The Future of Sustainable Packaging



Industry View from

Packaging the way to a sustainable future

There can be few hotter topics in the world of business right now than that of sustainability, and the need for organisations to demonstrably reduce the damage they do to the environment.


“Limiting the impact of their footprint on the environment has been on companies’ radar for the past 10 years, but for a lot of our customers it’s recently gone from the fourth or fifth bullet to near the top of the list,” says Bob Petersen, vice president of marketing and product management at sustainable packaging firm ORBIS. “It’s now something that’s being considered by companies from the beginning of every process, whether that’s the design of products or changes they’re considering to their supply chain.”


A major focus is around the amount of secondary, or reusable transport packaging used in manufacturing and retail supply chains. When optimally designed, reusable packaging moves product in the supply chain faster, safer, more cost-effectively and with less impact on the environment. The key, says Mr Petersen, is to take a holistic approach towards the entire supply chain, working with partners and suppliers to help reduce single-use packaging and lower emissions.

“There can be token gestures such as moving to a reusable pallet in a specific loop, but unless you understand how everything works together you might be saving in one area but creating more logistics and freight emissions in others,” he warns. “You have to be prepared to take a very broad look at the supply chain in all the different areas that are impacted, and that means working with manufacturing, logistics, marketing and commercial teams. You need good buy-in from your entire organisation to really do it well.”

Working with partner organisations and software can help businesses analyse their operations and supply chains and make recommendations that will deliver genuinely impactful packaging options. These are likely to include reusable plastic totes, pallets, dunnage and bulk systems that can be used over and over again. At the end of their life, he adds, these can be recovered, recycled and reprocessed into new packaging products, without ever entering the solid waste stream.


For example, ORBIS has conducted a study with the Virginia Tech Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design, which demonstrates that reusable plastic pallets can have approximately 18 times the life span of wood pallets. These pallets can complete more than 200 cycles, whereas wood pallets are used on an average of 11 occasions before being taken out of service. “Reusable plastic is going to be working in your system for years and it doesn’t degrade or have the inconsistencies that a lot of one-way packaging does,” says Mr Petersen. “When you use something many, many times you can design the pallet or container to be a bit more robust and better able to stand up to impact.”


Even the material made into such packaging can be sourced from recycled content, he adds. “We often recover our customers’ obsolete packaging, then recycle and use it to manufacture other packaging. It makes their product more sustainable because it’s not going into landfill and they don’t have to find a way to dispose of their waste.”


Already there are examples of where organisations have been able to take action to improve the way they operate. “We partnered with a retailer shipping fluid milk to its network of stores, which involved working with the retailer and the dairies – so we weren’t just spreading out or moving the pain to a different area,” says Mr Petersen. “We came up with a solution that was much more sustainable but also more cost-effective. But that wouldn’t have been achievable if just the retailer or the dairy were going to do it. It needed that collaboration.” ORBIS has also worked with a number of associations to create impact calculators, which can help to assess both the environmental and financial returns on such projects, he adds. ORBIS works with customers to calculate the environmental impacts of their packaging programs, in terms of solid waste, energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions.


Aside from the environmental and financial benefits of moving towards more sustainable supply chains, there’s also a growing reputational reason why organisations should act. “Young consumers are very conscious of the decisions around how products are made and distributed,” says Mr Petersen. “They want to buy from sustainable brands. This is more than just the sustainable products in their shopping cart, but rather the end-to-end sustainability of the entire supply chain, from the manufacturing plant to the point of purchase.


But this isn’t something organisations can achieve on their own, he warns. “There are a lot of people in the industry that are willing to help businesses find a better way to do this,” he points out. “It’s a better way for the supply chain, and for the environment. We can get there together.”

ORBIS Corporation operates in more than 50 locations and has more than 2,600 employees in North America and Europe. To find out more about how ORBIS can help your business reduce your impact on the environment, visit

Images provided by ORBIS.

Related articles

What's next?

Get our latest features in your inbox

Join our community of business leaders