As picked up by several news websites today, Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP) have launched a global campaign which aims to show customers that the overall sustainability of a product relates to more than just how it is packaged. KCP provide business to business products under brands such as Kleenex, Scott and Kleenguard.
It’s a complex issue and not just about having recycled packaging, but other things like water and energy consumption and the amount of waste generated too.
We look at being creative with our products, for example, a more absorbent wipe means you use fewer. That’s beneficial to the environment and the buyer, and we want to inform customers about the choices we make as a brand.
A cynical observer might comment that this sounds like someone looking for an excuse to avoid using recycled packaging. However, underneath the corporate sheen lies a valid and important point which relates to something fundamental underpinning our entire environmental effort: why we do it.
It’s certainly not for fun. Being a harbinger of doom is no one’s idea of a good time. The real reason that huge amounts of money, time and energy are being invested into these issues is to try and slow down, stop and ultimately reverse the effects of climate change which are irrefutably making this planet less safe for our species.
And how can we do this?
Very simply by eliminating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
I won’t go into all the ramifications for failing to do this with regards to water, food and habitat but it is too easily forgotten that all efforts towards sustainability are centred around this key issue.
Why am I making this rather elementary point now? Simply because, unless a change in product design or specification (or indeed any environmental initiative) actually leads to a reduction in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it is pointless.
So using recycled packaging (or indeed product) by itself may be pointless. To be worthwhile it has to result in reduced carbon emissions. And that isn’t guaranteed just by being recycled. The entire manufacturing process, journey and disposal options of the packaging has to be examined to work out, through scientific and rigorous calculation, what CO2 impact it will have.
A topical example:
You run a toilet paper factory in Slough, UK. A sales person from the Shanghai Recycle-More Paper Processor (catchy name) calls to say that they produce reams of 100% recycled post-consumer paper waste and you can have it shipped and trucked to your toilet paper factory on a weekly basis. However, you’ve also just taken a call from a sales person from a local, well managed forest where the transport emissions are minimal and deforestation is a non-issue because of the sustainable re-planting policy by the forest. By using the local forest you also don’t have to consider the CO2 generated during the recycling process itself, which a true carbon footprint of recycled paper must do. Both are roughly the same price. Which do you go for?
In purely environmental terms, you need to consider which generates less CO2. In this case it is going to be the non-recycled material.
Mind you, how many toilet paper factories have a well managed forest on their doorstep? The likely reality is that careful measurement will be needed to determine the best source of materials.
This issue is especially complex when it comes to renewable sources of products and packaging such as paper and cardboard. Using these doesn’t necessarily reduce the overall availability of the material as they can theoretically be grown again (provided, again, that the source is well managed). Where the packaging is metal or oil derived (plastics and rubber) there is a very good chance that the recycled option is better, overall, than using virgin material. This is partly due to the massive energy consumption and waste generation from extracting these materials from the earth in the first place.
It is also a matter of clever design. By designing packaging in a way that allows more to be transported in each truck, you reduce the amount of fuel required per item. It sounds like common sense but I would be willing to bet that in the past half-empty or poorly-loaded pallets and lorries were a common feature on our roads. Fortunately this is one of those issues which, once resolved, both saves the business money and helps the environment: a win – win.
So, back to the original question of the post, does recycled packaging matter? The answer is yes but only if the business can demonstrate that it has led to an overall reduction in CO2 emissions. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in futility.