Addressing the Sustainable Development Goals through Packaging: SDG 12, Sustainable Production & Consumption

Historically, we have  associated resource consumption with the well being of a society. Prosperous economies and societies have needed to use more resources to continue growing. This link however has led to the development of wasteful practices in the global production and consumption of goods and services, with little regard for optimizing the use of materials or finite natural resources.

This poses a problem for society and the planet, as is evident in the rising importance of global environmental problems like marine plastic pollution, deforestation, and climate change. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #12, Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, challenges us to rethink linear make-take-waste models and provides an important call to action for business and consumers.

Should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets will be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles. Population growth and a rapidly rising middle class in large economies like India and China demand that we future-proof our production systems to sufficiently allocate resources to meet growing demands in a way that does not continue to undermine the ecological systems on which we depend. There is need for improvement across all of our resource management systems.

Packaging plays an important role in society to protect products and reduce waste. For example, each year, an estimated one third of all food produced ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers, or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices, a problem that packaging (and smart portioning) can help to prevent.

On the other hand, packaging represents a one-time use item that is quickly discarded upon reaching the consumer. While recycling rates for some packaging materials, like corrugated cardboard are high, recycling for many other materials remains unacceptably low – with a 26% recycling rate for other paper and paperboard packaging paper and 15% for plastic packaging in the U.S. China’s import ban on U.S. recyclables presents further risks that have the potential to erode the recycling system.

The energy used to create packaging is wasted when the package is sent to the landfill rather than recycled into a new package or another product, contributing to high embodied greenhouse gas emissions. Marine debris represents a new era of crisis in the pollution of our oceans, with studies citing plastic packaging as a top contributor. Governments are responding with new regulations requiring recycled content or banning certain materials all together.

SDG 12 provides a list of measurable targets to guide action by companies and governments by 2030. For example:

  • Halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses;
  • Achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment;
  • Substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse;
  • Encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle;
  • Ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature;
  • Support developing countries to strengthen their scientific and technological capacity to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production

These targets suggest some specific actions for business, and many companies have already started to conduct these activities and align their corporate sustainability goals. Evian, Coca Cola, Amcor and McDonald’s have just recently made ambitious public commitments to recyclability, recycled, and renewable content in packaging. Unilever has committed to projects to improve recycling in developing counties in an effort to combat ocean waste. Overall, attention is growing to the widespread use of hazardous chemicals in grease- and moisture-resistive barriers in packaging, and the growing number of companies with CSR reports demonstrate how sustainability reporting is becoming mainstream.

Indeed, packaging improvements and innovations offer significant power to contribute to achieving SDG 12 and its specific targets. Many of the solutions require new innovations in material design, recycling technologies and infrastructure, linking SDG 12 closely to SDG 9, “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.” Business plays a major role for meeting these two SDGs in particular.

Engaging companies on SDG 12 at SPC Impact 2018

This year at SPC Impact, we will discuss many aspects of SDG 12 and how companies can implement them.

Sustainable packaging starts with design and materials sourcing, and extends through transport and use phases by the consumer to the recycling of packaging materials that are then directed into end markets that close the material loop. The SPC Impact session: Knowledge Cafe: Sustainable Forest Products Sourcing will cover sustainable sourcing for forest products with McDonalds, Mars, Weyerhauser, Iggesund Paperboard, and Sappi. In Squaring the Circle: Balancing Source Reduction and Recyclability in a New Reusable Packaging PlatformCleanyst will discuss their mission to reduce packaging waste and the carbon footprint in the design phase and use of home and body care products. The Least Sustainable Option with ISTA, will explore how to strike a balance between product protection and sustainability in the transport of products to consumers.

Thinking about material health impacts during the packaging use phase, Chemicals in Motion led by GreenBluewith speakers from Expera Specialty Solutions, San Francisco Department of the Environment, University of Notre Dame and Coop Denmark will discuss chemicals and health Implications in Food Packaging. At a package’s end of life, Evolving Flexible and Multi-material Packaging will discuss how we can resolve tradeoffs between food waste prevention or end-of-life on multi-materials in packaging with Printpack, Amcor, NOVA Chemicals, The Dow Chemical Company, and Recycle BC. Sessions are also dedicated to closing the loop in recycled material markets. In Creating End Markets for Recycled MaterialsKlöckner Pentaplast defines the challenges and opportunities in end markets that will help enable use of recycled content for use in new products.

From responsible sourcing to source reduction to recyclability to recycled content, these conversations help to decouple economic growth from resource use, as businesses explore how they can boost their bottom line with improvements in material efficiency and a sustainable value proposition to customers.

It is in businesses’ interest to understand these issues and to find solutions that enable sustainable consumption and production patterns that ensure the security of their operations as well as their continued social license to operate.

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