Eric DesRoberts joined GreenBlue as a Project Associate in May 2011. He is responsible for conducting technical research on packaging materials, supporting research efforts around fiber sourcing, and growing the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) project portfolio. One of his goals is to foster good communication between all parts of the supply chain so that packaging can be made more sustainable. In an interview with us, he provided insights and background on challenges, successes and a much needed mentality shift.
Can you talk a bit about the work of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition? How did this group come about and what are its most important goals?
The SPC is a program of GreenBlue, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2002. GreenBlue is dedicated to researching and promoting the principles of Sustainable Materials Management, a concept that seeks to use materials wisely, eliminate material toxicity, and recover more material. These concepts are at the heart of the work of the SPC, which was launched in 2004. The SPC is a material neutral and certification neutral industry working group of about 175 business, educational institutions, and government agencies, seeking to build packaging systems that encourage economic prosperity and a sustainable flow of materials.
The SPC cultivates stewardship throughout its membership by bringing the entire packaging supply chain together to share ideas, especially through our annual conferences and events; mobilizes the packaging industry by providing a collaborative space for working groups and committees to carry out discussions and project work on topics of interest; and develops tools and resources that use the results from our working groups, committees, and staff expertise to help to advance sustainability in packaging.
As project manager for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, what do you see as your most important tasks?
Within the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) my two most important tasks are listening and processing. The companies and individuals that we work with in the SPC are extremely knowledgeable, and they all have unique sustainability challenges and concerns. Having conversations with our members and starting to map where there are overlaps is a key piece in helping the SPC create valuable resources and solutions to the most pressing challenges in packaging sustainability.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Personally, some of the biggest challenges are the speed at which products and packaging systems are evolving. While this is also one of the more exciting parts of this role, the new materials, formats, and product designs are moving at an incredible rate. Sometimes the disconnect between the rate of development at one end and the rate of development at other positions in the value chain are not aligned, which causes growing pains. In general I think that there is a lot of creative and positive work being done in the packaging space.
Where do you see the greatest opportunities to achieve significant improvements to make packaging more sustainable?
I don’t think that there is a single biggest opportunity that would be applicable across the board. There are probably significant opportunities that are obvious in specific scenarios, but in general that is a very difficult question. If I had to give an answer, I would say that there needs to be a shift in mentality that embeds sustainability into the day-to-day lives of customers, employees, and at the executive level of organizations. Until there is this kind of buy-in and commitment, sustainability, particularly in a social and environmental context, will continue to be pushed to the margins.
You have looked at the whole supply chain for packaging – are there any communication gaps that need to be closed to achieve greater sustainability?
This is one of the goals of the SPC to close, or start to close, some of these gaps. One of the most persistent communication gaps has been and continues to be the lack of communication between designers, converters, and brand owners who put packaging on the market and the recyclers and local governments who have to figure out how to collect, sort, and reprocess those packages. New materials and innovative designs are always welcome, but we would recover more valuable materials if those two ends of the supply chain were better connected. The SPC has been trying to make that connection for years by bringing a growing number of recycler and local government members to the table.
In a recent article, you talked about the circular economy. How can this become a reality for packaging? Can you provide any examples where this idea has become a reality in the packaging industry?
Preserving embedded value and getting away from discarding materials is not a new concept. I think it gets back to the idea of a mentality shift. We need to stop designing things and thinking about things as disposable. In the interests of sticking with the material neutral stance of the SPC, I will not provide specific examples, but I do think there have been significant advancements in using nontraditional feedstocks as inputs, and in finding uses for packaging to become high value inputs in new products at the end of life.
I think that there are companies that are thinking this way, which is encouraging. There are also a number of initiatives that utilize packaging materials (post industrial and post consumer) as inputs for non-packaging products. I think that there is a lot of great potential in looking at some of these cross sector and cross industry opportunities.
What role does the printing industry play in making packaging more sustainable? What are the most important contributions you are already seeing or would like to see from this industry?
We would welcome more involvement by the printing industry in our discussions of sustainable packaging especially on the topics of material health and recovery issues. It seems like the printing industry is often overlooked in terms of the contributions to sustainability. Perhaps the most important role of the printing industry is helping to communicate effective consumption and use of products, which often have higher overall impacts than its packaging. That function has incredible implications and benefits in terms of overall sustainability.
To this point, I think that there are a lot of exciting developments happening with product labels, specifically how they relate to food packaging and spoilage issues, and pharmaceuticals and proper usage and preventing counterfeiting. Another welcome contribution would be closer communication with the recycling industry to ensure that inks don’t hinder the recycling and reprocessing of packaging materials. While I don’t know a lot about 3D printing, I think that there are a lot of opportunities to grow and explore in this space. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
One argument I’ve heard many times is that sustainable packaging is expensive and even though consumers have said in market research surveys that they desire it, they don’t really want it and buy the less expensive option. Is that true in your view?
In terms of more sustainable packaging being more expensive I think that in some instances it is true, but in others, this just isn’t the case. For example, reducing the amount of material in a package by changing the packaging design may result in material savings, reduce the overall impacts of the package, and quite possibly, result in cost savings as well. However, in some instances there may not be cost savings, and prices will always be a significant piece of a purchasing decision.
I recently heard that the package is less than 10% of the purchasing decision, so for most people, price will win every time. However, being able to effectively communicate the story of the product and package system can potentially add utility to the product. In addition to getting a product that you want, you are purchasing a level of assurance and wellbeing associated with a strong story. It can be justified and considered a value-add in some cases.
What is your view on the future of the SPC?
There is a lot of creative thinking going on out there. I hope that the work of GreenBlue and the SPC can help shape some of that thinking.