Pitching Reusable Packing – Is the RPA Missing the Point?

Reusable Plastic PackingObama-mania is sweeping the nation and concern for the environment, seeping into our collective conscience, is increasingly less likely to be perceived as the hobbyhorse of the liberal elite. As this surge of enthusiasm converges with recession it presents an opportunity for savvy marketing.
The reusable packaging industry, as represented by the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA), is doing just that. RPA Board Chairman Bob Klimko claims, “The time is ripe for businesses to embrace the concept of reuse and to realize its potential to help them reach their sustainability objectives while strengthening their own companies through cost savings and improved efficiencies.”
We introduced you to the RPA when they hosted an educational forum on the corporate benefits of reusable packaging. The RPA is primarily focused on packaging that “moves product from manufacturer to retailer.” With a new president at the helm, Jerry Welcome, we’re taking another look at the RPA and their efforts to promote sustainability.

Recently the New York Times recognized that, “While there are environmental and financial arguments for both types of container, few studies conclusively compare the relative merits of plastic bins and cardboard boxes made from recycled material. But there is a widespread view among environmentalists that it is always better to reuse a product rather than manufacture a new one.”
The RPA does not endorse one material of packing over another. We spoke to Welcome and asked him to comment on the most environmental packaging available. He insisted that the RPA does not favor any single material and that each type of packaging has its advantages and disadvantages.
As a trade organization, the stated goal of the RPA is to increase demand for the membership’s products. While endorsing the most efficient packaging would likely elicit a reaction within the varied membership, it does seem appropriate for an organization trumpeting sustainability.
“Many companies are struggling to truly understand, define, implement, and measure their sustainability objectives,” said Klimko, “The RPA will be a leader in addressing these challenges by bringing together the collective expertise of all the players within the supply chain so that we can advance the entire industry.”
The RPA’s green marketing focuses on the reduction of waste, emissions, and energy as well as improved transportation efficiency. Yet their environmental stewardship seems to begin and end with the promotion of multi-use, long-life packaging material.
The RPA does not enforce any sustainability criteria for membership. Welcome insisted that environmental impact analysis was not the function of the RPA. He explained, “That’s not something we need to do because that’s the business our members are in. Their products cut down on a company’s carbon footprint.”
Welcome suggested that the membership’s interest in advancing their company’s sustainable practices is inherent in their commitment to reuse. He went on to say that businesses interested in shifting to reusable packaging demand best practices, thereby driving the packaging industry’s commitment to minimize environmental impact. Hmm.
Most manufacturing supply chains are models of waste and would have much to gain by working with the RPA and we’re optimistic that the RPA is right- the time is ripe for corporate evolution. Growing consumer awareness and economic hardship may converge to necessitate a trimming of the fat.
However, if the RPA is going to actively promote their commitment to “mitigate damage to the environment” they could use the power of their association to support advances in sustainable packaging. The RPA is in a position to encourage its members to move to post-consumer waste content plastics for example, or use their lobbying experience and public policy subcommittee to advocate rewards for corporate innovation.
The Renewable Packaging Association- committed to sustainable business or green washing a stagnant definition of reuse?

Tori conducts research and writes on environmental issues, with a special focus on food justice. Her professional experience in the civic sector and academic background in social and economic development ground her work and belief in a sustainable food system as an achievable human right. Tori is based in Bogota, Colombia where she is pursuing a bilingual, international career in environmental policy.http://toriokner.wordpress.com/