How To Choose Your Packaging Materials and Promote Sustainability

Illustration by Katya Katya via Dribbble
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Switching to sustainable packaging has become increasingly important to preserve our natural resources. Find out what makes packaging sustainable and how to overcome the challenges that come with it.

Adapting sustainable packaging has become increasingly important in the last decade to combat worldwide waste and pollution. Gone are the days when nearly all goods were packed in layers of single-use plastic or Styrofoam. While many businesses still mass-produce or sell products using wasteful packaging, more brands and consumers are becoming more eco-conscious of their production and purchases.

Sustainable Packaging is Becoming the New Norm

The majority of consumers today are conscious of the adverse environmental effects of product packaging. Millennials are especially encouraging businesses to be more environmentally responsible. Recent research showed that over 54% of consumers surveyed from nine countries had said they are willing to spend more cash on products that live up to their sustainability claims.

Big companies also heed rising consumer demands for sustainable packaging. Unilever and McDonald’s are two of the many major consumer goods players that have committed to making this major shift.

Unilever will be unveiling its paper-based laundry detergent bottles in Brazil. They are also set to introduce recyclable tubes for three of their toothpaste brands in France and India. Meanwhile, the fast-food giant announced that their packaging would be renewable and recycled by 2025.

A survey conducted by DHL’s Customer Solutions Innovation team revealed that 9 out of 10 companies are putting packaging high up on the list of their priorities in the next three to five years. In the same survey, most respondents claimed that launching sustainable packaging materials was their top priority in the near future.

Since the rise of e-commerce during the pandemic, concerned companies are taking the initiative to reduce their environmental impact by optimizing sustainable packaging practices for from-home shopping.

The Challenges of Switching to Sustainable Packaging

As noble as this collective movement toward sustainability is, making the switch to eco-conscious packaging has its own set of challenges. Developing packaging using eco-friendly materials to meet consumer expectations, enhancing packaging performance, and making it cost-effective for brands require careful considerations.

What’s sure is when sustainable packaging is well-made and backed with proper design and materials, it could significantly reduce the negative effects of consumer goods on the environment, reducing waste and carbon footprint in more ways than one.

Brands that get to adopt sustainable packaging the right way can also enjoy the benefit of making a long-lasting, positive impression, as it extends its value as a marketing tool to attract loyal customers who are all for going green.

What is sustainable packaging?

Sustainable Packaging Criteria
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Sustainable packaging refers to reusable, biodegradable, or compostable materials used to wrap and ship consumer goods. Green packaging can be classified as sustainable if they meet these three main criteria:

  • Materials used must be 100% recycled or from sustainably sourced raw materials.
  • The whole production process is minimized and made more efficient at every level of the supply chain to diminish the total cost, energy use, sourcing, overall carbon footprint, and everything in between.
  • The end product must be reusable, creating a circular economy that extends its lifecycle.

Other important aspects to be considered when developing sustainable packaging include optimizing its design for maintaining product quality. In addition, limiting unnecessary packaging by using only what’s essential for protecting the product is also a primary goal to minimize its environmental impact.

Examples of Environmentally Friendly Packaging Options You Can Check Out

  • Bioplastics and plant-based plastics – Bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass. They can be either biobased or biodegradable or both. Some of the commonly used materials in bioplastics are tapioca, sugarcane, cassava, and corn.
  • Recycled cardboard and paper – Paper and cardboard are less harmful to the environment compared to plastics. These materials are biobased, biodegradable, and over five times more recyclable on average. When these materials are processed correctly, sourced sustainably, or 100% recycled, they can be great options for consumer goods producers.
  • Post-consumer recycled plastics – Recycling non-biodegradable plastics helps the environment. The need to create new petroleum-based plastics is considerably reduced by recycling plastics. This results in decreased energy costs, as well as carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Organic fabrics – Organic fabric packaging is made from plant materials like cotton, pineapple, hemp, and even cotton that can biodegrade in as fast as 100 days. This is why they are better alternatives to plastic bags and containers, which are estimated to biodegrade anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years.

