Sustainable packaging is a great way to reduce the environmental impact of any product. The current focus on sustainability, climate change and environmental impacts has led us all to be more mindful of what we consume and the environmental impact of our choices.
This extends beyond the products we buy to the packaging they come in. As more and more consumers move towards sustainable lifestyle practices, the shift to sustainable packaging has never been more relevant.
So, where do you begin? In this guide, we look at the problems we see in the current types of packaging, the sustainable alternatives and how to use them, and the best companies to get them from.
The Problem with Conventional Packaging
The vast majority of the packaging used at the moment is plastic (in whole or part). Most of it is not recyclable or reusable. This means that billions of tons of virgin plastic are produced annually from fossil fuels.
This leads to two main problems, in terms of the environment. The first is the ecological footprint of manufacturing plastics, using oil and petroleum products. The second is the problem of waste – the majority of packaging is used once and then discarded.
Some is recycled or repurposed but the majority of it goes to landfills or, worse, ends up in the ocean and other sensitive natural habitats.
Other types of packaging, that don’t contain plastic, also have their pitfalls. For example, paper and cardboard sourced from forests that are not properly managed may contribute to deforestation. They also use a great deal of water to produce and often contain harmful chemicals used to bleach or dye the paper.
Another problem that more and more companies are seeing is the shift in consumer behavior. Shoppers are reluctant to purchase items that are packaged in materials that are seen as polluting.
While cost is often a consideration, surveys have shown that almost 60% of consumers are prepared to pay more for a product in sustainable packaging.
Look at this video by Energy Live News for a snapshot of survey results from Europe, USA and South America:
What Qualifies as Sustainable Packaging
Sustainable packaging is packaging made from raw materials with a low environmental impact. These include recycled materials, waste materials or easily renewable materials like Bamboo. It is also packaging that can be reused or recycled, prolonging its lifespan.
There are many ways to make packaging more eco-friendly and more sustainable. In simple terms, however, the objective is to create as little waste as possible, create packaging that can be repurposed or recycled and use materials that are made from renewable raw materials and require as little processing as possible.
Some examples of sustainable packaging materials are:
- Recycled materials
- Waste materials or by-products
- Reused or repurposed materials
- Materials that can be recycled by the consumer
- Renewable plant-based materials
- Materials that can be reused by the consumer
- Compostable or biodegradable materials
- Materials that can be returned to the seller for reuse
What to Consider When Moving to Sustainable Packaging
Whether you’re a company transitioning to using sustainable packaging materials or a consumer looking to buy products packaged in sustainable packaging, the things to consider remain the same:
Source and Certifications
The source of the raw materials used to manufacture the packaging has a huge impact on how sustainable it is. Look for products that have a recognized accreditation to show they have been assessed for sustainability.
Paper and cardboard products may be inherently more environmentally friendly than plastic but they need to come from sustainable forests or be made from recycled paper to be truly environmentally friendly.
There are numerous different certifications and regulatory bodies that govern sustainable timber plantations but the most widely recognized and easy to find is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Checking certifications like FSC certification is a great way to see if a company is really as sustainable as they claim to be.
Exaggerated claims and ‘greenwashing’ can make products sound wonderful when they are not at all what they claim to be. Bio-plastics is one example of this. Many brands claim to be biodegradable and compostable but what they neglect to mention is that their products will only biodegrade in very specific conditions that do not occur naturally in the environment or landfills (they can be composted, but only at specialized composting facilities).
Innovative and Robust Design
Packaging design can impact how sustainable it is in several different ways:
Packaging that is designed to be used once should also be designed to use the least amount of materials as possible (without losing functionality) to minimize the volume of materials going to landfill or recycling. This has the added benefit of reducing the cost too.
Packaging that is designed to be reused or repurposed should be designed with longevity in mind. A box or shopping bag that can be reused should be sturdy enough to be reused for a long time to extend its lifespan and keep it out of landfills or recycling plants as long as possible.
