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    Packaging: Towards a Sustainable Future


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2001 

    Packaging is a vital sector of most national economies. It consumes large quantities of resources. Because of packaging's often limited life span, these resources (of materials and energy) are viewed in some quarters as being wasted. As a result, there is increasing pressure to minimize packaging volumes and make it reusable, or at least recyclable to recover materials or save energy. Growing realization of the need to plan for a sustainable future is creating the climate for an era of dramatic change in this industry.

    The achievement of sustainability is gradually being looked upon as a sound business objective and marketing strategy by major national and international companies. It is also gradually emerging as a factor in financial markets because of its implications for the long-term survival of a business activity.

    Consumers are awakening to the power they can exercise on environmental issues in the marketplace. Any adverse environmental publicity is therefore considered as seriously damaging to the prospects of an enterprise whose products or services are being challenged.

    Where does this leave the packaging industry and exporters in developing countries who face packaging problems?

    In fact, packaging helps preserve the world's resources by preventing spoilage and waste of products and by protecting them until they have performed their functions. However, the effort to avoid further deterioration in the environment and to harmonize food contact regulations make it ever more necessary for exporting developing countries to ensure they use only packaging that is accepted as environmentally suitable by their customers and by the importing countries concerned. This means being aware of the hundreds of new packaging-related laws, regulations and similar policy initiatives.

    To help small and medium-sized companies in developing and transition countries, ITC conducted a research and development programme to introduce the concepts, principles and practices associated with "eco-packaging". ITC commissioned studies of packaging and waste management practices in Colombia, India and Zimbabwe, and held seminars in Kenya, Nepal, United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda to introduce the concept of safe and environmentally acceptable packaging. Colombia, India, Jamaica, Malawi and Zimbabwe became the centres for pilot activities and potential leaders to disseminate experience gained in eco-packaging.

    Seven lessons 

    Seven general points have emerged from this process:

    1. There is a general lack of coordinating bodies for packaging in developing countries.

    2. There are few readily accessible local information sources concerning appropriate packaging.

    3. There is little understanding of the role of packaging in trade and commerce and its technology.

    4. There is general concern about packaging hygiene, disposal of plastics, packaging and litter.

    5. Collection and disposal of waste tend to be inefficient and haphazard. There is little or no infrastructure for collection and recycling of used packaging.

    6. There are many concerns about the absence of adequate legislation.

    7. An awareness of environmental concerns is in evidence, but without real focus as far as packaging is concerned.

    For more information 

    ITC has now gathered together lessons learned from the experience in a technical paper, Guidelines for Safe and Environmentally Acceptable Export Packaging. Apart from environmental considerations, the study covers many health and safety aspects of packaging used for foodstuffs. Because regulations are often complex and require expert guidance, no attempt is made to provide details of such rules. Instead the study endeavours to convey the main principles and policies currently being observed.

    To provide further assistance to exporters from developing countries, the document contains a packaging checklist and a questionnaire addressed to the importer of the packaged product. These may be useful tools for obtaining advance detail of the required export packaging.

    ITC is now developing an integrated export packaging information kit. PACKit will present packaging information in four profiles: information on products and their packaging; on packaging materials; packaging profiles of exporting countries; and packaging profiles of major target markets/importing countries.

    This article is drawn from ITC's publication, Packaging Design: A Practitioner's Manual, by Tuula Ramsland. For more information on packaging contact Elizabeth Piskolti-Caldwell, Export Packaging Information Officer, at piskoltie@intracen.org