Sealed Air sustainability exec: “Being ‘recyclable’ isn't a silver bullet for e-commerce design”
07 Jan 2019 --- As expectations from consumers and customers become ever-more stringent around how their e-commerce parcels are delivered – sustainably and safely – Sealed Air has been at the forefront of innovation. Speaking to Dan Healey, Director of Sustainability for Sealed Air’s Product Care division, PackagingInsights explores how the company has developed its e-commerce packaging offerings and how being “recyclable” alone is far from being a silver bullet for sustainable e-commerce design.
Sustainability has evolved from a business concept thought of as an “extra,” to a core, unavoidable focus for the packaging industry. Combined with the changing face of consumer consumption habits, such as the mammoth growth in e-commerce channels for distribution, the packaging industry has undergone some momentous shifts in recent years.
Healey: Yes. Consumers are driving the demand for more recyclable solutions. In a lot of cases, it's driven by the section of the supply chain that consumers have full visibility over – the unboxing moment in the home. Online shoppers see the material used, recycle it and pat themselves on the back. But there is much more to the supply chain than just the unboxing moment. By and large, when you use metrics like carbon footprint, the packaging material itself – what its made out of and where its sourced – often only accounts for 5-10 percent of the carbon footprint of the shipping cycle as a whole.
A huge driver for us to consider is damage, which can make up 50 percent of the carbon footprint, while transportation of the item can make up 15-20 percent of the impact. So, how that packaging material behaves, or what it does, has a much bigger overall impact than what the material is. But this still does not change the demand and expectation of the consumer. However, it is driving where innovation needs to go in the future.
So, we don't make decisions solely based on recyclability, if it leads to more damage upstream. Understanding all of the different levers is the important takeaway for these types of decisions.
PackagingInsights: How can we measure “sustainability” in e-commerce packaging design?
Healey: A lot of people think of sustainability and they automatically assume that they should go for a fiber-based solution. But it’s not always the most cost-effective or optimal solution. Trying to find the options that maintain or improve performance, reduce pack weight, while still using recyclable materials is really where we are focused.
Some products do not, on the surface, get recognized for how much of a sustainability driver they are. Sealed Air has a product in its portfolio called Korrvu, which is a retention/suspension packaging solution that combines corrugated paperboard with a thin layer of plastic film. In many situations it reduces damage , cube-size, material usage and parcel weight. When you add that up from a holistic and sustainable perspective, it delivers strong economic and environmental savings, such as a reduction in dimensional waste. These are the innovations that Sealed Air is focusing on. We are minimizing the trade-off between environmental impact, cost and performance. That's a key takeaway.
PackagingInsights: How can we expect to see e-commerce evolve in 2019?
Healey: E-commerce is where the growth is. You have the volume growth, where more items are being sold online and the breadth of what is being shipped online is growing – including groceries, fresh produce, wine, furniture and high-end consumer electronics. As volumes increase, different types of applications will demand higher performance materials. At the same time, the increasing consumer pressure to use more sustainable materials will continue. Combine these two things, and the intersection is where new thinking and innovation is needed.
In light of developments such as Amazon’s Frustration-Free packaging initiative, brands are becoming more aware of what’s happening to a product when it goes out of the door. As e-commerce continues to become a key distribution channel, a lot of products are not designed for single parcel shipment and neither is most primary packaging. The lowest hanging fruit is reducing the packaging in the first place. If you can get a package from point A to point B without damage using the least amount of packaging material, then that is the best scenario. That’s what Amazon is driving towards and it's in line with where we are headed.
The industry is responding rapidly to the challenges of e-commerce. Sustainability is becoming an expectation by our customers and by consumers. In many ways, it’s becoming a market differentiator. If products can packaged in a way that promotes sustainability as part of the brand, it becomes a value driver. It is as much as an economic driver as anything else – and this has sped up the adoption by the packaging industry.
By Laxmi Haigh
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