What's New in Sustainability and Packaging for Wipes?

By Susan Stansbury, Contributing Editor | April 14, 2012

Wipes are no exception when it comes to green packaging trends.

Momentum continues for sustainable packaging in virtually all categories, and wipes are no exception. Continued progress in sustainable packaging for wipes means that designers, developers and brand owners will need to overcome certain obstacles as well as take advantage of the best in “green” solutions.

“A challenge for the wipes market is the response to sustainability needs,” says industry consultant Phil Mango.“Consumers and governments are calling for increased sustainability of nonwoven products, especially disposable products like wipes.Sustainability today is very much like flushability was several years ago; consumers wanted flushable wipes, governments demanded flushable wipes, but the lack of standards made it more complex.”

The INDA/EDANA guidelines on flushability have begun to change this; sustainability needs a similar, well defined, easily understood and widely accepted standard….otherwise, as is the case today, almost any product can (and does) make some kind of sustainability claims. The ability of the nonwoven wipes industry to produce real improvements in sustainability will be a win for the industry, for consumers, for the environment and for wipes market.

There are so many aspects to sustainability, that standards will be multilayered and defined for various aspects of the supply chain and life cycle. Indications are that these issues are being sorted out. In basic terms, sustainability usually deals with nature, the economy, society or, all three together. It is not about maintaining things as they are today. It’s about the rate of change, and about equity between generations. Sustainability is a continually evolving process, as is packaging.

There is much that can be accomplished in the near future just by analyzing and implementing the aspects pertinent to an individual product or process. Like quality process analysis, sustainability is what makes sense for particular situations. Packaging principles are the first place to re-visit. Like all product successes, you first have to define a good result…and then make it green.As Erin Wolford of Flexible Packaging magazine, says, “Sustainability is a major goal, when it does not interfere with product or service quality. Sustainability is morally right, but in business, sustainability has to make business sense, too.” Good, sustainable design includes addressing issues that deliver a useful package, as well as advance sustainability principles.

Packaging Design & Sustainability Elements

1.Choosing materials for performance and delivery of packaging features.
2. Physically designed to optimize materials and energy usage.
3.Selecting materials that can be recycled, reused or offer other environmental solutions.
4.Considering design of packaging life cycle for reuse, refill and long term loyalty.
5.Improving the ratio of product-to-package, or reduction of packaging.
6.Use of packaging that optimizes labeling, printing and associated processes.
7.Creating effective design, with cost targets and highly competitive features.
8.Asking: How well does the package provide access to the product?
9.Asking: How well does the package protect contents and have ease in reopening?
10. Keeping the ingredients/content fresh and intact use after use?
11.Determining: How well does the container open after repeated usage?
12.Asking: Is there a technique to opening or using the package?

Where's The Emphasis?

“For manufacturers, from giant multinationals to local indie labels, building an enviable image of an environmentally conscious brand often begins with the packaging,” comments Jamie Matusow, editor, in an issue of Beauty Packaging magazine. The article notes that consumer products leader Unilever purchases more than two billion tons of packaging every year, so they "focus on where we can make the biggest difference.” Brand Packaging magazine concurs, “packaging has remained center stage” in efficiency improvements and sustainability.

What's new in packaging is that the principles of improved design for sustainability are better optimized as we move forward. There are few true innovations in sustainability factors, rather it's the emphasis and up-front focus on making products and packages greener. Terms like EPR (extended producer responsibility) make it clear that developers have a responsibility to consider their product's lifecycle, well beyond the designer's immediate involvement. When the product is used up and disposal occurs: Were there pre-planned considerations regarding the amount of waste, composting, reuse and impact?

Industry Expert Yolanda Simonsis of PFFC-online, says that “Disposability, compostability and sustainability are terms that are frequently yoked together in the same breath. We are seeing increasingly aggressive efforts on the part of action groups that support use of 'greener' materials in the municipal waste stream. This is not a bad thing per se. Sadly, however, the perception of what is ‘green’ is frequently a misperception that does not take into account a material’s total carbon footprint.”

Did those making demands consider energy usage, in-process waste levels and other process elements?

The chain of responsibility for product outcomes, along with total impact, falls increasingly on the initiators, the designers and producers. Each step along the way involves linked commitments for
sustainability, including:

Pushing responsibility back to the product and package originators is occurring because they are the ones who initiate the chain reaction of nearly everything that happens from design to end of life. The perception of the product is mostly due to the brand owners' decisions. Regulatory entities are reaching back to them. Consumers are tracing their way back from the retailer to the producer-developers. And, as marketers, the brand owners have to expect that their promotions also have to take responsibility for the “rest of the story.”

A breakdown of factors under consideration has been undertaken by companies such as Dow, asking: "What conditions do you most want to improve?" Some of the issues they find include depleting clean water sources, running out of fossil fuels, CO2 emissions, litter and using up landfill space, poor health and safety, pollution, and energy dependence.

Product & Packaging Materials

An analysis of materials used to make wipes packages is key in design for improved environmental impact. Both direct-contact packaging, and outer packaging/cartooning/bagging materials come under consideration. De-construction or dis-assembly of current products is one starting point in capturing the component elements to use or replace.

Green efforts are trickling down to the
packaging in wipes and a number of other
consumer products.
Availability of renewable materials for paper and plastic packaging has captured attention of developers.Materials like PLA (polylactic acid), which is derived from renewable resources such as corn are improving, both in terms of performance and sources of supply. Yet, moving to new materials places a testing burden on users to determine safety and performance. Observations at a recent biopolymers conference in New York City demonstrate the complexity, with several displays devoted to chemicals aimed at making these new plastics more rigid, or softer, or stronger. It's apparent that there is a market for improving these new materials to make them equivalent to "standard" plastics and packaging.

"One of the hottest contested areas that likely will remain in consumers’ mind as a negative perception is the plastic grocery bag along with the general feeling that all plastic, including other disposable products such as wipes, is ‘bad,’ says Simonsis. “Our industry has a lot of work to do in providing intelligent, educated, and comprehensive responses to these perceptions on the ground level--frequently, one on one. It is important for brand owners to emphasize what benefits their packaging provides and how best to dispose of it in a manner that is responsible and protects the environment.”

Useful work in replying to quick judgments about wipes and packaging has been to replicate the analysis of total-cost-to-use and total impact, which is work done by some disposables producers competing with reusable shop towels. When reusable products seem to automatically be better, a more complete analysis may show the reverse when chemicals and energy used to launder, potential harm to individuals reusing contaminated materials etc. are considered.

Materials Considerations

Wipes and packaging material components are the building blocks of sustainable products. Careful selection not only sets up a greener scenario, it dictates product performance overall. There are some critical questions to be answered when selecting materials:
What is the carbon and environmental impact--and the tools for calculating and reporting?
Do the chosen materials meet marketing, competitive, performance and sustainability goals?
What is value proposition for using bio (renewable) product elements and packaging?
How do your product and packaging claims avoid "green washing" and misleading statements?
How are you articulating options for source and in-process reduction of waste and energy; reuse; recycling; energy recovery; and other end of life improvements.
How are you tracking international standards, initiatives and regulations?
How are you communicating and tracking measurements and life-cycle-based outcomes?

Perhaps Steven Cristol of Sustainable Brands has said it best:“The overwhelming majority of most product companies’ environmental footprint is, of course, in the products themselves. Each year sustainability perceptions have a larger impact on brand equity and its attendant revenue, pricing power, and customer and stakeholder loyalty." With those factors growing, designing for wipes products and packaging sustainability continue the march forward.
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