Packaging that is designed to be used as something else, like boxes that can be turned into small tables or shopping bags that can be turned into clothes hangers, should be designed to work effectively as both the packaging and the second item.
Design is also where creativity and novelty can come in – it’s great to purchase something cool and novel that can turn into something else that is useful too. This benefits the consumer and the seller who can leverage this for marketing and sales.
Functionality and Efficiency
Aside from aesthetics and branding, packaging is a practical necessity – it serves a function and that function needs to be fulfilled. The most perfectly sustainable packaging in the world ceases to be so sustainable if your products are being shipped back to you because they arrived broken or damaged.
Truly sustainable packaging walks the fine line between using as little material as possible and still being completely functional and reliable. This is often where good design comes in to save the day.
In addition to sustainable materials, look or packaging that is well designed and fulfills all your needs in terms of how it needs to protect your items.
Where Does It Go in the End?
Sustainable packaging is packaging that can be reused, returned, or recycled. The end objective is to keep the amount of packaging going to landfill to a minimum.
This means that packaging that can be reused by the consumer for a long time, can be returned to the seller for them to reuse or can be recycled is the best option.
Often, packaging will come in a combination of the above. For example, a paper mailing envelope padded with recycled paper can be reused to store delicate items by the consumer, but the waterproof plastic sleeve inside it will need to be recycled.
As long as the packaging doesn’t completely lose its functionality as soon as the goods inside are removed and it can be recycled or returned, it will be significantly less likely to be sent to a landfill.
However, if it does go to a landfill, the type of materials used makes the difference here. Natural products made from plant-based materials will break down and decompose in a way that synthetic products like plastic do not.
Brand Identity and Marketing
When you move over to sustainable packaging, you can access a whole new world of marketing opportunities and new channels to reach consumers who share your values. Loyal customers will also find an added layer of value to your product.
There are many ways to leverage this transition to your best advantage in terms of marketing and sales. The fact that you’re moving towards sustainability alone is a great selling point.
There are other ways to leverage the change to your benefit too. One way is to make your packaging design novel and interesting, as well as functional (think great unboxing videos and an item that makes for a great talking point). Take this opportunity to think out of the box and get creative with your packaging!
The 5 Best Companies Offering Sustainable Packaging Solutions
These five companies make great products that are truly sustainable and live up to their claims. They’re using renewable resources, recycled materials and making products that are compostable or recyclable in easily accessible ways. Their products are also great quality and meet high testing standards for efficacy and durability.
1. KTM Industries – Green Cell Foam
Green Cell Foam is the sustainable, completely biodegradable alternative for polystyrene (EPS), polyurethane (PU) and polyethylene (PE) single-use packaging foam, used for thermal insulation and shock absorption in packaging.
It is effective and used across various industries including pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, cosmetics and technology. The green cell foam is made from corn starch and is fully compostable at home or in a landfill. It even dissolves if it is completely submerged in water! But don’t worry, it won’t dissolve with your goods inside it and they have several strategies to make sure if this.
As a completely natural and plant-based material, it breaks down to organic elements and leaves no traces behind.
The company is based in Michigan and uses non-GMO corn grown in the United States, an annually renewable resource.
They supply internationally and their products include insulated coolers and shock absorbing protective packaging suitable for any items, including glass and other delicate items.
The look and feel of the product are very similar to conventional protective foam products and is light and compact, which saves on shipping costs.
Website: KTM Industries – Green Cell Foam
Noissue makes beautiful, sustainable packaging including customizable mailers, tissue, stickers, and tape. They also make food-safe packaging, ink stamps, shipping labels, and cards.
Their products fall into three categories – compostable, reusable, and recycled/recyclable.
The compostable range is made from renewable plant-based materials and bio-polymers. All the products in this range are fully home compostable in 180 days or commercially compostable in 90 days.
The reusable range is made with longevity in mind and designed to be used many times over. These products are sturdy and made to last. They can then be recycled once they reach the end of their lifespan.
