The ISO standard on Environmental labels and declarations (ISO 14021:2016) states that the concepts involved in sustainability are highly complex and currently there are no definitive methods for measuring sustainability. Therefore no claim of achieving sustainability can be made. Yet, the term sustainable is widely used e.g. by packaging material providers and brand owners – and as a result ‘sustainable’ can refer to a variety of features.
The definition of sustainable packaging commonly covers one, or several, of the following attributes:
- is made from renewable, recycled and/or third-party certified raw materials.
- is reusable, recyclable, biodegradable and/or compostable, i.e. it fulfils the recommendations of the EU’s action plan for the Circular Economy.
- is manufactured using raw materials, water and/or energy efficiently.
- is manufactured using clean production technologies and/or renewable energy causing fewer emissions.
- enables efficiency and fewer emissions in the logistics chain.
- is lightweight, right-sized, fit-for-purpose and/or produces less waste compared to other alternatives.
- is designed to optimise the production process and the use of resources, as well as to minimise the use of glues and other additional chemicals.
- is safe for individuals, communities and the environment throughout its life cycle.
Media publicity around single use plastics and marine littering, as well as emerging regulations, have boosted the conception that packaging is litter and waste. Several well-known brand owners and retailers have responded to this with the initiative to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging.
To ensure reusability, recyclability and compostability of packaging, there should be adequate infrastructure and processes available for the majority of users to take care of the packaging at the end of its lifecycle. In fact, international standards and guides for the use of environmental claims, e.g. by ISO and US Federal Trade Commission, require that there should be qualified evidence on the specific sustainability-related features of the packaging and appropriate disposal instructions to the consumers.
It should also not be forgotten that packaging usually has a minor environmental impact compared to producing the product itself. As packaging protects its content, increases product safety and prevents food waste, the most sustainable option is still to pack the product appropriately.
Sari Koski, PhD, Hydrobiology,
Sustainability Specialist, Metsä Board
Read more articles about urbanisation:
To prepare for the future, Metsä Board has established an ‘Urbanisation radar’ to better understand the effects of urbanisation on lifestyles, consumption and packaging, and to contribute to more sustainable solutions. Our ‘Urbanisation radar’ is an umbrella approach to collect, share, interpret and implement the findings. Stay tuned – we look forward to discussing and collaborating on the key themes in our channels.