More and more companies are concerned about their carbon emissions and are looking for ways to reduce or offset their carbon footprints. A carbon footprint refers to the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted due to everyday activities both on an individual and corporate level.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas emitted through direct or indirect activities like your morning commute or throwing away packaging materials like plastic water bottles or paper coffee cups.
In order to reduce the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted, companies need to perform an audit or a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to identify areas that can be improved. A great place to start is simply assessing the impacts of a company's packaging operation since a great deal of carbon dioxide is emitted through material sourcing, production, transportation, and disposal.
By analyzing carbon footprints, using lower impact sustainable packaging materials, and implementing more automations in the packaging process, companies can do their part in cutting out toxic emissions and provide their customers with highly desirable eco-friendly solutions.
Cardboard packaging is one of the most commonly used packaging materials and is also environmentally friendly. Corrugated cardboard is made from paper pulp which is a natural material derived from timber. It can be recycled to create more cardboard packaging materials. This means that cardboard packaging saves trees and reduces carbon emissions in the process.
While some cardboard is not recyclable (it depends on your local recycling plant’s capabilities) it is still an energy efficient packaging material. Because cardboard is typically made from recycled materials it uses less energy to produce. And because cardboard is often sourced from local materials, the cost and emissions of transportation is significantly less than traditional materials derived from plastics.
According to Consumer Ecology, the total carbon footprint from cradle to grave for a cardboard box is 0.94 kg CO2e / kg. The total carbon footprint for flat cardboard is 1.53 kg CO2e / kg. This is a much smaller carbon footprint than plastic or styrofoam packaging materials. It should be noted that some cardboard packaging is bleached or additional inks are used for labels printed directly on the cardboard. Those factors contribute to the overall environmental impact of the cardboard and should be taken into account when performing a life cycle analysis or audit.
Plastic packaging is one of the biggest contributors to pollution in our landfills and oceans. In fact, manufacturing one pound of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic can produce up to three pounds of carbon dioxide. Besides the manufacturing process, transportation of plastics contributes to a large carbon footprint.
To fully understand the carbon footprint of plastic packaging, let’s look at the life cycle of a plastic package. Plastic packaging materials are made from resins derived from oil or petroleum and natural gas. These source materials need to be transported to the manufacturer either by train, truck, or shipping container. Transportation may be over long distances meaning more fuel is used and more carbon dioxide is emitted into the air.
The second stage of the plastic packaging life cycle is the production stage. Once the materials have been delivered to the manufacturer the plastic resins need to be heated up and molded to fit the needs of the product. Lots of energy is used to create different types of plastics that serve different purposes.
After the plastic packaging is created it needs to be cleaned, the product needs to be placed inside the packaging, and the packaging needs to be stored in a warehouse or transported to its final destination. This can be done manually or through an automated process depending on the scale of the company. While the manual process may seem like it would use less energy, automations are actually more useful in monitoring energy usage and minimizing the amount of waste produced, contributing to a smaller carbon footprint.
Once all of that is said and done, and the plastic packaging is delivered to the end user, the disposal process creates more waste as the plastic material can take decades to break down in landfills. When plastics and petroleum-based products are thrown away, they sit in landfills releasing harmful greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Plastic packaging is a huge contributor to a company’s carbon footprint, but there are more environmentally friendly solutions which can offset total CO2 emissions.
Instead of using traditional oil or petroleum based plastics, many companies are turning to a more sustainable substitute. Bio-based plastics offer the same flexibility and durability as traditional plastics but because they are derived from eco-friendly materials, they break down easier and emit less harmful greenhouse gases.
Food packaging is something we come into contact with on a daily basis. Everything we eat or buy in grocery stores and restaurants has most likely come into contact with packaging in some form or another. The sheer amount of food packaging we use daily contributes to the amount of food packaging that clogs our landfills and ecosystems. According to the EPA food and food packaging materials make up almost half of all municipal solid waste.
Food packaging is usually single-use and non-recyclable so when it is thrown out, it ends up in a landfill and takes decades to decompose. Food packaging is commonly made from synthetic materials like plastics, paper, wood, and wax. On top of the synthetic materials used in food packaging, many packaging materials contain coatings, like additional plastics and polymers, that do not break down naturally.
When traditional packaging like plastic is thrown out it will typically either sit in a landfill or be incinerated. Both options contribute to air pollution as they emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Cutting out unnecessary packaging and using lower impact packaging materials for food is essential for reducing the overall carbon footprint of food packaging.