The recycled range is made from recycled materials and can be recycled again. This gives materials a second and third life, keeping them out of landfills and preventing them from polluting the natural environment.
Aside from these great products, they also provide beautiful custom designs and free international shipping and returns.
In addition, they have very small minimum order quantities – making them a great choice for small companies and those just starting out!
3. Paradise Packaging by Ecovative Design
Ecovative Design is a company that grows sustainable packaging using natural agricultural waste, like shredded corn stalks and hemp hurds, bound with Mycelium.
Mycelium is the fibrous root structure of fungi and grows rapidly into any shape and form when grown in a mold. The finished product is then cooked in a heat chamber to kill the fungi. This makes it completely safe and prevents it from growing any further.
Their products include thermal insulating and protective packaging, which is fully waterproof. Their product is designed to replace Styrofoam. It will protect any product, including technology, delicate items, food and beverages. Protective packaging is fully customizable and can take any shape needed to hold your products.
In addition to protective packaging, they offer an extensive range of items including seed starter trays, planters and coolers.
Made with agricultural by-products and organic Mycelium, their products are fully home compostable. They will breakdown to organic elements is as little as 30 days.
Website: Paradise Packaging
4. Tipa Compostable Plastic Packaging
Tipa makes fully compostable plastic packaging that meets the same functionality standards and conventional plastic items. Their range includes garment bags, tea packs, dry food packaging and zipper bags.
The packaging they make replace plastic films and laminates. They are thin, transparent, printable and durable. It is designed to fit seamlessly into existing plastic packaging processes so it can just replace the conventional plastic used.
Tipa bio-plastics are fully home compostable and breakdown completely in less than 180 days in the right composting conditions. The company holds an impressive number of external certifications and meets stringent international standards for composability.
They’re a great option for the food and fashion industries, which generate some of the highest volumes of single-use plastic waste.
Website: Tipa Compostable Packaging
5. WAVE Bio-Based Polymer Plastic Bags
Wave makes plastics that contain no plastic. They are bio-based polymers that are made from cassava starch, a fully renewable natural resource. Their products include plastic bags, carriers, garment bags, laundry covers and more.
Their plastic products look and feel just like conventional plastic products. But, they are completely compostable at home or in a landfill, breaking down completely in 3 to 6 months.
They dissolve in water in about 3 months, or instantly at temperatures above 80C. The liquid is safe and free of any harmful substances, drinkable by animals, and safe for aquatic environments.
Wave plastic bags are durable and flexible and can carry a weight of up to 9 kgs. They’re suitable for use in all sectors, including food and beverage, retail, fashion and personal use.
Website: WAVE Ecosolutions
In conclusion, transitioning to sustainable packaging is a great move – for the environment and your brand. It will drastically improve your company’s ecological footprint. It will also open up a host of new marketing opportunities that have never been more relevant or more important.
There are many options available and by doing a little research you can find options that work perfectly for you. Transitioning to sustainable packaging does not have to expensive. Especially if you put some thought into the transition and do it gradually. A redesign of your packaging will save you money on shipping and materials too.
The changes in cost can be absorbed and the improved marketability of your products will improve your bottom line. Pairing your new packaging launch with a marketing strategy is a great way to maximize the benefits of both!
Swedbrand Group: Biodegradable vs. Compostable Packaging Materials
GWP Group: Environmentally Friendly Packaging
Frequently Asked Questions
What is sustainable packaging?
Sustainable packaging is packaging that has as little environmental impact as possible. It is made from renewable raw
or recycled materials and it can be recycled, reused or composted. Read the full article for all the info you need on sustainable packaging materials.
Are recycled packaging materials sustainable?
Yes. Recycled materials and materials that can be recycled again are more sustainable than virgin raw materials or materials that cannot be recycled or composted. Read the guide for more information on recycled materials.
Are bio-plastics sustainable?
It depends. Some bio-plastics are fantastic and can be completely composted at home. Other needs to be sent a specialized facility for composting and will behave just like conventional plastics if they are sent to landfill or a home compost setup.