Environmental concerns about packaging originated in the 1970s and 80s, when environment groups and government agencies became concerned about the increasing use of single use packaging for beverages (replacing refillable bottles) and the impact that this was having on litter.

Lobbying and threats of regulation resulted in the establishment of a national kerbside recycling program for bottles.

In more recent years environmental concerns about packaging have broadened beyond waste and litter, to encompass wider issues of life cycle sustainability.

This is reflected in the scope of the National Packaging Covenant (NPC), which requires companies at all stages of the supply chain to take steps to reduce negative environmental impacts.

The focus of the NPC is on the effects of packaging across its entire life cycle – from raw materials extraction through to manufacturing, use and disposal.

Another important development has been the formation of the Sustainable Packaging Alliance (SPA) to encourage debate and facilitate research in this area. SPA is a joint initiative of Victoria University of Technology, through its Centre for Packaging, Transportation and Storage, RMIT University, through its Centre for Design, and Birubi Innovation Pty Ltd.

The Alliance was formed to provide a focal point for strategic research, technology transfer as well as education and consulting services to underpin and facilitate the development and commercialisation of sustainable packaging systems.

Some of the questions being addressed by SPA through its research program and a series of Industry ‘roundtables’ in 2003 are:

• What is sustainable packaging? How do we convert broad sustainability goals into practical and achievable strategies for the packaging supply chain?

• If sustainable packaging is our goal, how far have we already come? Is the National Packaging Covenant already moving us towards this goal?

• How can we support a faster transition to sustainable packaging? What needs to be done by governments, industry and the community?

Within the industry itself there are signs that some packaging technologists and designers are starting to consider these issues in developing innovative responses to this environmental challenge.

While still in the early stages of commercialisation, the pallet wrap system developed by Safetec Pty Ltd in Australia in conjunction with 3M has the potential to reduce environmental impacts through greater material efficiency.

Stretch tape is used to replace shrink or stretch film, reducing material consumption and waste by around ninety-five percent. The tape is used to firmly hold the palletised load whilst providing maximum ventilation for the produce. It has recently been adopted by Australian fruit grower, Sicilianos, and according to the company has been well received by their customers.

The ubiquitous plastic shopping bag continues to be a focus for environmental concern, with an estimated six billion used in Australia each year. Coles Supermarkets have introduced a reusable ‘Smart Box’ to replace single-use bags.

The solid polypropylene box has a collapsible handle, and is purchased and then reused by the customer. While the system is still being trialed in a number of stores throughout Australia, it offers a good potential solution and performed well in an environmental assessment recently completed by Nolan ITU and RMIT for Environment Australia.

For further information:

National Packaging Covenant

Sustainable Packaging Alliance
- Ross Nicol, Birubi Innovation, 03 9686 8866

Nolan ITU shopping bag assessment
- Environment Australia, http://www.ea.gov.au/industry/waste/ieu/pubs/analysis-final.pdf  

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