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Energy Consumption in the Packaging Industry Impacts Sustainability Efforts

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Emily Newton's picture
Editor-In-Chief Revolutionized Magazine

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief at Revolutionized Magazine. She enjoys writing articles in the energy industry as well as other industrial sectors.

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Manufacturers that produce diverse packaging materials for numerous companies and industries – like single-use plastics, packing peanuts, corrugated fiberboard, and paper wrapping products – aren't exactly known for having a small carbon footprint. Manufacturing processes and operations lead to significant resource and energy consumption in the packaging industry, producing ample amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG).

Facing a rising awareness of climate change and increasing pressures from companies and consumers to mitigate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, all packaging supply chains must optimize their strategies to meet more stringent sustainability standards. This could include examining their facility's energy usage and implementing waste reduction activities. Before the packaging industry can lower its emissions and energy consumption, it's essential to understand the underlying problem.

Waste and Energy Consumption in the Packaging Industry

Industries have caused environmental harm for a long time, from polluting land and water ecosystems to reducing local air quality. In the packaging industry, energy consumption and waste significantly contribute to Earth's degradation.

Energy Consumption

The United States industrial sector consumed 35% of end-use energy and 33% of total energy in 2021.

Although usage varies depending on the subsector, manufacturing and production utilize an average of 95.1 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per square foot annually. At the same time, manufacturing consumes 536,550 British thermal units (Btu) of natural gas.

Energy consumption in the packaging industry is at an all-time high, mainly due to facility operations and plastic manufacturing. Globally, the packaging sector is responsible for 40% of worldwide plastic consumption, leading to significant energy waste.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) further indicates that the energy requirements for manufacturing single-use plastics equal 12% of the energy consumption within the industrialized economy.

Waste Consumption

Forecasts estimate that global waste generation will increase from 2.01 billion to 3.4 billion by 2050, with high-income nations producing 19% more than the current amounts.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), plastic waste generation has doubled in the last two decades, but only 9% gets recycled properly.

Coca-Cola, one of the most popular beverage producers worldwide, generates 75,000 tons of plastic waste annually in Mexico alone. Additionally, Nestlé produces nearly 2 million metric tons of plastic packaging waste globally each year.

Much of this waste winds up in landfills or seeps into the environment, posing severe ecological threats. Meanwhile, food packaging and plastic medical equipment litter significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Optimizing the Packaging Industry’s Sustainability

The packaging industry should consider following these four steps to reduce its carbon footprint and optimize its sustainability efforts.

1. Reduce Waste

As e-commerce booms, many companies and consumers have shifted toward eco-friendly packaging. For instance, molded fiber materials are easily recyclable and highly durable, keeping objects safe during transportation. However, widespread adoption of biodegradable and recyclable packaging has yet to occur.

The packaging industry must take an aggressive stance on reducing waste through sustainable materials manufacturing. In recognizing eco-friendly alternatives' financial and technological challenges, collaboration with leaders, packaging converters, and recycling companies is necessary.

Potential solutions include providing closed-loop recycling techniques, upgrading recycling infrastructure, and implementing advanced technologies that convert packaging to liquid hydrocarbon to fuel new plastics.

2. Focus on Energy Efficiency

Much of the energy consumption in the packaging industry derives from daily internal operations. The packaging industry can reduce its carbon footprint by increasing energy efficiency throughout its facilities and warehouses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that commercial buildings waste 30% of their energy, accruing enormous expenses for building owners and managers. Fortunately, efficiency improvements can drive down energy consumption and utility bills significantly.

Of the 220,000 commercial spaces that partner with the EPA's Energy Star program – including 400 industrial companies and 245 plants – businesses achieved the following in 2021:

  • Reduced GHG emissions by 170 million metric tons
  • Avoided 230 billion kWh of electricity usage
  • Saved about $14 billion in energy outlays

To support the transition to internal energy efficiency, packaging companies should optimize their equipment for lower power consumption, retrofit lighting with energy-efficient bulbs, and integrate innovative HVAC controls.

 It's best if companies set quantifiable metrics for CO2 reductions to accurately measure their success in increasing energy efficiency.

3. Procure Renewable Energy

While the packaging industry finds ways to decrease energy consumption, adopting renewables will also help dramatically cut electricity and GHG emissions and reduce costs.

In Europe, the glass packaging subsector hopes to decarbonize production by combining 80% electricity and 20% natural gas in its new "Furnace for the Future" pilot program. Glass packaging production currently generates 8–9 million tons of CO2 annually. If the pilot works, glass factories could slash CO2 emissions by 50%.

Powering facilities with renewable energy technologies like wind power or solar panels are other solutions for enhancing sustainability in packaging. Solar companies are even implementing closed-loop recycling for their packaging – an excellent opportunity for the packaging industry to support its own sustainability efforts.

For example, PVpallet is improving circularity with recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic. Its products are reusable up to 20 times before they're unserviceable, at which point the parts become 100% recyclable. Additionally, PVpallet has increased warehouse efficiency for lower energy requirements.

4. Manage Carbon Emission Outputs

There are several initiatives aimed at helping companies offset their CO2 emissions. Although the U.S. carbon credit markets are marred with criticism from climate change activists, they can still carry numerous ecological benefits when deployed correctly.

Regarding the packaging industry, it's possible that participating in voluntary carbon offsetting can improve the sector's sustainability efforts.

Of course, the packaging industry must first identify ways to manage CO2 emission outputs outside of carbon offset programs. Sustainability efforts should entail closely examining energy consumption in the packaging industry and the development of efficient monitoring procedures.

Reducing Energy Consumption in the Packaging Industry Improves Its Sustainability

The packaging industry has several opportunities to reduce energy consumption and increase sustainability. Companies can deliver positive environmental benefits by implementing new technologies and packing materials and offsetting their carbon footprint.

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