Innovations in eco-packaging to reduce emissions

25 08 2010
Innovations in eco-packaging to reduce emissions
By Jacky Charbonneau, Chief, Enterprise Competitiveness Section, ITC
International Trade Forum – Issue 1/2010

What are the objectives of eco-packaging initiatives? From an environmental standpoint, eco-packaging avoids depletion of non-renewable resources, minimizes wastage and usage of raw materials, reduces pollution and energy consumption and, consequently, global warming and climate changes resulting from fossil fuel usage.

What has been the impact of the climate change agenda on packaging and design?

There are no simple answers but, like other industries, climate change has presented both challenges and opportunities. The three main areas of focus are the use of reusable pack-aging (e.g., glass bottles), recyclable packaging materials, including metal cans, paper and board, and a large number of plastics such as polyethylene terephtalate (PET); reduction-at-source measures (to reduce the amount of packaging used to pack and ship products); and the use of alternative package options (e.g., the production of packaging materials from biomass instead of oil derivatives).

What are the current trends in terms of eco-packaging? 

Obviously, there is a shift away from materials that are considered environmentally damaging, particularly plastics and printing inks. The focus is more on using materials that can be reused or recycled. An example is the replacement of PVC bottles (which release chlorine when burnt) by PET bottles which are recycled into PET fibres for garments. Paper and board, glass and metal packaging industries are widely recycling and reusing materials on a global level, especially aluminium. There is also a trend towards the so-called “bio-packs” (produced from rice and corn starches). However, some might disapprove of this trend due to pressure on arable land otherwise available for food production.

How much does packaging contribute to waste and environmental issues? 

Depending on how it is handled, packaging waste can be a potential source of pollution. Developed countries, especially those in the European Union and Japan, have set up stringent packaging waste recovery regulations in order to minimize the longer-term environmental impact of packaging waste. In the United States and in most developing countries, landfill disposal is common. While in developing countries an informal industry has developed to collect and sort packaging waste for recycling and reuse, major efforts are still required to ensure that packaging does not damage the environment. Good packaging can also reduce wastage by allowing goods to be transported securely over long distances, minimizing product damage and optimizing sales value.

What role are emerging economies playing in developing solutions to eco-friendly packaging? 

Although Japan and some parts of Europe are leading the way in eco-packaging solutions, emerging economies have the potential to play a significant role, particularly in biomass production. It is in countries like Bangladesh, where rising sea levels can threaten traditional food crop production, that opportunities exist to convert traditional agriculture to the production of biomass, to be transformed into biodegradable packaging materials. Biomass can be produced from fast-growing, salt-resistant plants or from farming sea plants and algae, thus allowing farmers to maintain their income and land where they may otherwise have been displaced. Some of the world’s biggest chemical companies are investing heavily in research in this area.

What is ITC doing to support these initiatives? 

ITC has a major role to play in advising and assisting exporters in developing countries on the environmental acceptability of their packaging and have set up a packaging programme to focus on this. Services include awareness building and training on environment-friendly packaging practices for packaging producers, users and intermediaries. ITC also advises exporters and supporting institutions regarding environmental rules and regulations applicable in developed countries. ITC strongly encourages setting up informal and formal packaging waste collection schemes in developing countries that create jobs for the poorest in urban areas.

For more information visit www.intracen.org/ep

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