Essay on Sustainability and Packaging

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Unwrapping the Discourse:
Product Stewardship and Sustainability in the Australian Packaging Industry


1Centre for Design at RMIT University, GPO Box 2476V, Melbourne VIC 300, Australia;
2Packaging and Polymer Research Unit, School of Molecular Sciences, Victoria University, P.O. Box 14428, MCMC, Melbourne, Victoria, 8001, Australia
3Sustainable Packaging Alliance (an initiative of Victoria University, RMIT University and Birubi Innovation), Melbourne, Australia

Corresponding and Presenting Author: Associate Professor Kees Sonneveld
Phone: +61 3 9216 8043
Fax: +61 3 9216 8074

The packaging industry has been under pressure for more than 20 years to reduce the environmental impacts of its products. Despite significant investments in litter reduction and kerbside recycling programs over that period, packaging has maintained its high profile in the public discourse on environmental issues. Specific concerns about packaging are rarely articulated beyond those of waste and litter, but seem to step from deeper unease within elements of the community about the impacts of industrial development on the environment.
The term ‘product stewardship’ started to be widely used in the late 1990’s when certain stakeholder groups began to promote the view that companies should be responsible for products throughout their life cycle, including at end-of-life, although there are differences of opinion about whether this responsibility should be total or shared with other parts of the supply chain. Today the discourse is increasingly about ‘sustainability’ and what this means for the packaging industry. However, both ‘sustainability’ and ‘product stewardship’ are contested terms that have different meanings to different groups and individuals in the community.
This paper provides an introduction to the discourse on packaging and the environment, product stewardship and sustainability, and presents the results of a stakeholder survey undertaken in Australia in 2003. The purpose of the survey was to document the views of key stakeholders involved in shaping the discourse on the environmental impacts and management of packaging.
The survey revealed many areas of agreement, for example on the definition of ‘product stewardship’ as a form of ‘shared responsibility’ between organisations within the packaging supply chain. This view has clearly shaped, and been shaped by, negotiations between government and industry to develop the (Australian) National Packaging Covenant.

1. Introduction
Packaging is integral to modern systems of production and consumption. In the business-to-consumer market, where the majority of packaging is consumed, it is a fundamental complementary element in product distribution and promotion. Packaging is vital to the consumer product industry, if not the very source of product differentiation. It allows us to efficiently distribute and market products over long distances and through many steps in the supply chain. New technologies such as modified atmosphere and active packaging have been introduced on a large scale, while consumer demands have driven the market to convenience products, in particular food products that can be prepared quickly. New products, manufactured with advanced production techniques and packaging systems, have enlarged the assortment of products significantly. In today’s modern supermarkets one can easily find in excess of 30,000 different articles imported from all over the world.
These are the benefits, but what about the costs? Certain groups in the community, including local governments, EPA’s and non-government environment groups have long been concerned about the environmental impacts of packaging, in particular the impacts of consuming large quantities of material for the manufacture of ‘single-use’ products, and the impacts of disposal after use. This concern seems to fluctuate in line