10 November 2008

Sustainability or packaging madness

Perspectives from InTech Editor Greg Hale

"Food-and-pharma producers face a tug-of-war when it comes to packaging their products," said Betsy Cohen, vice president of sustainability at Nestle, during this morning's keynote address at PACK EXPO 2008 International at the McCormick Center in Chicago.

"The marketing people want an exciting package that will move the consumer. The food safety people don't want to change anything about the package that already serves its purpose and is safe and tamper proof. The corporate people want to a good margin and sales," Cohen said.

She discussed the challenges, conflicts, and competing values packaging professionals face everyday and will deal with ever more intently in the future.

Cohen points to the data showing we can't package and operate using the same model we presently have. World population is growing too fast and will be nine billion people in fifty years.

"We'd need three planets to support our present marketing and packaging ways," she said, "there's not enough water."

Cohen's expertise is sustainability. That means green, recyclable, recycled, nano-technological, biodegradable, even edible packaging.

Frankly, the choice on packaging rests with the consumer so education on environmentalism is paramount. "In the end, if the product doesn't sell, we're not in a good place," Cohen said.

Sustainability (greening of packaging), containers & materials, upgrading operations, and brand protection (counterfeiting) are the primary concerns of the industry and the technical tracks at this enormous (1.2 million square feet) technology and exposition for 2008 Pack Expo International.

Sustainability was also the topic of Sunday's day-one keynote by Amy Zettlemoyer-Lazar, packaging director of Sam's Club and co-manager of the Wal-Mart Sustainability Value Network.

Wal-Mart introduced "the sustainability scorecard" in 2006. It is part of the company's program to:

1. Be supplied by 100% renewable energy
2. Produce zero waste
3. Offer sustainable products to its customers

The tool is how Wal-Mart and its vendors, suppliers, and partners intend to improve the environmental friendliness of product packaging.

Zettlemoyer-Lazar said while it is hard to ask suppliers to innovate in research and development in these tough economic times, the global economy would eventually turn around.

"These social and environmental challenges will be here for decades," she said. "It's a social, economic, and environmental imperative that we continue with our efforts on the 'scorecard.' "

-- Nicholas Sheble