Truly sustainable packaging also considers the economic and social factors behind the whole manufacturing process of the end-product. So, not all “eco-friendly” packaging will qualify as sustainable.

Plant-based packaging may not be entirely sustainable if its production requires a massive clearing of vulnerable rainforests to grow raw materials. Additionally, making green packaging authentically sustainable means they need to be competitively priced when pitted against single-use packaging to make it economically viable.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition website provides enriching insights and is a great resource to learn more about what makes packaging genuinely more sustainable.

Why is there a dire need to adopt sustainable packaging?

Sustainability is more than just a buzzword. Companies are not throwing around it to merely capture the attention of consumers demanding corporate responsibility from product manufacturers and distributors. These are the top three reasons why there is a growing need for delivering more sustainable practices in product packaging:

 icon-angle-right To reduce solid waste

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that Americans alone dispose of up to 77.9 tons of packaging annually, equivalent to 30% of the total waste generated by the United States. Product packaging accounts for 65% of all household trash, and a third of the average dump in landfills is various kinds of packaging material.

 icon-angle-right To conserve energy and raw materials and preserve natural resources for future generations

More than 10 years ago, plastic production cost a whopping 191 million barrels of hydrocarbon gas liquids in the United States. It also requires 1.5 liters of petroleum to produce a cubic foot of Styrofoam. That amount of oil is enough for a 20-mpg car to travel up to 8 miles.

Mass-producing plastics and Styrofoam may be cheaper, more convenient, and sturdier than sustainable options. But making them is resource-intensive and harmful to the environment.

 icon-angle-right To maintain health and safety

Styrofoam production can harm workers involved in its manufacturing process. They have a higher risk of suffering from various ailments like skin irritations, respiratory problems, and kidney failure. Among the most common plastics used for storing drinks, Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) contains toxic chemicals that may lead to complications such as nausea and stomach ulcers.

Moreover, endangered wildlife and thousands of marine mammals die yearly after mistaking plastic for food or getting trapped in plastic waste.

How Companies Can Rise Above Challenges in Sustainable Packaging

Many factors can make transitioning to sustainable packaging quite a challenge for brands, but there are strategies to overcome them.

 icon-angle-right Costing issues

Redesigning packaging for brands can be a costly endeavor. Research and development can be a lengthy process, which could discourage company leaders from taking the plunge. However, reframing the pitch and focusing on potential ROI is a great strategy to get people onboard.

The majority of consumers claim they are more likely to jump from using their current brand to eco-friendly brands. They’re even willing to pay up to 37% more for companies that are transparent with their sustainable practices. Further, the increased costs are often offset—thanks to the reduced size and weight of sustainable packaging, giving companies long-term savings on transportation and storage.

 icon-angle-right Products that require non-recyclable, multilayered packaging

Many consumer goods depend on multilayer packaging like chip bags, which are difficult to separate for recycling. Popular snack brand Hain Celestial has found a way to adapt sustainability by pairing up with third-party recycling company TerraCycle. TerraCycle’s recycling program for their snack bags involves passing on the packaging to companies that salvage plastic from snack bags to create new products.

Reaching out to other businesses with the same sustainable goals is a clever way to find innovative recycling solutions.

 icon-angle-right Differences in performance compared to conventional packaging

Green packaging options are not always as durable as their non-sustainable counterparts. In the end, brands must always think of packaging performance to protect and preserve their goods. While there’s no one-size-fits-all eco-friendly packaging solution, commercially available green packaging is continuously improving.

For instance, there is now a lightweight eTray container for meat and a wide variety of other fresh food. It uses film, plastic, and cardboard that can be easily separated for the recycling process. Brands and merchants are responsible for researching all available options to meet their sustainable goals.

Get Serious About Sustainable Packaging

Addressing the environmental impact of product packaging improves society on many different levels by cutting pollution, helping save natural resources, and promoting a safer, healthier environment for everyone.

Choosing sustainable packaging produced with low-impact processes over conventional packaging gives businesses an image boost for eco-conscious consumers. Businesses planning to make the shift should check out the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides before making sustainability and environmental claims to ensure that everything is in order.

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