Going Green: How Sustainability Changed the Packaging Industry

Going Green: How Sustainability Changed the Packaging Industry

Going Green: How Sustainability Changed the Packaging Industry


Sustainability is defined as the “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” It’s a buzzword you’ve probably heard before. Companies, in virtually every field are focusing on sustainable production, and the packaging industry is no exception. In many ways, the waste created by the packaging industry is what started the sustainability trend.

Sustainability found its way into packaging vernacular in 2006, after Andrew Savitz and Karl Weber published a book entitled “The Triple Bottom Line: How Today’s Best-run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social, and Environmental Success – and How You Can Too.” The book is described by Amazon.com as, “the groundbreaking book that charts the rise of sustainability within the business world and shows how and why financial success increasingly goes hand in hand with social and environmental achievement.” Before the release of Savitz’s book, sustainability was defined largely by its ecological aspects. However, The Triple Bottom Line expanded the focus of sustainability beyond solely environmental factors– by addressing the social and economic factors that come into play as well. It provided a more comprehensive understanding of what the term “sustainability” means.

To fully understand how sustainability reached this comprehensive definition, we have to look to the environmental movement of the 1970s.

1970 was the year in which Americans celebrated the very first Earth Day– a day dedicated to environmental action and awareness. Around this time, several media outlets were determined to educate the American public on the ecological problems in the world through PSAs and commercials. One of the most impactful anti-pollution commercials at the time was the “Crying Indian” commercial from the nonprofit organization Keep America Beautiful.

Although these ads helped to increase public awareness of environmental issues, it wasn’t until the 1980s that people started to blame the packaging industry for the nation’s pollution problems.

The shift was caused by the infamous “Garbage Barge.” Entrepreneur Lowell Harrelson was going bankrupt and needed a way to alleviate his debt. His idea was to transport a massive amount of trash via tugboat from New York to North Carolina. After the trash was deposited, Harrelson hoped to make some money by harvesting the methane from the decomposing trash heap (which was composed largely of discarded packaging). However, things didn’t go quite as Harrelson planned. The barge, containing more than 6 million pounds of New York trash, was turned away from every destination it arrived at, as nobody wanted to deal with the potential disease aboard the vessel.

The barge, a.k.a. the Mobro 4000, was kept at sea for more than 5 months as it wandered from destination to destination only to be turned away from every port. Soon the Mobro 4000 was being highlighted by every news outlet, making it a symbol of the nation’s growing problem with trash. Eventually the trash was simply burned. However, before the hulking heap of trash was finally disposed of, activists from Greenpeace hung a giant sign on the barge that said “NEXT TIME…TRY RECYCLING.” The sign made newspaper headlines and was aired all over nightly news programs which ultimately caused a dramatic shift in the recycling habits of the American population. In the years following the Garbage Barge fiasco, recycling rates among Americans tripled! Although the barge was a symbol of environmental carelessness, it sparked a movement towards sustainability.

The increase in consumer recycling caused packaging manufacturers to start using materials that were more easily recycled. PET, for example, started being used in place of PVC as PET could be broken down and reused with ease. However, although recycled materials were more sustainable for the environment, they were expensive to use. This made using recycled materials un-sustainable for businesses.

However, in 2004 the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) was formed. The SPC defined sustainable packaging in a way that helped both the environment and businesses.

Their definition is as follows:

  • Is beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
  • Meets market criteria for performance and cost
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy
  • Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
  • Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
  • Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle
  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy
  • Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles


Nowadays, it’s practically mandated that companies follow these sustainability guidelines to be successful. Consumer awareness of global waste issues have only grown since the days of the Garbage Barge, putting the pressure on packaging manufacturers to utilize sustainable materials. New developments are being made every year in the field, with some of the most notable developments being the PlantBottle created by the Coca-Cola company, and the bioplastics created by the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance.

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