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Seven packaging predictions for a resource-strapped future

At SPS 2011, speaker Tony Kingsbury shared his thoughts on how packaging will be affected by a future marked by explosive population growth and insufficient resources.

One of the driving themes at this year’s Sustainable Packaging Symposium, organized by Greener Package and the AIChE’s Institute for Sustainability, was that the global marketplace faces some dire challenges in the near future. A population explosion—9 billion people by 2050, according to estimates from the United Nations—will put intense pressure on critical resources such as water, energy, and land. How will this scenario affect packaging, you might ask? At SPS 2011, Tony Kingsbury, executive-in-residence, Center for Responsible Business, UC Berkeley, and an executive with Dow Chemical, shared some of his packaging-related predictions for a resource-scarce future.

“There is good news and bad news,” Kingsbury told audience members. “If you want to deliver all the goods and services that this growing world is going to want and need, there are great opportunities out there. The bad news is that all these people want the same kingsbury.jpg things that we have today [in the U.S]…. The reality is that the world doesn’t have the capacity to supply all that stuff, which can put the kibash on some of our plans for packaging, if we don’t manage this right.”

“We have to figure out how to do things differently,” he added. “Big changes will be required.” Thus, Kingsbury’s seven predictions for the future:

1. The most resource-efficient package will win. “As we move into this world of greater competition and scarcity for energy and materials, the most carbon- and water-efficient packages will be the winners of the marketplace,” he said. “Carbon and water equate to money.” Kingsbury also stressed the importance of looking at packaging efficiency in terms of a systems approach, taking into consideration the energy required for storage, consumer use, end-of-life, and other stages of the package life cycle, as well as the environment in which the package will be used.

2. Functionality will be king. “In the future, packaging functionality will be even that much more critical,” he said, noting that if packaging is 10% of a product’s footprint, and the other 90% is the product itself, a failed package will result in a loss of 100% of the energy and materials that went into the product.

3. Keeping the molecule in play will gain momentum. This prediction, one of the most quoted statements at this year’s symposium, refers to the need for packagers to become more creative and proactive in their reuse of materials. Kingsbury predicts that as resources become scarce and prices for these materials increase, economics will drive the recycling infrastructure, and recycling rates will increase. “This will drive recycled content,” he said. “As we collect more of these materials, we will find creative ways to put them back into something of value.”

4. Reusables will gain marketshare where it makes systems sense. “It’s a version of keeping the molecules in play,” he explained. “We are going to see reuse of boxes and bottles and all sorts of things, where distribution channels and supply chains allow.” He also predicts a greater localization of supply chains.

5. Bio-based packaging materials will grow, but not necessarily biodegradable. He predicts that, as oil and gas become scarcer and more costly, innovations in packaging will thrive, including the use of bioplastics. He believes that traditional polymers, such as polyethylene, PET, and polypropylene produced using renewable resources will take the lead over new plastic alternatives such as polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). The reason, he said, is that traditional polymers are very efficient from a systems standpoint, having been optimized over decades. “The PET is molecularly the same,” including its ability to be recycled, he explained. “The only way you can tell the difference in them is to carbon-date them. New carbon versus old carbon is basically what it comes down to.” In Kingsbury’s opinion, composting—an end-of-life alternative offered by resins such as PLA—“is a pretty inefficient way to keep the molecule in play.”

6. Transparency will drive societal full-cycle thinking about packages. In the future, packagers are going to need to understand the full life cycle of their materials and be able to convey that information. “Transparency—where is your stuff coming from?” he said. “How is it managed at end-of-life? You are going to have to be able to understand and articulate that. You are also going to have to understand how your packages are used, and how they affect the people they come in contact with.” Consumers are increasingly concerned about issues such as BPA, phthalates, ink toxicity, and others. “We need to have those answers soon,” Kingsbury warned, “because the questions are coming.”

7. Life-cycle data will increasingly drive material decision-making. This data will help packagers understand the resources, their societal implications, the value chain, end-of-life options, and other issues related to packaging materials. “Life-cycle data helps us understand frankly the function and the broader systems,” Kingsbury concluded.

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