The State of Packaging in Today’s Market (Interview 9)
Today we post the interview with Katherine O'Dea, Senior Fellow and Director, Advisory Services with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Katherine O’Dea joined GreenBlue in July 2007 as a Senior Fellow with over 18 years of experience in sustainability in both the private and nonprofit sectors, and she has recently become the Director of Advisory Services. Katherine’s work at GreenBlue is multifaceted; she currently leads the Advisory Services program and contributes to various Sustainable Packaging Coalition projects (including the Sustainable Packaging Indicators and Metrics Framework), and also plays a principal role in strategy development and investigating new program opportunities for the organization. Katherine was previously Executive Director of INFORM, Inc., an environmental research and education nonprofit, Chief Operating Officer for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Vice President of Business and Environment Programs at Business for Social Responsibility, where she managed BSR’s Apparel Working Group and launched the Clean Cargo Working Group, as well as Founder and Principal Consultant of Ecologistics. Over her career, Katherine has worked on numerous sustainability projects for leading organizations such as The Coca Cola Company, Dell, Dow, DuPont, Ford Motor Company, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Nike, and SC Johnson, among others. Katherine holds a BA in Philosophy and English from Emmanuel College and has also completed graduate work in Philosophy and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and earned a certificate from the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme at the University of Cambridge. When she’s not traveling for business, Katherine finds time to boogie board almost every day from May through October.
1. Will sustainability concerns in packaging level off or continue to rise?
I don’t think I would characterize it as “concerns” per se, but I think a focus on and opportunities for packaging sustainability will continue and likely increase. Packaging is a very consumer facing aspect of commerce. Most products come (and need to come) in packaging. Therefore, it will continue to be ubiquitous and making it, as well as the product it is designed to protect, as sustainable as possible will be key to managing dwindling resources over the long haul.
2. With package manufacturing going overseas, do you see a decline in this activity?
A decline in the transition of packaging manufacturing to overseas production facilities? No I don’t think this will decline, unless there is first a return of product manufacturing to the U.S. Overseas packaging production is, to a large extent, simply following overseas product production. In many cases/sectors, there are economies of scale to be gained/leveraged by packaging the product in the same location it is made. On the other hand, components of some complex products are produced in multiple countries, shipped to the U.S. and then “assembled” here. So I don’t think it is likely that we will see a wholesale shift to overseas packaging production by any means.
3. Do you see the package to product size relationship getting closer?
Of course, in some cases. However, I don’t think this is exactly the right question to ask. While rightsizing – ensuring there is sufficient packaging for it to do its primary job of protecting the product without using more materials than necessary is a smart strategy. Downsizing, just for the sake of downsizing or for decreasing the package to product ratio, may be ill advised. If the package fails and the product is damaged, all potential sustainability gains and more (given the amount of resources embedded in a product) have been lost.
4. What one trend do you see rising in package manufacturing today?
Recovery, recovery and recovery. I think there is an increasing focus on 1) designing packaging to be more recyclable, 2) optimizing the use of recycled content, and 3) improving recovery/recycling infrastructure to increase the amount of all types of materials for reuse, recycling or in a waste-to-energy scenario.
5. Is recycling of packaging more successful today than 10 years ago and what do you see for the future of recycling?
I don’t think there has been dramatic change and certainly not sufficient improvement, but I think there has been a trending in the right direction. I also think the upward trend in recycling will continue, but I don’t think it will get to where it needs to be without 1) some significant investment in our collection infrastructure and technology, and 2) a movement towards more standardized collection systems, locally, regionally and nationally. I think we also need to see a significant growth in the market(s) for recycled materials. It seems like we are beginning to see demand drive supply, but international markets and prices (to date) have sometimes resulted in a disconnect between local demand and availability. The globalization of commerce and socio-economic shifts in demographics is and will continue to be a critical factor.
6. Are we better off trying to recycle packaging or design it for repurposing?
I don’t think this is a zero sum game. I think both are important. Designing a package either for recycling or repurposing should depends on a variety of factors that can vary across the life cycle and the value chain. For, example, which option is “better” could differ depending on what is being packaged, where it is being shipped (and how), into what market(s) (foreign, domestic, urban, rural, remote) it is being sold and more.
7. Is sustainable packaging financially affordable or not?
If it is not affordable, that is to say not necessarily cheapest/least expensive, but able to meet market expectations – it is not sustainable. Sustainable anything – packaging included – has to balance economic, environmental and (social) equity considerations.
8. How much involvement should government have in regards to packaging?
As much as is required to facilitate a more sustainable system of commerce. If the commercial/corporate sector can’t or won’t figure it out, from my perspective, the government has a responsibility to step in. That said, I think there is hope and it is feasible that the commercial/corporate sector will innovate and implement more and more sustainable product/packaging system options that address sourcing, production, transport/distribution, use and end-of life management. This is why I have worked with organizations that engage directly with the corporate sector to “make products (and packaging) more sustainable.”
9. If you could see one thing disappear today from packaging, what would it be?
We need to see more than one thing disappear from packaging. Some things that I, personally, would like to see disappear - in no particular order of priority since the level of concern varies based on packaging format, application, etc. - are: use of PVC, BPA, phthalates that have been identified as carcinogenic or mutagenic, and polystyrene.
10. And if you could see one new thing today in packaging, what would it be?
I think we need more materials innovation. Biopolymers are promising but not (yet) a panacea. Mushroom packaging is awesome for some applications. I’d also like to see a more “precautionary principle” approach to the use of additives and coatings.