based on renewable raw materials
- Subsequently printable/paintable
- Colors: white, brown and black
- Also available in water-repellent design
- Directly recognizable to consumers as environmentally friendly
These alternative insert materials are particularly suitable for changing over from plastic-based thermoformed inserts. Feel free to ask us about our options!
Limits of alternative packaging
However, in addition to the ones mentioned so far, we are also observing developments focusing on other, alternative packaging such as insert material grown from mushroom mycelium. However, the use of some of these materials does not seem to be of industrial relevance so far, since the time and amount of the materials required for large and medium-sized industrial production runs is simply too high. It should also be noted that some of the alternative packaging materials are obviously not suitable for packaging every product. The packaging should generally meet the requirements of the product and the market.
You can only make a statement in the sense of environmental protection by means of product packaging if it also fits your products and the image of your company. We consider successful communication with your customers as an important point.
Let them know why packaging is important to your company and why you have chosen your packaging solution. In this way, you signal to the consumers the importance of topics such as future planning and adherence to principles in your company. This communication can also appeal to customers by the packaging itself, as we will show in the following section.
Sustainable packaging design and communication of values
The sustainability of a brand neither begins nor ends with the packaging. However, the packaging is an essential tool to communicate the sustainability of the brand. In fact, the sustainability of packaging begins with the packaging design. However, sustainable design goes far beyond simply saving material. The design of the packaging is the first point of communication between your products and your potential customers. Important company values should therefore also be communicated directly at this touch point.
Signals in packaging design
This makes it possible to signal important values of your brand already at the point of sale through the packaging. In practical terms, these include natural colors such as brown, green, white or beige. The use of natural fibers such as wood or cardboard and materials such as cotton or linen also send environmentally friendly signals to potential customers. The illustration shows an environmentally friendly watch packaging with a body made of wood and covered by paper with wooden design. Inside the packaging, a cotton cushion in linen constitutes an elegant way to fix a watch in place.
Once the first point of contact has been established, direct communication in the form of print and text also helps to create proximity to the consumer. So if you are using really environmentally friendly, possibly recycled packaging, don’t be afraid to promote it!
In terms of communicating values, interactive elements are also increasingly finding their way into the world of packaging design. The use of QR codes, for example, offers a playful opportunity to provide further information about the origin and a possible secondary use of the packaging.
Spontaneous purchase decisions about products are also made based on the attractiveness of the packaging. If you consider that the economical use of resources and environmental awareness are important criteria for the most important target group when buying products, the importance of sustainably designed packaging is obvious.
In any case, clear communication in design is the prerequisite. The customers do not want to be overloaded. They expect concise information on attractive packaging. A positive example of the implementation of sustainable packaging design is the Seedbom, which is also made from the completely compostable alternative material, paper pulp, as mentioned above. This gives the term disposable packaging a completely different meaning.
The advantages: Brand loyalty and repeat purchases
But what are the advantages of a well thought-out, sustainable packaging design? A sustainable design of your packaging can help to increase the repeat purchase rates of your products and brand loyalty. However, the packaging must also reflect the image of your company.
And not only the increase in repeat purchase rates will contribute to an amortization of the additional costs that may have been incurred by the change in packaging. According to the Packaging in Focus PWC-study customers in the target group who are prepared to pay more for sustainable packaging are willing to pay a premium of 16%.
The flip side: Greenwashing
However, the desire to produce sustainable designs has also led to wrong developments in the recent past. This often resulted in packaging that was intended to give the impression of being environmentally friendly on the outside, but was coated on the inside with polymer barriers to meet the requirements. In reality, however, these composites are no more sustainable than pure plastic packaging: Because they are not recyclable at all afterwards. The effort to separate paper from plastic is simply not economical. It is therefore also wrong to assume that “plastic-free” packaging is more environmentally friendly than plastic packaging.
Meaningful second use
Really high-quality packaging, on the other hand, can be too beautiful or practical to be thrown away, and thus receive a secondary use in private households. Visually appealing preserving jars or soap dispensers made of glass are incorporated into the inventory and refilled after their first use and reused several times. In addition to the practical benefits, the special value and design often play a role here. A phenomenon that also applies to movie billboards, vintage signs or neon signs. The design of the packaging can therefore constitute the USP of your company. However, in addition to the explained features that send signals to consumers, there are also labels that identify packaging and thus help consumers to find their way around.
