A Guide to Sustainable Packaging Solutions and Materials
Updated: Jul 18
Packaging is one of the most important aspects of product marketing and protection. It is what protects the product from damage during shipping and entices the customer to make a purchase.
But with the increase in awareness about sustainable living, consumers are now looking for packaging solutions that don't harm the environment. Here is a guide to some of the most sustainable packaging materials and solutions available today.
Related Article: Guide To Sustainable Certifications and Eco-Friendly Seals
Categories of Sustainable Packaging
There are three main categories of sustainable packaging - recyclable, compostable and reusable.
Recyclable packaging can be made from different materials like paper, plastic, or glass and can be recycled and turned into new products.
However, it is important to note that not all recyclable materials are created equal. Some materials are more sustainable than others, and some can only be recycled a limited number of times before they need to be replaced.
For example, plastic is a very recyclable material, but the type of plastic matters. PET plastic bottles, for example, can be recycled and turned into new PET bottles over and over again. But other types of plastics, like polystyrene, cannot be recycled as easily and often end up in landfills. Paper is also a recyclable material, but the way it's processed matters.
Recycled paper that is used for packaging generally has a lower quality than virgin paper, so it's important to consider whether the environmental benefits of recycling outweigh the impact on product quality.
Glass is another recyclable material that has a low environmental impact. However, it can be difficult to recycle glass bottles and jars because they often have labels and other decorations that need to be removed before the glass can be reused.
Compostable packaging is made from organic materials that can be broken down and used as compost. This type of packaging is a great option for products that are biodegradable, have a short shelf-life, or need to be consumed in a short period of time, like food or flowers.
Compostable packaging is also a good choice for products that need to be stored in a fridge or freezer, since it won't damage the product or release harmful chemicals into the environment.
This type of packaging is a good option for products that will be disposed of in a landfill, because the organic materials will decompose and won't harm the environment.
However, they might not be as durable as other materials so they might not last as long, so it's not always the best option for products that need to be shipped over long distances, and they can be more expensive than other types of sustainable packaging.
Reusable packaging is made from durable materials that can be used multiple times before being recycled or composted. This packaging is the most sustainable option of all because it eliminates the need for new packaging every time a product is sold. Reusable packaging can be made from a variety of materials, like metal, glass, or plastic, and can be used over and over again.
Reusable packaging is a great option for products that are sold in large quantities or that need to be shipped over long distances. It can also help to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and helps to conserve natural resources.
The main disadvantage of reusable packaging is that it can be more expensive than other types of sustainable packaging. It also takes up more space in warehouses and shipping containers, which can increase transportation costs. And finally, it can be difficult to find reusable packaging that is the right size and shape for every product.
Looking to make your packaging more sustainable? Get in touch
Types of Sustainable Packaging Materials
Recyclable Packaging Materials
Nowadays, the most popular way to package items is with paper-based recycled materials. Cardboard boxes, molded pulp forms, and paper-based void fill are excellent for small shipments because they're easy to recycle.
Most cardboard boxes are made of recycled materials, with the other portion coming from sustainably managed forests. Corrugated cardboard can be recycled up to 25 times before they have to be composted (but not as easily as normal paper) or thrown out.
Compostable Packaging Materials
Packaging that can be composted or biodegradable is an important way to reduce our consumption of non-renewable resources. These materials include plant-based packing peanuts, mailers made out of bioplastic material, or even grow from mushroom root packages!
More examples are renewable plant material (i.e. corn husks and straw), corn starch, polylactide (made from corn and other plant waste), grain sorghum, and corn starch. PLA (polylactic acid) is the most common bioplastic used to replace polystyrene, polyethylene, and polypropylene. It is usually made from the sugars found in sugarcane, corn starch, and cassava.
Reusable Packaging Materials
If you're looking for an eco-friendly packaging solution, reusable packaging is a great option. And if it's also made from sustainable materials and can be used over and over again, it's a big win which helps reduce waste.
Some of the most popular delivery and shipping packaging that can be reused are kegs, glass milk bottles, pallets, shipping containers, gas cylinders, and plastic totes. Reusable packaging can be one of the greenest packaging solutions available, but it is not often feasible for many businesses.
Related Article: Guide to Sustainable Manufacturing
What Are The Benefits Of Eco-friendly Packaging For My Business?
There are a few key benefits of eco-friendly packaging for businesses:
1. Reduced environmental impact
One of the biggest benefits of using sustainable packaging is that it reduces your business's environmental impact. This is because traditional packaging materials, such as plastics and styrofoam, are not biodegradable and can take centuries to decompose. By contrast, sustainable packaging materials are often compostable or recyclable, which means they can be broken down easily and don't cause as much harm to the environment.
