( Photos by Ashley Nickle )

The demand for sustainability in packaging is growing but the choices in pursuit of that goal aren’t necessarily easy.

That’s the view of Jay Singh, director of the packaging program at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business.

Cal Poly is launching a project looking at sustainable packaging demands on growers from retailers, as well self-motivated goals by companies.

Those goals could be as complicated as having “no plastics” in packaging, moving to biodegradable, compostable paper (or plastics), or defined targets for post-consumer recycled content.

The need and demand for packaging isn’t going away, Singh believes.

Consumers will have a say in what direction packaging trends go, but consumers often buy from the “heart” without a full understanding of the environmental impact of packaging choices. 

“Packaging is a necessary evil and it is not going away,” he said. “If anything, (it) is expanding very, very rapidly,” Singh said, noting the expansion in e-commerce and meal kit business.

Corrugated packaging and flexible plastic material for consumer packs will persist, though plastics will keep evolving and materials with increased post-consumer recycled content are likely to may increase. 

“Most people have a knee-jerk reaction that paper is better than plastic, but if you think about some a standup pouch with almonds in it, if you had to make it out of a rigid material that’s not plastic, you have to have more weight in the bagging material,” he said. 

“Even if that material is paper, the added bulk represents a big carbon footprint. People just assume that since paper literally grows on trees, it is a renewable resource and you have it forever; they don’t understand that there are still energy and greenhouse gases associated with it,” he said. 

Packing suppliers and users have the job of controlling or balancing the negative impacts of packaging, he said. 

“The negative impacts are not going away.”

While there has been significant push-back against plastic water bottles, Singh noted that consumers still buy millions of plastic bottles.

Still, Singh believes the sentiment against plastic is a trend that will continue, and companies like Apple are working to design their packaging without the use of plastics.

Other companies are using “sea plastic,” or plastic trash collected from the ocean that is cleaned and reformulated and processed again.

That is a noble concept, he said, but “sea plastic” carries a much bigger carbon footprint compared with other alternatives.

Even with reusable grocery bags, consumers often forget to take them to the store, Singh said. Training consumers to bring their own clamshells, for example, to collect strawberries could be a daunting task, he said.

Compostable and biodegradable paper and plastic sometimes do not always perform as well as other alternatives in protecting product, he said. Packaging described with the terms “compostable” and “biodegradable” should be certified by a third party, he said.

“Even if they are certified doesn’t really mean that the end of life is going to happen the way it’s supposed to,” he said. 

Biodegradation requires specific temperatures and humidity, and if those factors aren’t available, the packaging can remain in landfills for a long time.
Singh advises taking a thoughtful approach to packaging choices.

“The one thing I caution my students is don’t over-generalize,” he said. 

“If somebody asks you paper versus plastic (in packaging choice), ask 100 questions before you respond. Paper is not the solution for everything and taking out plastic is not the solution for everything.”