Seals, ecolabels and labels for packaging
Labels and eco-labels exist today in a wide variety of areas and pursue a wide range of objectives. The Label Online database currently lists around 700 of the useful seals that enable the supplier to communicate visually with the consumer. The logos are supposed to help the consumer to make consciously sustainable (purchase) decisions without having acquired a great deal of prior knowledge about the product. Especially in the food sector, for example, the use of seals is now a common medium for conveying values. And in the packaging industry, there are now labels that provide consumers with information about the origin of packaging or the materials used in it. In the following you will find the labels that we consider relevant and helpful for packaging:
FSC® – Forest Stewardship Council
FSC® is an NGO (non-governmental organization) which has made the protection of forests its mission. Members of the organization are individuals and associations as well as representatives of various interest groups. The central concern of the FSC® is to ensure responsible forest management in accordance with local interests. Today, the FSC® is represented in over 80 countries worldwide and is therefore internationally active. In addition to wood, FSC®-certified products include products made of wood or wood fibers, thus paper or cardboard as well. For processing companies in the paper and packaging industry, appropriate FSC® certification means complete product chain certification: from the forest to the end customer.
Principles: In addition to the rights of indigenous peoples and the safeguarding of biodiversity, the principles of FSC® also include economic efficiency and product diversity. These goals are achieved by setting and reviewing uniform standards that ensure that social, economic and ecological needs are met. For consumers, the purchase of FSC®-certified products or packaging guarantees a positive use of global forest resources.
FSC® at LESER: We, at LESER, have decided to have our product chain certified in order to guarantee production according to the international FSC® standards and to meet our own standards. Meanwhile, the FSC® seal exists in various designs and gradations. In our case, our certified packaging carries the “FSC® Mix” seal, which guarantees that at least 70 percent of the fibers in wood or paper products come from FSC® wood and/or waste paper. Feel free to ask us about our FSC®-certified packaging!
Blauer Engel (Blue Angel) paper
The Blauer Engel eco-label is a seal of approval for particularly environmentally friendly products and services, which is administered and awarded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment. Once the label has been awarded, suppliers can use it on a voluntary basis to label their products, thereby offering consumers particularly sustainable alternatives to conventional products.
The Blauer Engel paper seal is of particular importance for packaging. The logo only identifies paper that consists of 100% waste paper and is therefore completely recycled. This saves valuable resources and reduces the burden on the environment. However, the Blauer Engel does not stand for the complete harmlessness of a product and only distinguishes characteristics that contribute to raising market standards in terms of the environment.
PEFC – sustainable forest management
PEFC stands for Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes and is therefore committed to sustainable forest management. Similar to the FSC® guidelines, ecological, economic and social criteria are also part of the principles of this certification organization. PEFC operates internationally, is active in 49 countries and, according to its own information, is the largest association of its kind. 258 million hectares of forest are now certified according to PEFC worldwide. In addition to national forest certification systems, the forest trade, forestry and other NGOs are also represented in PEFC.
Product chain certification: The PEFC system also awards its seal to processing companies in the timber industry, monitoring the flow of wood from the forest to the consumer. For packaging and other wood products with the PEFC label, this means that they can be proven to originate from positive forestry.
It should also be emphasized at this point that most labels do not certify that products or their packaging are completely harmless. They merely offer consumers a helpful orientation and direct them to environmentally friendly alternatives. Moreover, the uniform certifications give manufacturers the opportunity to optimize the environmental performance of their packaging. For this reason, certification with large, well-known seals appears to be particularly useful from our perspective. This is because these are issued by independent institutions and are subject to strict control mechanisms. In the perception of consumers, these logos may be universally equated with environmental protection, even if the organizations and logos do not generally represent sustainable packaging. For example, only certain packaging materials may be marked with a seal and its associated certification. In principle, therefore, the labels provide consumers with a good overview, but give only limited information about the absolute environmental compatibility of a package.
Production location and logistics
However, in addition to the materials used and an appropriate, sustainable packaging design, there are other suggestions for making your packaging as sustainable as possible. Superordinate processes that have a long-term and lasting effect on the environmental compatibility of the packaging, such as efforts at the production site and in logistics, are of particular importance. As a rule, these are simple processes and procedures that have existed for years and can be scrutinized today:
- Can these possibly be modernized or digitalized?
