Plastic Packaging: Now That Deserves an Award


As published in “Plastics Engineering” magazine, a publication of the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Most consumers probably think that creating a new packaging product with plastics is exceedingly easy. Just pick any resin, stamp out some containers, fill them with something – voila. Simple, right?

Or maybe it’s a bit more complicated, as packaging professionals can attest.

Innovative plastic packaging often is the result of a complex collaboration among resin producers, machine makers, additives suppliers, packaging designers and engineers, consumer product companies, and others. And the process can take years. Sustainability, cost, shelf life, heat/cold resistance, barrier properties – these and other attributes must coalesce around one main purpose: protecting the integrity of a product all the way to the final user, such as the American consumer, a notoriously finicky customer.

With all that professional time and energy devoted to packaging that may weigh just ten or twenty grams, it’s no surprise that awards for innovations in packaging are so highly coveted. The AmeriStar Awards from the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IPP), for instance, received more than 150 entries in 2012.

This year the highly respected DuPont Awards for Packaging Innovation celebrate their silver anniversary as “the industry’s longest running, independently judged global packaging awards program honoring packaging materials, processes, technology and service innovations.” While these Awards include packaging made with various materials, the innovations in plastic packaging have attracted much of the attention lately, particularly as the role plastics play in sustainability is becoming better quantified and more readily apparent.

Life-cycle studies on packaging generally find that plastics compare favorably to alternatives in many areas, such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fuel savings in transport due to lower shipping weight. It’s becoming increasingly clear that plastic packaging allows us to “do more with less” – by reducing packaging weight, increasing protection and shelf life of foods, decreasing energy use in manufacturing and transport, minimizing packaging waste, increasing access to recycling, and more.

Sometimes these advances in sustainability are readily apparent to those picky American consumers. For example, Planters® recently replaced its glass jar for dry roasted peanuts with a recyclable plastic jar, emblazoned with the label: “84% less packaging than glass jar by weight!” The company claims that the switch will result in a 25 percent reduction in trucks on the road to ship the same amount of nuts, along with saving millions of pounds in packaging and shipping materials. Other advances often are less noticeable – slimming down the thickness of bottles or reducing the amount of plastic used for foam takeout containers, for example – and still other advances occur in transport packaging that consumers never see.

The DuPont Awards this year “recognize breakthroughs that reduce food waste, a pressing global need.” This focus may help shine a brighter light on how proper packaging – often seen by consumers and public officials as mere waste – in fact contributes significantly to sustainability, in large part by reducing the amount of food that never makes it to the table.

Even in the affluent United States, some experts estimate that food loss – from the farm through distribution to our table – is approximately 40 percent. According to EPA, more food becomes municipal solid waste than any other single material.

The causes of food waste are complicated, but proper packaging can dramatically cut down on spoilage and extend the shelf life of many foods. Just imagine all the time, energy, and resources involved in growing, protecting, delivering, preparing and serving food, as well as the accompanying impacts on the environment. And then imagine simply throwing it all away before we can eat it. Wasting food when a little bit of plastic packaging could have prevented it is … well… a real waste.

Past winners of the DuPont Awards include some iconic examples, such as the Heinz® Dip & Squeeze® Ketchup package that delivers more ketchup with less packaging. But most are less mediagenic advances that contribute to sustainability, product safety, ease of use and other benefits. These awards recognize packaging throughout all stages of distribution, from production through recycling/disposal.

A few past winners that contribute to sustainability:

  • Healthy Choice® frozen meal trays incorporated recycled plastics, helping divert millions of pounds of plastics from the waste stream.
  • Bertolli® pasta sauces switched from glass jars to stand up pouches – one truckload of pouches equals 25 truckloads of glass jars.
  • A micro layer stretch film for protecting beverages during shipping reduces packaging weight by 30 percent and product damage by 80 percent.
  • A plastic vacuum package prevents discoloration of meats and extends shelf life ten times longer than store-wrapped meat, resulting in 75 percent less food waste.
  • A plastic “aerosol can” uses compressed air to dispense food (cheese spreads, dressings) and non-food products – the recyclable package uses 23 percent less energy and emits 68 percent less CO2 than traditional aerosol cans.
  • Lightweight Kraft YES Packs for foodservice operations require 50 percent less energy to make and result in 70 percent fewer CO2 emissions from transport than typical salad dressing bottles – and they’re designed to reduce food waste.

So let’s see … More recycling. Less food waste. More products shipped with less packaging. Fewer trucks on the road. More products protected. Less fuel and energy used. Certainly that deserves an award.

Also, check out the “Recycling Makeover” video series. Watch HGTV’s celebrity interior designer Taniya Nayak demonstrate how easy it is to makeover your recycling habits and to incorporate recycled plastics in your home.