Product Stewardship in Packaging

Where Manufacturers Can Foster Progress

By John Rost, Vice President – Global Sustainability and Regulatory Affairs at Crown

Sixty days: That’s how quickly a used beverage can is able to be recycled and transformed into a new can on the retail shelf. With this ability to so quickly—and infinitely—withstand transformation from recovered, recycled materials to a new finished product, the aluminum beverage can inherently stands as a remarkable example of circularity and responsible packaging. Yet, the beverage can and its recyclability is just one example within the larger, more complex concept of product stewardship—a commitment from those involved in the product life cycle (i.e. manufacturers, retailers, consumers and disposers) to share responsibility for minimizing the environmental impacts of products.

While maintaining a close eye on product life cycle can and should be a collective commitment from each of these groups, global packaging manufacturers often take ownership of monitoring the overall consumer goods journey—post-consumption and subsequent recycling stages included. This is because packaging manufacturers are the entities that take the initial step of transforming substrates into the packaging that houses finished products. By overseeing products throughout their complete life cycle, manufacturers can more effectively understand how their materials are performing and evolving in different environments and industry systems—and can identify opportunities for improved safety, greater efficiency or efficacy or a smaller carbon footprint. Ultimately, putting such an emphasis on product stewardship not only helps to make products safer and more eco-friendly, but also helps to maintain brand reputation—all essential for keeping the food and beverage industry stable.

Starting at the source

The task of product monitoring begins at the point of sourcing. The onus is on packaging manufacturers to understand where they are procuring their materials from and whether those origins utilize ethical, responsible practices. This awareness minimizes the risk of perpetuating any harmful labor methods and helps to verify materials as meeting market regulations. It also better ensures consumers are interacting with packaging that can be traced and vetted for safety standards.

To foster stronger product stewardship at the sourcing stage, manufacturers can work to expand their responsible and ethical sourcing programs to truly uncover and improve the social and environmental impacts of the materials and products they purchase. By closely examining suppliers and understanding where their partners’ opportunities and potential risks lie, manufacturers can determine where and how to set standards and support those partners in meeting more stringent requirements. This could include adding new social and environmental criteria into supplier contracts, whether new or up for renewal, as well as executing compliance checks in alignment with governance practices.

Additionally, manufacturers can utilize third-party verification that can properly assess or audit a supplier’s standing, as well as work with organizations such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) (or in the beverage can’s case, the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative (ASI)) to help validate risk screening processes. Finally, careful training with employees on the proper steps for ethical procurement can also help guard manufacturers against any irresponsible practices.

Building on eco-conscious credentials

Beyond using a format that on its own maintains a lower environmental footprint—the aluminum beverage can, for example, reflecting the highest consumer recycling rates of any beverage packaging format, containing 73% recycled content on average and offering reliable tamper-resistance and durability that protects consumers—it is important for packaging manufacturers to go the extra mile to embody true product stewardship. Manufacturers that examine their products and the components within and innovate around new ways to make the product even more circular can build upon an already solid foundation and raise the bar for sustainability performance.

This type of innovation may include investing in R&D efforts to identify opportunities for material usage reduction—such as with the beverage can example, applying a Design for the Environment (DfE) approach to manufacturing processes and finding a way to further lightweight the package among other footprint-minimizing tactics. Or, this could mean implementing more ecofriendly components or technologies in the package makeup. For beverage cans, this may entail utilizing more ecofriendly coatings like BPAni and ensuring packaging does not contain PFAS to meet evolving regulations as well as the highest level of product quality and consumer safety standards.

Evolving from end-of-life to endless

Following production and distribution steps (both of which involve their own levels of monitoring) and once in the hands of the consumer, products may reach a crossroads that either directs them to their end-of-life stage or helps them to reenter a new life cycle. Beverage cans again are a perfect example of where this intersection demonstrates exciting room for improvement. The beverage can’s life should never end, as it is an infinitely recyclable package that when successfully recycled and recovered and filtered into a new production cycle, can power roughly 95% of its own production and save precious aluminum from landfills.

While the beverage can itself is already the most recycled drinks package in the world and consumers already often associate beverage cans with sustainability, more urgent and detailed education can improve upon recycling rates and help ensure that no valuable materials are treated as trash but instead are saved for future generations to come. Across sectors and with any consumer package, this mindset can help manufacturers achieve greater product stewardship. Exploring ways to inform and correct consumer recycling habits, setting industry goals and working with partners and lawmakers to strengthen recycling system performance and supporting environmental initiatives—these are all just a few examples of ways manufacturers can remain accountable for their products long after the actual point of creation.

The bottom line: Product stewardship may take a village, but packaging manufacturers can be leaders of the cause when they practice the right due diligence throughout their product life cycles—and when they resolve to not let “good” be “good enough” when it comes to sustainability.

About the Author

John Rost joined Crown in 1997, progressing from Manager of Regulatory Affairs to Vice President of Global Sustainability & Regulatory Affairs. During his tenure at the Company, John established a global team ensuring Crown’s response to regulatory issues around the world met the highest standards and he was also instrumental in forming and leading the current Sustainability team that launched Crown’s Twentyby30 program in 2020. John serves on the Board of Governors for the Can Manufactures Institute and Metal Packaging Europe’s Beverage Board. Learn more at www.crowncork.com.

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