- Can energy be saved at crucial points?
- Are there modern and environmentally friendly alternatives?
Optimization measures in logistics
Shipping cartons: Whether internal or external:Shipping cartons are used today at different points in practically every company. Today there is the possibility of obtaining them in an environmentally friendly version including recycled corrugated cardboard or grass fibers. The use of secondary raw materials thus begins in the company itself. For internal processes, the shipping cartons can then be sealed with environmentally friendly wet adhesive tape or, depending on the application, closed without glue using sealing flap and then reused. The burden on the environment is thus reduced to a minimum by using environmentally friendly shipping boxes.
Films: Is it possible to dispense with the use of plastic film or shrink wrapping film for transport? Depending on the type of products, it is advisable to load the goods on pallets with other, more environmentally friendly solutions or materials that can be reused or recycled.
Paper sleeves for delivery notes and invoices: Even the famous red plastic shipping sleeves for delivery notes is no longer used everywhere. Because modern sleeves made of paper are finding their way into the shipping logistics of many companies. They are available in various designs, are bleached without chlorine and comply with FSC® and PEFC standards. Furthermore, they are 100% recyclable. The big advantage: Thanks to the paper base, the envelopes glued to the cardboard can be disposed of together with it. Conventional delivery sleeves, on the other hand, must first be removed from the carton to be disposed of correctly afterwards. The main effect of modern sleeves, however, is the strong signal effect: eco-friendly!
Selection of other shipping and securing materials: Sensible, environmentally compatible alternatives generally exist today for many everyday materials in companies. The supplies used for transport (bags or strapping) can be manufactured from durable and recyclable raw materials today. Companies therefore have the opportunity to demonstrate a respectful attitude towards the environment already at this point. Ask your suppliers!
Proximity of suppliers
In addition to other criteria, such as prices and delivery reliability, the choice of suppliers is now also mainly based on the proximity of the location. Because what consumers are becoming increasingly aware of when consuming food today must also be considered in the business environment. Local products mean short transport distances and therefore lower emissions than products from the Far East, for example. The slogan Made in Germany is therefore more applicable than ever. In addition to the high quality of the goods, however, today it also stands for limited CO2 emissions. Cooperation with producers in the immediate vicinity not only supports the local economy but also contributes to the sustainability of the company. An important factor on the way to green packaging, which can be additionally supported by the use of e-vehicles. Moreover, the choice of suppliers close to the company location offers other pragmatic benefits: short delivery times and flexibility.
Despite all the positive efforts that companies are making internally today to make shipping processes and packaging solutions more sustainable, the burden on the environment for future generations remains. This is because the production and transport of packaging is associated with considerable CO2 emissions, which can be reduced and compensated for by various measures. In principle, we distinguish between the acquisition of certificates and proactive participation in climate projects.
Climate certificates are traded on a market and can be purchased by companies at corresponding prices. The market is regulated by a United Nations authority and serves as an instrument for controlling global CO2 emissions, the aim of which is also to compensate for these emissions. You may know the principle from flight bookings, for example: A surcharge may be paid for emission reduction purposes. The great advantage of climate certificates: CO2 is not saved regionally, but globally. Therefore, the projects behind it can also be implemented in completely different parts of the world, which may also support the local economy. For example, alternative energies are being promoted instead of building more coal-fired or nuclear power plants. And the purchase of certificates supports these projects. The offsetting of CO2 emissions by means of environmental certificates can therefore be regarded as indirect compensation.
However, in addition to the purchase of climate certificates, packaging manufacturers in particular now have the opportunity to actively compensate for CO2 emissions. For example, service providers enable companies to find specific climate protection projects, such as water treatment in India or reforestation of the rainforest, and to participate actively in them. The aim of these is to offset or reduce the CO2 emissions generated during the manufacture of packaging through other efforts. Important here: Support for climate projects does not have to be exclusively financial. This offers companies an opportunity to offset their ecological footprint and at the same time do something for their own conscience.
How does LESER strive for sustainable production?
