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We must examine the connection between packaging and climate change

Companies should think more holistically about the link between packaging and carbon.

Plastic waste and food packaging on green moss background

Source: Shutterstock/j.chizhe

What’s contributing to climate change? Everyone can probably name a few of the culprits: how we get around; how we produce energy; and maybe what we eat. Less top of mind? The things we buy, including what they’re made out of and how they’re packaged. 

For companies wanting to decarbonize, focusing solely on energy can stall efforts to tackle equally important sources of emissions. A 2019 report by Material Economics and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) calculated that "materials" (defined as aluminum, plastic, cement, steel and food) account for 45 percent of global emissions. That means nearly half of our climate change problem requires an entirely different set of solutions from the ones currently getting most of the attention, such as electrification. 

Despite the importance of this finding, it doesn’t seem to have worked its way into the sustainable packaging dialogue. We talk about recycling, the circular economy and other ways to use materials more effectively, but we don’t talk about why. We don’t talk about climate change. 

EMF’s Global Commitment, for example, includes 6 of the 10 largest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies as signatories. Not a single one links their packaging goals to their climate goals. In fact, the 2023 progress report doesn’t include the phrase "climate change" at all. Although companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo and L’Oreal have made commitments to decrease virgin plastic use, increase post-consumer recycled content and move toward reuse models, these goals have been kept in isolation from those companies’ Science Based Targets, CDP reports and commitments toward net-zero emissions. 

So what exactly is the connection? Let’s review two simple truths:

1. Packaging materials require resource extraction, which results in emissions

All materials used for packaging — fossil fuels, trees, bauxite ore, sand, sugar cane and more — must be extracted. Even recycled packaging requires collection, sorting and repulping or re-pelletizing. No matter their composition, all packaging materials carry a carbon cost, and every step of their processing results in emissions. 

Thus the first equation to remember is: Materials = extraction = emissions 

2. Packaging materials typically create waste, which results in emissions

Whether they’re burned, dumped or landfilled (the sites that actually produce 14 percent of U.S. methane emissions), disposed packaging materials create emissions. We’ve also largely ignored the opportunity to divert food out of landfills using packaging. Plus, poor packaging design — large pack sizes and no resealability — leads to more food waste and, you guessed it: more emissions. Yet few food companies are thinking about this as they work on their packaging. 

The second equation to remember is: Materials = waste = emissions

No matter their composition, all packaging materials carry a carbon cost, and every step of their processing results in emissions.

It’s time to start doing the math on the above equations. We need to extract fewer resources and create less waste to reduce emissions. Less materials = less extraction and waste = lower emissions 

How can companies making and using packaging start to think more holistically about packaging and carbon? 

Integrate packaging goals (and progress) with climate goals

It all starts with folding your packaging goals into your climate goals. Setting a goal to use 20 percent recycled content in your packaging? Fold it under your goals to reduce your organization’s carbon footprint or get to net zero, and talk about both in one place on your website and sustainability reports. Ask your suppliers about their recycled content with the same questionnaires you’re using to ask about renewable energy portfolios. When it comes time to measure progress, calculate the avoided emissions from using recycled materials instead of virgin materials and count that as a win for your carbon goals. Do the same for your other packaging goals, such as phasing out single-use plastics or designing packaging to be recyclable or compostable. 

Remember, materials = emissions. Any efforts you’re making with materials have direct, quantifiable climate implications, so show your work and track your progress. 

Label your packaging with carbon information

If you or your organization are having trouble connecting the dots between packaging and climate change, just imagine how consumers feel. Brands haven’t done much to tell a simple story about how upstream manufacturing, packaging materials and disposal all contribute to a product’s carbon footprint. Instead, their stories have focused almost exclusively on recycling, so much so that most consumers see recycling as the best thing they can do for the environment. But if your packaging isn’t recyclable, you’re not giving your customers ways to understand what you’re doing to tackle climate change. 

Enter: the carbon footprint label. Think of it as a nutrition label, but with information about a product’s emissions coming from production, transportation and use, instead of calories and carbs. According to the Carbon Trust, almost 60 percent of consumers would be more likely to trust that a product carrying a carbon footprint label is taking action to reduce its carbon footprint compared with a similar product that didn't carry a label. Yes, calculating and communicating carbon isn’t easy. But it’s the only way to make the invisible visible. Smaller brands such as Cocokind, Oatly and Quorn are showing the industry how this could work. 

The disconnect between the climate change conversation and the packaging conversation has become too glaring to ignore. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s two main events this year, including SPC Advance this fall, are exploring the elephant in the room: the carbon-packaging connection. It’s time for the packaging industry (and other "materials" industries) to adopt the strategies being deployed to tackle climate change, such as goal setting, reporting, labeling and storytelling.

Olga Kachook is the SPC director at GreenBlue, where she leads the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in supporting its members' packaging initiatives with resources and collaborations on innovation, policy, packaging design and recovery.

[Continue learning about circular business models and materials at Circularity 24 — the leading conference for professionals building the circular economy — taking place in Chicago, IL, May 22-24.]

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