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At Pack Expo, Some Vendors Grow Greener While Others Fade Away

In case you are not familiar with the packaging industry mega show Pack Expo, it is only held every other year in Chicago. Over two thousand packaging equipment and material vendors fill six floors and three large exhibition halls on Chicago’s lakefront, McCormick Place facility.

This was my 17th Chicago Pack Expo, so you might say I have been around a while -- but in recent years I have attended this show with great interest, as the industry where I have spent my entire adult life, moves towards sustainability. This year was one of mixed results, including some really positive signs and growth, and others that were quite disappointing.

"Past performance is no guarantee of future results..."

That is a line we have heard hundreds of times, usually following a commercial for investment or financial services. It is also true of many packaging vendors who made an about-face in terms of sustainability. In 2008, their green flags and banners flew high in their booths and you could almost smell the fresh coat of greenwash that was liberally spread over their companies and their products.

This year, not surprisingly, their green commitment had passed as they regressed to making and selling the same old products, the same old way. It was very disheartening to see companies with great promise and potential decide to give up and reverse course.

It’s the economy stupid!

In conversation with several exhibitors, the recession was blamed for their return to previous focus and marketing plans. I think we can all understand why lower profits will permit fewer dollars to be spent in proactive areas of business such as R&D, new product design, and marketing of unproven products.

I heard variations of “we did not find the market we anticipated,” which essentially means, “we tried it and it did not result in immediate sales and profits so we abandoned it”. For those who expected immediate and ideally, increased profitability, the last two years certainly would have been disappointing.

If they’d only asked I would have gladly shared the following advice:

• Sustainability is not for the faint-hearted or impatient;
• Don’t expect the market to pay you a green premium;
• The sustainability market has learned to see through most greenwash

I am convinced green is not dead or even ailing; however I am also certain the economy has changed the green game forever. The first requirement for being a company committed to environmental sustainability is being a company managed to be financially sustainable so all of us can appreciate and relate to what a critical and overwhelming priority the recession has become.

Yet, most of us all agree by now that sustainability is proven to be good for the bottom line as well as the top line, for those promoting it as well as for those investing in it.

Encouraging Signs

I met with more manufacturers of molded pulp exhibiting at Pack Expo than I ever even realized existed. Anyone who knows me will tell you I rate molded pulp at the very top of my “eco-obvious” scale. It is a favorite of consumers because they instantly recognize it for what it is (paper waste) and consider it a very eco-friendly packaging solution. Nothing encourages recycling like the use of recycled waste.

The only thing greener than recycled or recyclable packaging is reusable packaging because it represents the greatest opportunity to minimize waste, as well as energy, and water consumption. I was very pleased to see a dramatic surge in reusable packaging products designed for multiple uses.

A Sustainable Packaging Success Story

A few packaging manufacturers of green products have been innovative and unflinching and are now reaping the rewards of their commitment. They have taken the time necessary to understand their potential customers and have created the green packaging products the green market wants, rather than attempting a shortcut and greenwashing existing products.

Two years ago one of my favorite suppliers, a leading manufacturer of bags and bagging equipment decided to step outside of their comfort zone and launch a line of biodegradable, inflatable void-fill pillows. The new product they created sold well, but they soon realized they also needed a product for blocking and bracing applications, rather than basic void fill.

This year at Pack Expo they created and added a “bubble packaging on demand” system that is green beyond its biodegradable film formulation. Consider the environmental benefit and efficiency of shipping boxes of bubble material you inflate as needed, rather than pre-inflated bubble which consumes enormous amounts of space inbound to the packer and out bound to the package recipient.

Unexpected Green Solutions

Pack Expo is still very much equipment-focused and I was very pleased to see many manufacturers talking about their sustainability efforts which include reduced power consumption, domestic as well as long life parts sourcing, and even the use of recycled steel for machinery frames. One of the things that most caught my attention is their new design improvements for use of greener packaging materials.

For example, I spoke to a maker of corrugated forming equipment and he boasted about their new, “more forgiving” machinery. Forgiving from the standpoint of being able to use corrugated that is lighter, has a higher recycled content percentage and even able to automatically and successfully run previously run, “used” boxes. I agreed with him that was impressive and very green.

Can printed plastic film result in a lower carbon footprint compared to paperboard packaging? Yes, is the unexpected answer I learned from another long time supplier of high performance, high yield shrinkable films. This may surprise some anti-plastic people and for others it may seem to be an “apples and oranges” comparison but when the analysis is done and everything factored in including raw material transportation energy costs, and ultimate disposal results, the numbers are unmistakably in favor of printed shrink film.

Pack Expo is a unique experience I recommend highly to anyone willing to walk miles and able to appreciate the high cost and hard work involved in exhibiting at a show like this. Though when it comes to sustainability, some packaging manufacturers are clearly working harder than others.

Box illustration by Hay Kranen / PD.

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