In practice, there are many processes and applications that can be made more environmentally friendly in your own company. For the time being, this does not necessarily mean radical changes and new technologies. Because there are also simple innovations on the way to environmentally friendly production. In the following you will find some environmental initiatives that we have already implemented at LESER:
- Certified environmental management system according to DIN EN ISO 14001
- FSC® certification for the use of wood and paper from sustainable forestry
- Production with the use of 50% green electricity
- Use of recycled paper in our own production and shipping logistics
- Suppliers in the immediate vicinity of the production site
- Packaging production partly in Germany
- Partial use of waste heat from machines for heating purposes
- Use of rainwater for toilet flushing
- Use of light ribbons in the production halls for efficient use of daylight
- Invoice and delivery note dispatch using paper sleeves
- Digitization: automatic emailing of invoice on request
- Avoidance of unnecessary plastic coatings
- Prohibition of plastic cups with the substitution by reusable ceramic cups
- Raising employee awareness of the issue of sustainability
- E-bike leasing program
You will find a detailed overview of some of the points mentioned on our webpage:
Waste hierarchy: Material cycle and life cycle
As already mentioned at the beginning, today, packaging must be subjected to a holistic approach in order to assess its environmental compatibility. All stages of the life cycle play a role. In order to make the most sustainable choice possible, it is therefore advisable to think about these different points in the life cycle of a type of packaging in advance. The waste hierarchy, which was defined by the EU states in 2008 with the EU Waste Directive and whose primary goal is to use and exploit resources sensibly, can serve as a useful orientation.
The 5-stage waste hierarchy defines how the use of resources is to be evaluated and establishes a priority order of its stages. The diagram generally illustrates the following: Prevention of waste is more positive than its disposal. Ideally, the quantity proportions therefore decrease with the progressing stages.
Prevention: The highest level, and therefore the top priority of the waste hierarchy, is to avoid potential waste and thus prevent it from arising in the first place. Have you used materials that are not absolutely necessary for the packaging of your products? Then it may be possible to dispense with the use of these materials. However, if this is not an option, the processed materials should be reduced to a minimum. Because less packaging (in the sense of less material) means economic benefits: not only in terms of material costs themselves, but also in terms of transport and disposal. On top of that, unnecessary CO2 emissions can also be saved. The use of standard packaging and the associated use of filling material is also an important point that should be reconsidered at this point.
In order to reduce emissions and costs during transport, many brands have focused on decreasing the material in packaging, resulting in much lighter packaging as compared to 10 years ago. However, there is also a paradox involved, since lighter packaging components are recycled less often than heavier ones due to the lower economic incentive.
Reuse: If avoiding or reducing the resources used is not an option when optimizing your packaging, reusing them is the next logical step to prevent disposal. The EU Waste Directive defines the point as “the reuse of the products or components for the same purpose for which they were originally intended”. Best known example in the field of packaging: the deposit system of the German standard glass bottle.It was developed in 1969 for the sale of mineral water and soft drinks and has been on the market as reusable packaging ever since. On average, the bottles get 50 uses before they are sorted out and recycled. They are therefore far superior to their competing disposable packaging, such as plastic bottles and beverage cartons, in terms of environmental compatibility. These enter the recycling cycle after only one use.
However, returnable glass bottles also have major disadvantages: The high weight results in high transport emissions. According to a holistic view, plastic bottles that are filled several times are the most environmentally friendly packaging in the beverage sector. Systems that are refilled and come from regional suppliers are ideal, for example, because short transport routes mean lower emissions.
But where else can reusable packaging systems be used? Online fashion stores, for example, are able to make shipping packaging sustainable by means of re-sealing strips and thus able to be used several times. This means that the material for repackaging is no longer required for returns.
As a consumer, you can also significantly extend the life cycle of products by reusing them. Repair equipment instead of disposing of it or donate used clothing for reuse!
Recycling: If reuse of your packaging is out of the question due to the requirements, recycling the raw materials is the next best choice. That way the residues from the packaging will not end up in a landfill. In the EU Waste Directive, recycling is defined as the reprocessing or recovery of materials for their original or other purposes. In contrast to the previous level of reuse, it is therefore not necessary to tie the material to its original purpose. In addition to a reduced use of resources and the reuse of packaging, recycling can save the most energy. Up to this level of the waste hierarchy, packaging therefore functions in a closed recycle economy.
