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Am I Retrainable for Sustainable?

OK, I admit it. I am confused and perhaps even a tad nervous.

After more than 30 years as a packaging professional focused on flexible -- dare I say -- plastic packaging, this new movement people are calling "sustainable" packaging has me seriously concerned.

During the '70s, I recall being a young sales rep in the plastic packaging industry and feverishly updating my resume when I was told the world of packaging as we knew it would soon come crashing to an apocalyptic end.

"The Great PVC Scare" was upon us and the only real choice and decision I had to make was whether to look for a new job, or check in at a clinic to determine how much damage had been done to my body and mind during my years as a purveyor of that PVC packaging poison.

I sincerely feared my career, and perhaps even my life, were going to be cut short before I was even able to reach my flexible packaging sales prime!

The scare came to an abrupt end when it was determined that shrink packaging in PVC films, while unpleasant to the nose and eyes, did not cause cancer and represented no serious threat to the people using it and -- thank God -- people selling it.

The film manufacturers developed new, smoke-free seal systems and the PVC scare passed much the same way my entire collection of leisure suits did, as a momentary fad that was now unfashionable and even a bit silly.

The '80s and '90s represented my own personal age of enlightenment and profit. Thanks to a new perspective and focus on the environment, treehuggers became legends and anyone like me, trained on how to replace corrugated and chipboard with plastic films, achieved almost super-hero status. There was Superman, Batman and me -- Plastic Man! Sure, Superman could fly, Batman had all of those terrific weapons and crime fighting tools but only Plastic Man was able to save acres of forest with the sale of one shrink wrapping system to any customer using corrugated RSC-style cases.

My customers who saved space and money loved me. The retailers who minimized the volume of corrugated waste in their stock rooms adored me. The solutions and material cost reductions I offered were in high demand and the opportunities and profits soared well into the new, 21st century. To think I almost stayed in life insurance sales! My business continued to grow and my relatives were no longer screening my phone calls. Life was beautiful.

Then sometime last year, a black cloud first appeared, looming overhead and my future in packaging was once again at risk. Packaging, environmental and retail "experts" started using a new term called sustainable packaging.

I realized I better find out more about this new threat to my livelihood and learned sustainable packaging was defined as "Packaging that does not deplete natural resources or pollute the environment." Interesting -- who can argue with a concept like that?

The problem is that the more research I did, the more I realized that everyone I read and heard was saying something different. The glass people think it is great news for them. The paper, corrugated and chipboard people think it's a second coming for them as well. Even my cohorts in the plastics industry think it all leads to source reduction, which results in less packaging in the waste stream.

That has to be good for them too. If it is good for everyone and good for the environment, then who is it bad for?

I guess the only person it is bad for is someone like me who is trying to understand it. I continued reading and found out about the Seven R's:
  • Renew(able) -- use materials from renewable resources
  • Reuse -- use materials over and over when economically feasible
  • Recycle(able) -- use materials with the highest recycle content
  • Remove -- eliminate unnecessary or redundant packaging
  • Reduce -- minimize packaging materials and optimize material strength
  • Revenue -- achieve above principles at equal or lower cost
  • Read -- educate ourselves and our customers
What about us as consumers, who always are more concerned with quality, flavor and value than we are about the environmental impact of packaging?

Packaging is good when it keeps our products fresher, or extends shelf life. We expect it to prevent tampering or pilferage. We have even come to accept it when packaging helps to sell us a product that are not as good as the material or design that was used to make it jump off the shelf and catch our eye. This is all much too confusing.

I think I have once again talked myself off of the ledge by realizing that we all want to do is what is right for the environment, and every one of our customers and clients have a different objective in mind when they call on us for help.

If corrugated reduction or elimination is the goal, we know plastics as well as anyone and have the films to accomplish it. If the objective is to minimize plastic, we certainly have the film technology to reduce gauge or convert to a more environmentally friendly formulation.

Although paper and plastic fall in and out of fashion, what never changes is our customers' need to reduce cost and improve productivity. If we stay focused on the customer, and if we continue to be true to the application, then everything else has a way of working out.

After some thought I realized I have been promoting sustainable packaging for more than 30 years, I just never called it that. I wonder how that would fit on my business card? Thank goodness it appears no re-training is going to be necessary.

Dennis Salazar is the president of Salazar Packaging Inc., a certified MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) company specializing in flexible packaging products, equipment and sustainable packaging solutions. A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared on SustainableIsGood.

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