While consumers can choose to only buy food in eco-friendly packaging that is often expensive and limits what food you can buy and where you can buy it. However, consumer demand for sustainable solutions is pushing more and more companies to adopt environmentally conscious alternatives to traditional packaging. As more companies focus on sustainable options, not only will they reduce their carbon footprints, but consumers will have more options for shopping sustainably.
One alternative packaging material is made from sugarcane. This low impact material is derived from sugar cane fibers called bagasse. Typically, once the juice is extracted from the sugarcane (to make sugar or be used in other industrial processes) the by-product is disposed of or incinerated for fuel. However, the remaining pulp can be used in the packaging industry to create a flexible yet strong material similar to traditional polyethylene plastic.
To make sugarcane fibers suitable for packaging the bagasse is mixed with water to form a pulp similar to wood pulp. Then heat and pressure is applied to mold the pulp into whatever shape is needed for the product. Sugarcane packaging is renewable and ethically sourced. It reduces the need to cut down trees unlike paper products which often take over 20 years to break down in landfills and contribute to deforestation.
Sugarcane packaging can be molded into any shape and is biodegradable making it the perfect eco-friendly packaging alternative to paper, styrofoam, and plastic packaging. And, because sugarcane packaging is not dependent on fossil fuels the production of this material emits less carbon dioxide than traditional plastics.
What's more, sugarcane is actually considered a carbon sink, meaning that the amount of carbon released during the sugarcane growth and production process is less than the amount of carbon the crop absorbs. By transitioning away from traditional oil-based materials in favor of bio-based materials like sugarcane, companies can reduce their carbon footprint and absorb harmful carbons through sustainable methods.
Another alternative packaging material that is growing in popularity is hemp packaging. Hemp packaging offers a biodegradable, compostable, and renewable alternative to traditional packaging materials. It is used to make paper, textiles, bioplastics, and much more. Not only is hemp a sustainable material, but the crop is also extremely beneficial for its environment.
The hemp crop requires very little water, pesticides, and fertilizers to produce a high yield. It can also be grown in almost any soil type meaning it can be grown locally. This cuts down on the amount of carbon emissions normally produced during transportation.
Hemp can grow to maturity in four months and is a great rotational crop because it remediates, or purifies and revitalizes, the soil. As a restorative and regenerative crop, hemp is a great choice for packaging materials and for local ecosystems.
Similar to sugarcane, hemp is also carbon neutral. In fact, one metric ton of hemp absorbs 1.5 metric tons of carbon. This material absorbs more carbon than it emits making it a great packaging alternative for companies looking to offset their emissions. As more companies turn to hemp for alternative packaging solutions, there is hope that this crop will become a staple in our society.
A rising factor in reducing carbon emissions is artificial intelligence (AI) and automated systems. There are many opportunities for AI technology in the packaging industry to offset a company’s carbon footprint. Automation can be used to monitor energy usage and find ways to save resources. That could mean using automations to turn off the lights when no motion is detected or implementing automations to package products.
AI and robotics have come a long way since their invention and we are now seeing how beneficial they can be in speeding up processes and reducing scrap waste. Automated packaging processes are often faster and more efficient than manual processes which cuts down on energy usage and waste. Automation brings countless space saving possibilities with different set-ups and configurations which means corporations can reduce their carbon footprint by producing more in a smaller space.
Sensors can be used to monitor electricity and water usage in the packaging process and optimize that usage to reduce total carbon emissions. AI is a useful tool right now because of the labor shortage and supply chain delays exacerbated by the pandemic. This means companies can stay on top of their production levels even during the labor shortage.
While some argue that introducing AI will take jobs away from people, the truth is AI can be used to take care of the more monotonous tasks carried out in packaging, allowing employees to focus on more meaningful tasks. AI technology has the potential to increase production without increasing costs and can be used to monitor energy consumption to reduce total carbon emissions. Reduce, reuse, and recycle
Carbon dioxide emissions are one of the biggest threats to the environment, inspiring both individuals and companies alike to take actions towards reducing their carbon footprints. Companies are starting to see that one of the biggest contributors to their carbon footprints are in the packaging industry.
The three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) represent the first steps that need to be taken in order to reduce CO2 emissions in the packaging process.
Reduce your carbon emissions by performing a life cycle analysis to uncover the areas in your packaging process that emit the most carbon dioxide.
Reuse packaging material like hemp, sugarcane, and cardboards that can be used multiple times before composting.
Use recyclable materials that allow end users to responsibly dispose of their packaging when they are done.
Group O continuously strives to create a more sustainable future for everyone. Not only do we seek to reduce our own carbon footprint, we also empower our clients to do so as well. Contact Group O today for more information on how we can help you help the earth.