Sustainable Packaging: Metrics, Standards and Best Practices ...
Sustainable Packaging: Metrics, Standards and Best Practices for Materials
Project Progress to Date
Can packaging be sustainable? This question has been the motivation behind a much
needed research effort started at the University of California, Berkeley, in the summer of 2008.
The “Sustainable Packaging: Metrics, Standards & Best Practices for Materials Processing and
Utilization” project has been focused on developing a framework for improving the sustainability
of manufacturing in the context of packaging. The specific objectives of the study have been to
investigate the methods for evaluating the sustainability of packaging, the approaches for making
the manufacturing of plastic film more sustainable, and the hurdles that prevent the take-up of
these sustainability practices within the relevant firms.
Thus far these undertaking have been conducted through Berkeley’s Laboratory for
Manufacturing and Sustainability (LMAS), with the support of the Sustainable Products and
Solutions (SPS) program, and in collaboration with the Goldman School of Public Policy,
California State University, Chico, Roplast Industries and the California Film Extruders and
Converters Association (CFECA). A diverse group of researchers have taken part in this study,
coming from the disciplines of public policy, information science, and civil, mechanical, and
industrial engineering. In September 2009, an one hundred plus point presentation was prepared
to give a contextual background on the state of packaging and sustainability. This literature
covered multiple topics including concepts of sustainability, the regulatory environment
surrounding packaging, industry data on the packaging market, and technical information about
Following the initial presentation, additional work has been in progress, furthering the
goals as outlined in the original specifications. This expanded work delved deeper into the topics
previously covered. To begin with, an inspection of the specific shopping bags bans and
restrictions was carried out to determine the precise motivations and concerns of lawmakers.
Also, existing metrics that are used to evaluate the sustainability of packaging were compiled
from various packaging assessment standards. These metrics were preliminarily assessed
through an informal application. These efforts lead to specific opportunities for improvements
for plastic film producers. While the concentration of the initial project proposal has not
changed, this ongoing work has refined and deepened the areas for analysis.
On February 17th, 2009, UC Berkeley hosted a colloquial round table discussion with a
diverse group of stakeholder, all of which hold a vested interest in improving the sustainability of
plastic film. The purpose of this meeting was multifaceted, with the specific objectives of
getting feedback on the work done to date, solidifying the future focus of the project; and
identifying additional opportunities for collaboration with organizations doing related work. The
almost 30 participants represented a broad swath of the community, comprised of members from
NGO’s, governmental agencies, independent researcher firms, and the film and resin industry.
In total, representatives came from 12 different groups, including: American Chemistry Council,
California Department of Conservation; California Integrated Waste Management Board;
California Department of Toxic Substances Control; California Film Extruders and Converters
Association; Command Packaging; Empack; Environmental Defense Fund; Heritage Bag
Company, Keep California Beautiful, Moore Recycling Associates Inc., and UC Discovery. In
addition to providing feedback, attendees had the opportunity to present their work and express
concerns beyond the scope of the project’s focus.
In regards to the metrics for sustainable packaging assessments, over 40 different criteria
were identified from 12 different packaging assessment standards. The set of metrics that were
gathered represented four major issues that their inclusion attempted to address. The most
prevalent category was defined as net discarded waste. This concern encompasses issues related
to recycling such as ease of material separation, use of materials known to be recyclable, and
actual recycling and reuse rates. Net discarded waste also covers topics such as manufacturing
waste, degradability of materials, and littering rates. Another central issue expressed by these
metrics was natural resource consumption, which involves the quantities and types of materials
(direct and indirect) used in packaging production. Pollution and global warming metrics,
including air and water pollution, toxicity, and green house gas emissions are a growing focus of
sustainability efforts. Traditional strategic business matters such as consumer preferences, sales,
profits, and regulatory risks were also common metrics.
At present, very little attention has been paid to how best determine a set of metrics that
comprehensively represent sustainability. To address this, future project goals include a further
assessment of these metrics to ascertain their value in assessing sustainability. In the interim, a
preliminary application of the metrics was implemented on plastic bags. This was done to gain
insights into the validity of these metrics and for possible improvements in the manufacturing of
plastic film. This endeavor provided the additional benefit of seven clear areas for the immediate
improvement of plastic bags. These criteria were: 1) recycled material content; 2) recyclability
3) average reuse rates; 4) renewable resource content; 5) degradability; 6) risk of impending
regulations; 7) public image and reputation. These central concerns were consistent with those
that were identified in the initial background research that was outlined in the presentation.
Collected metrics were extracted from current packaging assessment methodologies. The
approaches taken in assessment methodologies were in and of themselves an area of focus for the
project. Such methods were categorized into four main groups: design guidelines; regulations
and standard; ratings, scorecards, and checklists; and analytical methods. Of these techniques,
analytical methods were of particular interest because they are generalized to approach a diverse
number of applications, and they provide a means to track improvements and optimize decision
making. Examples of analytical methods include life cycle analysis (LCA) and green supply
chain management. Extensive work has been done in the development of LCA methodologies,
though specific applications to plastic film have been lacking. Meanwhile, the field of green
supply chain management is still evolving, leaving many opportunities for further exploration.
This topic investigates the relationship between the stakeholders involved in the different stages
of the life cycle, and aims to optimize all activities across the entirety of the lifespan. It also
infuses a higher degree of standardization and objectivity than some of the alternative assessment
methodologies, which have been criticized for this shortcoming. Green supply chain
management will continue to remain a focus of the project because of these traits and the interest
it has elicited from industry.
In summary, the project to date has achieved its objective of a comprehensive review of
existing methodologies and metrics. Progress has been made in determining policy and
standardization issues associated with the industry and suitable metrics of sustainable
manufacturing. The application of metrics to performance measurement and a determination of
materials and processing level impacts and effects are currently underway. Once these steps
have been achieved, a development of standards for best practices, packaging potential, and
validation in industry will be executed.
Current efforts are aimed at achieving the objectives of upcoming project milestones. A
continued exploration of metrics and analytical methodologies to guide and evaluate production
is underway. Additional assessments and improvements of the sustainability of supply chains
are also being conducted. A more in depth examination of end-of-life options and impacts is in
the works; as well as an exploration of regulatory tools to support results found for achieving
sustainability goals. These endeavors are expected to demarcate the subsequent project
The Sustainable Packaging: Metrics, Standards and Best Practices for Materials project is a two
year research project at UC Berkeley and CSU-Chico funded by SPS program. Additional
information about the project can be found at the SPS website: http://spsp.berkeley.edu.