Recovery: Where reuse or recycling of packaging components is not possible, at least part of the resources may be recovered through composting or biogas production. Basically, at this level of the waste hierarchy it is also important to prevent packaging from ending up in landfills. Accordingly, thermal recovery also falls within the scope of recovery. This is because parts of the packaging can be recovered in the form of heat or electricity.
Disposal: The worst and final option is landfilling of packaging or its components. This is the end of the life cycle for the materials and their value is lost completely at that point. However, legislative efforts show that waste going to landfills has decreased in recent years, while recycling, thermal recovery and composting have increased significantly.
From linear structure to functioning material cycle
Packaging can be the most important contribution to sustainability for manufacturing companies. For the optimization or the new development of packaging, this means moving from a linear structure of all resources used to a functioning material cycle. The aim is to preserve the value of materials and products as long as possible:
- Waste prevention
- Elimination of toxic chemicals
- Use of renewable energies
However, if you follow the advantages and disadvantages of different raw materials throughout their entire life cycle, one thing quickly becomes clear: While plastic packaging is inferior to its paper counterparts in many categories (finite resources, lower recycling rates), it also has its advantages over cardboard packaging (lighter weight and longer service life). The use and durability of the individual packaging and products is therefore decisive for the choice of raw materials and substances. After all, the requirements for packaging of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) are of course completely different from those for packaging of durable products such as watches and jewelry. In this case, the packaging is an important part of the goods and is therefore much less frequently recycled or disposed of.
As a consumer, you too can easily contribute to the sustainability of packaging. Separate packaging into its individual parts! In the case of food packaging, for example, the plastic cover should be separated from the bottom part. In the case of our jewelry boxes, the inserts should be removed from the boxes. The packaging can then be disposed of with household waste without further concern. Sorting machines will recognize the components and can thus feed them for recycling in a precise manner. Thus the materials find their way back into the material cycle.
Conclusion: Why is sustainable packaging so important?
As mentioned at the beginning, our actions today will have more drastic consequences for future generations than ever before. It is thus of great importance for packaging manufacturers and brands to optimize packaging in the direction of environmental compatibility. On the one hand, recent developments for product manufacturers are accompanied by more stringent regulatory measures with regard to the development and production of their product packaging. On the other hand, there are also clear opportunities for them:
Sustainable products ‒ New markets ‒ New zeitgeist
As has been shown, the most important target groups today are increasingly conscious consumers and are therefore also prepared to pay for the corresponding additional work and higher material costs. The use of individualized, sustainable packaging is therefore a logical consequence of customer focus for major brands anyway. As we have now been able to show clearly, however, modern packaging optimization goes far beyond the choice of materials and reducing these. We would like to emphasize the point “holistic view”. After all, the entire packaging process must be made more sustainable today. In addition to the raw materials, especially factors such as energy use, life cycle and production contribute to the sustainability of packaging.
Theconsumer’s perspective, which is often linked to innovative and modern packaging materials, may not always correspond to this realistic, holistic picture of sustainable packaging. In some cases, the actual sustainability of a package and the public perception of consumers are even diametrically opposed. Thus, the fundamentally negative assessment of plastics in the public perception in the recent past has unfortunately also led to negative developments, such as packaging made of composite materials.
The big problem facing our ecosystems is disposable plastics. Reusable plastic packaging, on the other hand, has an extremely good life cycle assessment due to its light weight and protective function. From the consumer’s point of view, it therefore makes sense to review his consumption and switch to reusable containers or do without plastic shopping bags.
Nevertheless, useful alternative materials exist today which make sense from a holistic point of view. Things such as eco-friendly napkins or organic waste bags have become an integral part of our households. However, packaging still has to ensure the protection of the packaged products for both manufacturers and consumers, which poses challenges, particularly in the food sector. This is because without the right packaging, food spoils more quickly, resulting in food waste that may have more negative effects than the packaging itself. So it becomes clear: packaging is very product specific. The perfect packaging for a product must also be developed taking into account the functions to be fulfilled.
In principle, however, open communication and education should serve as the central approach to sustainable packaging for manufacturers and consumers. Create transparency as a brand (instead of marketing for greenwashing purposes!) and give your customers insight into the choice of your packaging! This can also be done directly on the packaging by means of an appropriate design.