The Environmental Effects of Packaging

by Eva Pongrácz 
Dissertation submitted for the degree of Licentiate in Technology 
Tampere, February 1998
Tampere University of Technology
Department of Environmental Technology
Institute of Water and Environmental Engineering

Chapter 9.

In this chapter the main findings and conclusions of the thesis will be summarised, as well as the future trends in the development of the packaging system will be approximated.

¨ The modern societies offer a wide range of services to the consumers, such as electricity, disctrict heating, overall infrastructure, imported goods. All of these have a significant effect on the environment for exploiting natural resources. They are however, a part of modern life, and offer convenience. The balance between their environmental effects is not necessarily known. There is, however, a lot of criticism against packaging, for their environmental effects. The attention of consumers is turned especially towards packaging of everyday goods, such as food, and household detergents. Few appreciate the roles of packagings, and even less know that packaging has positive environmental effects.
¨ The positive effects packagings are the safe delivery of the product to the consumer while preserving the designed and processed usage and/or aesthetic values of the product. Packaging also plays an important role in saving natural resources by preventing the product to be wasted and the invested material and physical labor getting lost. Since the value of the product generally far exceeds that of the package, the optimal product use, is more important than the optimal package use. While the package prevents the product to be contaminated, it also prevents the environment to be polluted by the product. To summarise, the packaging is an important tool of optimal resource use.
¨ Packaging is optimal, if it fulfills the service expected, in a favorable way, for both the producer and the consumer; while using the least amount of material, and energy.
¨ Apart from the protective function, packages have a very important intermediate role in the modern marketing. Being a link between production and consumption, the package carries a message from the producer to the consumer. The role of the shopkeeper is taken by the packages, and clearly in the competition of the goods win that one, what can use the most efficiently those seconds the consumer has to view them.
¨ Packaging can be defined as a set operations, which fulfil the function of creating sales units of the product. Packaging system, however, reaches beyond: includes also the delivery, use of the product, and finally the treatment of the waste package. Since packages are made exclusively for the product’s sake, the packaging system is a part of the product’s system.
¨ The choice of a packaging system is a very complex decision, and is based on the following main factors-groups: protection of the product, available packaging technology, economics, marketing considerations, product’s properties, environmental considerations, legal constraints. Historically, the effort to achieve higher protection was the strongest driving force in packaging development. Generally the package’s properties are adjusted to the product’s, but sometimes the product’s properties are modified in order to enable more practical packaging.
¨ The overall negative image of packages derives from their relatively high percentage in the household waste. This, however, indicates rather the level of consumption than overpackaging. Packages are never made for themselves. The major basis of its existence is the delivery of the product to the consumer. Hence the packages can never be viewed separately neither from the product, nor from consumption. The rising amount of packages in the waste stream only indicates increasing consumption.
¨ The image of individual packaging materials is especially diverse. Some materials, such as plastics have the most negative image, albeit of being lightweight and sturdy, thus giving the advantage of maximal service with minimal resource use. It is especially true for composites, which combine several materials for better protection, while using minimal amount of the individual materials. Plastics and composites are optimal packaging materials, and can therefore, be considered as environmentally preferable. The judgment of environmental friendliness cannot be based solely on the type of packaging material.
¨ Paper uses a renewable source, thus can and will continue to be used widely for packaging purposes. On the other hand, recycling of paper requires fossil sources, because of transportation demand, and reprocessing. This questions the positive environmental impact of paper recycling.
¨ The use of glass for packaging is a state-specific question. The raw material is in plentiful supply and there are no technical barriers to its reuse, or recycling. If there is a well working system of glass use in one country, changing of it may involve significant expenditures, as well as environmental impacts. In several countries, where transportation distances are high, and other sources are also at hand, reusable glass was superseded from the market. In other countries, with smaller distances, and with a well working infrastructure, reuse is preferred, partially because there are no other solutions at hand. The future trend of glass collection may be of mixed collection, with wider use of green glasses. This consequently would require change of traditions, and acceptance from the consumers’ side.
¨ Aluminium, for its light weight, and the high savings offered with its recycling, can also be an effective packaging material in those countries, where aluminum is in common use, and the recycling infrastructure works well.
¨ The expansion of steel use in packaging is not probable. Its usage is restricted to a narrow horizon of  goods, such as perishable food (fish, meat, vegetables, fruits). Considering their lightweighting, and the expansion of other packaging materials usage, the percentage rate of steel use will probably decrease.
¨ The rise of so called refill packages, and other specific packages such as vacuum packagings, aseptic packagings, which offer longer shelf-life is expected, to further promote an ever higher service, while reduced resource use.
