Harnessing the Molecules: Packaging and Sustainability

packaging_blog_headerPackaging and the environment: a contentious relationship or a necessary and complex partnership? Or both? When you think of packaging and the environment, what images does that conjure up? Probably not anything very pretty — think of packaging that doesn’t make it into a recycling stream. So, is that the whole truth or a small snapshot of a much larger, multidimensional, panoramic view?

Back in 1911, when John Muir, a noted naturalist, wrote “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” he never would have anticipated it would provide the basis of inspiration and context for a course in packaging and the environment in 2015. In fact, today it seems counterintuitive.

But, it need not be.

The relationships between packaging and the environment, especially in regard to sustainability, are wrought with complexity. (Now, really, ask yourselves are we really being sustainable? I say not. I will say with certainly we strive to be more sustainable — a topic for another post.) This complexity can only be addressed when all the stakeholders—from raw materials extraction, through converting and manufacturing, distribution and logistics to retail and consumption to the end-of-life of that package—contribute toward the common goal of closing the gap between what is, and what could be, closer and closer to truly sustainable. The molecules of materials cannot go quiet; keeping them in motion will require the best of our imaginations and conviction.

No one person, no one discipline, can influence the course of what will be. Progress will take all of us to pitch in. Shared knowledge and understanding can accelerate our progress through innovation and collaboration across value chains. The global consumption trajectory is expected to grow as more and more middle-class consumers contribute to the grid of life. Water and natural resources will be stretched; space will become more precious; carbon footprint and global warming threats will continue to demand our attention. And the looming issue of waste will continue to taunt us. This means that business as usual will not suffice, and it will take visionary business leaders who grasp the fundamentals of packaging science to transform how packaging decisions can impact the entire supply chain of their business.

John Muir was a visionary. How did he know his most astute observation would become the thread of connectivity among disciplines and practices striving to make a smaller ripple in the Universe?

If you’re interested in learning more about packaging and the environment, sign up for our webinar. Want to add packaging science to your résumé? Take a look at the new packaging course we now offer through RIT Online: Packaging and the Environment.

About the author: Deanna Jacobs is the graduate program director for packaging science and has taught in the field for 28 years.