Packagers Taking Eco-Friendly Steps
November 26, 2007,
The recent news that Target Stores has agreed to "systematically reduce" its use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in its products and packaging (two years after Wal-Mart made that same promise) has everyone buzzing again — or, rather, still — about how this and other "green" statements are impacting industries across the board.
With the weight of mega-retailers like Wal-Mart and Target on the green-colored bandwagon, packaging suppliers interviewed by HTT are deep in R & D in search of alternatives, looking for ways to deliver at least a partial, "more" eco-friendly product than what is currently and typically in the marketplace. But the issue — not to mention the chemistry — is complex.
For one, there doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency — not for lack of concern, but due to a realization that pronouncements like Target's are not exactly new. Many states, including California, already have strict guidelines in place limiting PVC in products and packaging, as does most of Europe. And while some alternative materials do exist, none is exactly a panacea.
The chief problems with PVC material are the handling of toxins used in its manufacture and then lingering carcinogens in the finished products. Alternative materials such as ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) and polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA), which both eliminate the dangerous "C" (chloride) found in PVC, are now widely used. That's good, right?
"There is currently no plastic that is biodegradable," according to Morris Abraham, president, Vipac. "There are those that will tell you that additives added to PVC material make it bio-degradable, but the truth is that no plastic as yet meets the accepted common standards of bio-degradability," he noted.
While the R & D teams take on the challenge, Vipac's focus has been to do its part in other green ways. For one, it encourages vendors to include an insert that asks consumers to not throw away their vinyl packaging, but reuse it instead. Or, send it back for recycling and get $1. The campaign began in earnest a few months ago. The company is staying tuned for the results.
As an industry, home textiles fares better than most in this fight, according to Steve Jeffrey, president of Imex. Packaging for things like mattress pads and comforters have long used handles, zippers and other closures for portability and to make them specifically designed for storage. In addition, most packaging for the industry is relatively form-fitting with little waste. That is very different from the electronics industry, for instance, where vinyl clamshell packaging can sometimes be twice or three times the size of the product within the package (think digital camera cards).
But Jeffrey also warns that being eco-friendly means there needs to be an eye on the big picture, not just big, bad vinyl. He reports on an instance when actually switching to vinyl has made economic and environmental sense. This past year the company worked with the Dorel Juvenile Group to create a car seat carrying bag for its Cosco brand convertible car seat. Now in Wal-Mart, the new packaging replaced the large and unwieldy cardboard box in which car seats are typically packed. "Doing this saved about 65 tons of paperboard waste and cut warehouse and transportations costs by about 33%," said Jeffrey.
Debbie Mills, vp, design and product development, EA International, agrees that big-picture thinking is crucial. "I always ask my customers, what is your ultimate goal? What does being earth-friendly mean to you? It's become a full-time job to assess ways to do that for customers and ourselves," said Mills. While EA's team also looks to find the long-term perfect PVC alternative, many of Mills' customers have focused on at least reducing the amount of vinyl they use. "You see companies going from 100% vinyl packaging to 40%, with some fabric panels," she said. "We're also looking at both woven and non-woven alternatives for packaging."
In home textiles in particular, hemp, jute, cotton and bamboo have become popular raw materials for products as well as for packaging. And in some categories, home textiles are innately eco-friendly. Berkshire Blankets, for instance, uses small bellybands as packaging on its blankets, letting customers feel and touch the blanket and providing fairly low-waste packaging by most standards.
So are these small steps enough? Mike Schade has something to say about that. As the PVC coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), he took part in organizing shareholder protests across the country in front of Target stores and at its annual meeting this year. No one can say for sure, but that negative visibility might have sped up Target's environmental messaging.
"We understand that change cannot happen overnight, but we want to see progress," said Schade. "And it isn't an issue of cost. There is minimal difference in manufacturing PVC vs. other, safer alternatives."
Even Schade admits that there is much to be learned and much research to be done, noting that even bio-plastics, which are naturally biodegradable, currently entail a fair amount of pesticides on the crops grown for that purpose. In the meantime, the organization is focused on trying to eliminate the one material that most agree is dangerous. In addition to Wal-Mart, CHEJ has worked with Microsoft, Dell, Nokia, IKEA, SCJohnson and others in taking PVC out of their product lines.
So where will the picket signs be going next? "We have not homed in on one particular company yet, but we're certainly concerned about retailers like Costco and Bed, Bath and Beyond," he said. Take that as fair warning — or as a new opportunity for the industry's suppliers of packaging solutions.