¨ It is not probable that the so called “big packs” would spread, they can be used just for such products, which have a long life, and are frequently in use. The danger of bigger packs is that the product looses its quality during the long storage, and finally will be discarded, thus resulting higher wastage than what was saved with packaging material. Another problem is their higher weight, difficult handling and larger space requirement. There is also the danger that one will use car for delivery of big packs, and thus increase the environmental load by the product’s consumption.
¨ It can be expected that the amount of smaller portioned goods will grow, for the reason of urbanisation, and rising percentage of one-person and small households. This way it will be avoided that the product not consumed will be wasted. It is preferred, since generally the products environmental effects are higher than the package’s.
¨ The packaging development will follow the product development that leads towards concentrated products for the better resource use efficiency.
¨ Reclamation of packaging wastes is an accepted way of reducing the packagings’ environmental impacts. Reclamation, and in particular recycling, however, are also industrial activities, and have resource demand, and result emissions. Recycling can be an important way in achieving certain environmental goals, but it shall not be a goal by itself.
¨ From an ecological point of view and on the basis of the comparative analysis of feedstock recycling and energy recovery of waste plastic packagings, the following recovery processes are recommended: use as reducing agents in blast furnaces, thermolysis to petrochemical products and fluidised-bed combustion. Mechanical recycling processes have ecological advantages over feedstock and energy recovery processes if virgin plastic is substituted in a ratio of 1:1. If considerably less than 1 kg of virgin plastic is substituted by 1 kg of waste plastic, mechanical recycling processes no longer have and advantage over feedstock recycling and energy recovery processes.
¨ Since for some countries excessive recycling is not affordable, the international regulation of recycling by fixed rates is not possible, and may be economically and even environmentally harmful.
¨ The most preferred way of reducing the packagings’ environmental effects is the lightweighting of packages. It is a free market oriented issue, its regulation is not possible and not necessary. Enhancing lightweighting by regulation can only be done the lifting of fixed recycling rates of packaging materials.
¨ Practice shows that if demanding targets are introduced against a background of insufficient information and experience, it would lead to uneconomic and ineffective practices. It is essential therefore, that legislation incorporates provision for regular review of all targets, and where necessary, they shall be appropriately amended.
¨ The amount of  packaging waste is rising and its disposal is a very visible part of environmental problems for the consumer. It is, however, just a part of the national waste management, and shall not be treated isolated from it.
¨ Reduction of wastes requires the involvement of the public in both collective and individual levels. The introduced regulations need well-coordinated campaigns to inform the citizen of the goals, and their duties. The polluter pays principle, imposed by waste collection fees, seems to be an efficient way of arising the consumers’ environmental consciousness.
¨ On industrial level the use of ‘economic sticks’, such as eco-taxes and levies has became widespread. Taxes are commonly used as a means of raising the price of disposable or non-recyclable goods with an incentive to set up deposit-refund schemes. Often, however the taxes are too low to give any impact on the choice of packaging. It can be concluded that packaging taxes had no effect on the choice of the packaging system by the industry, neither on the amount of waste.
¨ At present, environmental labeling in most of the countries e.g. in Scandinavia, is not necessarily enough a marketing asset to justify the application and annual fees. The central aim of it is to help consumers to choose products that are less harmful to the environment. Eco-labeling can be a useful instrument to focus environmental concerns existing in a society. It is, however, crucial that consumers are aware of the existence of labeling, and have a trust in it.
¨ For assessing, or comparing different packaging systems, a full Life Cycle Assessment has to be used. Thorough studies show, that it takes considerable time, money and work to make even a proper life-cycle inventory for packaging systems. It is also evident that energy intensity should not be used as an aggregate measure for environmental quality. Assessed environmental quality depends strongly on how the system is assumed to be put together and operate. Topology and operational relations also have a decisive effect in the assessed environmental quality of the studied system.
¨ A crucial problem of evaluation and interpretation of the inventory results is that they depend on social, and political preferences rather than on technical development. Also there are several parts of LCA that can significantly change the results of the study e.g. when defining the functional unit, and system boundaries. Another traditional problem is the allocation of multi input and/or output systems, and allocation of recycling when it is outside of the studied system. When whole packaging systems are assessed, and the results may affect the material flows in the society, it is not enough to assess only ecological consequences. An environmental assessment does not mean only ecological impact analysis.
¨ Packaging is strongly influenced by social, political preferences, regulatory and economical effects. In addition, packaging is not only a product: a package, but a system, and the package itself cannot be separated from its content. Life-Cycle Assessment in turn is ment to assess products. It can thus be concluded that the method of Life Cycle assessment in its present form cannot give satisfactory results for overall analysis of packaging systems.
¨ Finally it can be asserted that even if packaging plays an immense role in achieving a sustained development, its most important actors are the consumers themselves. No regulation can be so effective as a well informed, environmentally conscious, ethical public.

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