We actually do have something rather significant to examine as this year begins. It has to do with China’s National Sword and its impact on packaging. Calvin Frost of Channeled Resources Group, who writes “Letters from the Earth” in this magazine, recently encapsulated China’s thinking in terms of its environmental and economic health:
“What we’re seeing now in terms of renewable energy and a focus on CO2 reduction is a commitment by ‘the party’ to make changes for improvement in its carbon footprint at all costs. A recent example, of course, is its National Sword program, which affects the importation of waste paper: no more mixed paper at all, and only 0.5% of contaminations allowed in old corrugated containers. China is serious about both: The use of the sun as a source of energy and no more crap in their raw material purchases.”
It’s not just paper. China will not accept shipments that are mixed with trash, the wrong type of recyclable, or low quality recyclables like greasy paper goods. Plastic waste, a giant percentage of imports, is part of it.
China pulled the sword from its scabbard in January 2018 and pointed it at the rest of the world, whose practice had been to export their recyclable materials to the Middle Kingdom. The country banned importation of certain types of solid waste and set strict contamination limits on recyclable materials. The Sword was not a sudden move: China began regulating incoming waste in 2010, and in 2013 made importing more difficult with the imposition of its Green Fence.
The mandate was well received by smaller competitors in Southeast Asia, as well as by Chinese citizens. After all, China had been the world’s biggest importer of waste for decades and had taken in 45% of the world’s plastic and 55% of its scrap paper since 1992, in addition to scrap metals. Hong Kong took in another 27%, two-thirds of which traveled to China. The negative environmental effects could not be ignored. The city of Guiyu, for example, became known as “the world’s largest electronic waste dump,” where up to 80% of children had excess levels of lead in their blood.
The aftermath among the major exporters – North America, Europe, East Asia and Oceania – is not pretty. In June, Science Advances said, “Suggestions from the recycling industry demonstrate that, if no adjustments are made in solid waste management, and plastic waste management in particular, then much of the waste originally diverted from landfills by consumers paying for a recycling service will ultimately be landfilled.”
Those suggestions have come to fruition, says National Geographic in a report easily absorbed by the lay reader. “With China’s door closed, much of that recycled plastic is likely ending up at your local landfill. China’s new policy could displace as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030.” The Center for EcoTechnology said the Sword “has created significant logjams in the international recycling system, resulting in recycled material piling up at materials recycling facilities or worse, into landfills. This is effecting recycling efforts in the United States and abroad.”
National Sword has also crippled or killed businesses
What does all this have to do with us? Plenty. “Plastic is a very useful material (moldable, durable, light and inexpensive), and packaging is the most significant sector (40%) of use. Plastic as a material for packaging has had significant advantages, allowing companies to market effectively, design appealing-looking and appealing-feeling packages, prevent loss from store shelves, and transport goods efficiently and economically throughout the world. However, plastic packaging for food, beverage, and tobacco items is often used only once, which has contributed to 61% of global beach litter.” (Science Advances’ exhaustive report on the subject is at advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaat0131)
There are always bad apples, but corporations and associations in the recycling industry have been on top of the impact on packaging and other products in the waste stream. They are not all negative about the potentials that can arise from the Sword. The Solid Waste Association of North America urged regulatory bodies, as well as product marketers, to be prepared for market volatility, to communicate effectively among all stakeholders, to renew efforts to encourage waste reduction, and to develop alternative domestic markets for recyclables.
Most important for the packaging industry, it seems, is this advice: “Educate all stakeholders about the importance of generating high quality material.”
High quality material that is recyclable is desirable and welcome in the waste stream. Luxury products are increasingly attractive to consumers, and more and more they stand near the intersection of sustainability and high-end appearance.
Sustainability, a meaningful term that has taken a beating by those who are less than half-serious about it, has shown up as a key trend on New Year’s lists for several years. If the Sword has achieved anything outside of China, it is the awareness of the need to drive sustainability forward. The driver might be the desire for business success rather than ardent environmental concern, but at least it’s something.
“Eight years ago, we would say sustainability is a trend, now it’s just part of our industry,” Nathalie Grosdidier, general manager of Luxe Pack, told JWT Intelligence, an arm of J. Walter Thompson Company. “The entire organization, from product and design, even down to manufacturing, should be environmental. Sustainability is no longer visible. You cannot see it. You just do it.”
This is a clear indication, observed JWT, that sustainability is no longer a choice: “Packaging and design made from recycled materials are bidding farewell to coarse textures and dull browns and greys, instead blending in with any other premium packaging on the market. Spotting recycled packaging is becoming harder.”
Industrial Packaging, a large manufacturer of packaging products based in Worcester, MA, USA, encourages a focus on environmental products with greater energy:
“The cheapest and most accessible materials, like plastics, are being replaced by biodegradable materials, like paper, hemp, starch and cellulose, and more easily upcycled materials like bamboo and glass. From flexible films to dual-purpose designs, there’s no limit to what you can do to develop more environmentally sound product packaging.”
Reducing packaging mass is recommended: “Limit your CO2 emissions by cutting down on the amount of packaging you use to complete your finished goods. The weight of your packaging materials affects the amount of energy required to produce your product and ship it. Switching to a lighter weight material can positively impact your carbon footprint.”
The company also points out that sustainable packaging “can reduce solid waste, water usage and electricity. Flexible options enable you to use less materials, which is good for the environment and the bottom line.”
The National Sword is more than a year in existence, and we don’t know if or when it will go away or morph into a more comprehensive – meaning tougher – policy and practice. If ever there was an impetus to change what we’re doing in the label portion of the packaging business, it’s the point of that weapon.
Sword…an effective word.
The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.