2. Cost savings
Sustainable packaging can also help businesses save money in the long run. For example, using reusable packing materials like kegs or pallets can help reduce shipping costs, as there is less waste to dispose of. In addition, many sustainable materials are becoming cheaper to produce than traditional packaging materials, so businesses can save money on their packaging costs while also doing their bit for the environment.
3. Improved Branding
Lastly, using eco-friendly packaging can also help improve a business's branding and reputation. Consumers are increasingly looking for brands that are environmentally responsible, so using sustainable packaging can help your business stand out from the competition. In addition, it can help build customer loyalty, as customers are more likely to return to businesses that are making an effort to reduce their environmental impact.
Dispelling Some Myths Regarding Sustainable Packaging
There's a lot of conflicting information about what is sustainable and can be recycled, and it's tough to determine which will assist in the long run, especially with paper-based items.
1. Most paper and paperboard end up in landfills.
The recycling rate for paper and paperboard in the United States is among the highest of all materials, at approximately two-thirds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
2. Printed paper and paperboard decorated with foil stamping can’t be recycled
Foil-stamped paper materials eg. decorative packaging are recyclable. Depending on the availability of deinking (floatation and dispersion) facilities, they can be recycled into pulp used in tissue and possibly fine paper grade.
3. Windowed cartons can’t be recycled
When you recycle paper cartons, they can actually be turned into lower grades of paper or building materials. Consider using a cellulose-based window material sourced from cotton and wood. This material is compostable and biodegradable, making it a more sustainable option.
How To Create A Sustainable Packaging Solution For Your Business
Even with all the available information, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to sustainable packaging. Finding eco-friendly packaging requires a tailored approach based on your business, product, and goals.
There are a variety of sustainable packaging options available. You need to do an assessment to determine your packaging’s impact on the planet during its entire life cycle. There are three broad points to consider:
1. Do a Life Cycle Assessment
Do an assessment to determine your packaging’s impact on the planet during its entire life cycle. When looking to create a sustainable packaging solution for your business, you'll need to do an assessment of your packaging's impact on the planet during its entire life cycle.
This will help you identify which materials and processes have the smallest environmental impact and can be used in your packaging design. Some factors you'll need to consider include:
- The type of product being packaged
- The shipping and delivery process
- The end-of-life disposal or recycling options for the packaging
See this article for a guide to sustainable product life cycle assessment
2. Choose the packaging that best satisfies financial, logistical, and product constraints
When it comes to choosing the right sustainable packaging for your products, there are a few things you'll want to keep in mind. The first thing to consider is the type of product you're shipping. Some products are more fragile than others and need more protection during transit.
You'll also want to think about the shipping destination. If you're shipping to a location that's environmentally friendly or has recycling laws in place, then you'll want to go with a recyclable or compostable material. If there are no recycling laws in place, then some flexibility in what materials are used for warehouse cartons and plastic wrappings.
Finally, you'll want to consider your budget. Some sustainable packaging materials can be more expensive than traditional materials, but there are plenty of affordable options available too. So, take into account all of these factors when deciding on the best sustainable packaging for your products.
3. Customer Awareness and Branding
Choose packaging that supports and strengthens your company's brand green credentials. That is, after all, a major business factor in the growing attention given to sustainable packaging by companies. This helps attract and bring to attention your products amongst the ever-growing number of eco-conscious driven consumers.
Get Inspired With Sustainable Packaging Examples From Major Brands
At Patagonia, they strive to construct the best outdoor gear possible while also causing no unnecessary harm. They believe that business can be a force for good and inspire others to create solutions for the environmental crisis.
They begin by reducing the amount of (even the most environmentally responsible) materials used and then focus on reusability or recyclability, continuing with sourcing as much recycled content (in particular, post-consumer waste). They have made certain hazardous chemicals unavailable in their packaging.
Method, a home and body soap brand, is known for its inventive and stylish packaging, which often uses recycled materials. For example, their dish soap comes in a bottle made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic.
Their liquid laundry detergent comes in a carton that is made from 90% post-consumer waste and is completely recyclable. Even the bubble wrap used in their shipments is biodegradable.
Gardening products incorporate recycled and renewable materials, such as Ocean-Bound Plastics, Algae-Blended Resin, and blends of plant-based materials with post-consumer plastics.
And their dedicated designers and packaging team have deeply considered end-of-life products and packaging with compostable and 100% biodegradable materials.
It's evident that sustainable packaging is becoming more and more important to both consumers and businesses alike. If you're looking for a way to create a more sustainable packaging solution for your business, there are plenty of options available to you.
We've highlighted just a few of the many benefits of eco-friendly packaging above, but there are countless others. As we move further into the 21st century, it's important that we do our part to protect our planet and its inhabitants.
And with the right partner, sustainable packaging can be easy and affordable for your business.
Take a look at at these 12 sustainable manufacturing trends to watch out for in 2023 and beyond
Looking to make your packaging more sustainable? Get in touch