Before we start, we want to say that there are plenty of both easy, affordable and brand building ways to make your packaging much more sustainable than most brands out there. However, we want to acknowledge that fully sustainable packaging is pretty much unheard of on the market today. It requires each component - from the processes used to obtain the materials, manufacture, transport and finally recycling to use only renewable, efficient and ethical resources. However, we need to change our ways fast and just because it's not common today does not mean we should throw in the towel.To make it as easy as possible to make sustainable options, each section has a short 'take-away' at the end that summarises the most important points.
Besides helping to reduce waste and being more environmentally friendly, using sustainable packaging is also becoming a financial business decision. With millennials taking over much of the spending power, we see a shift in what matters when customers pick a product from the store shelf (or a virtual one). Many governments are also starting to introduce tax breaks for sustainable companies and we will be seeing more and more of this in the future as governments are trying to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
With so many reasons to go sustainable, you might feel excited but a little bit unsure where to start.
There are a lot of exciting new materials on the market but using sustainable packaging is easier than you might think and materials are just the surface (no pun intended). Let's dig in!
Sustainable packaging starts at the drawing table with the shape of your packaging. The simple rule is that you want your product to be safe and protected from any damage during transport while keeping the size and weight of the materials as low as possible. The reason for this is simple. Transportation is a big factor in how sustainable your packaging is and the more products you can fit into one container, the fewer trips you have to make. The same goes for weight, heaver items require more fuel to transport them. Materials like paper and plastic therefore have a leg up on heaver and bulkier items like glass in this category.
To minimise the packaging-to-product ratio, you can also offer larger packs (think family size rather than single portions). The ultimate unsustainable packaging we ever came across on this front was a box with individually wrapped fries. Remember this and think the opposite for your own packaging.
Make your packaging as small and light as possible to require less materials and transport.
When we think shipping, we want to consider both the distance the final assembled packaging travels and how far each component travels. For example, it would be more sustainable to create packaging that gets both cut, assembled and printed in the same location which is close to the final destination (shops where the product will be sold) compared to having all individual centres for each stage. Look for local manufacturers for your packaging and ask what their supply chain looks like. If you put in this effort to start with, it will have a great impact on your future environmental footprint every time you place a new order.
From materials to manufacturing, opt for local options.
Two important functions of any packaging is to keep the product safe all the way from the manufacturer to the customer's home and to make the product appealing so we decide to pick it from the shelf.
If packaging fails to do either of these two, the packaging and the product are likely to be thrown away without ever being used. Therefore we need to consider how we can best create packaging that is both practical and appealing.
To make sure your packaging protects your product, consider the full journey it needs to take from when it first gets packaged to when it arrives in your customers home or office. If your product packaging can be damaged by moisture or rain, consider adding a recyclable outer layer such as a thin plastic/bio plastic or paper box. Make sure these are separate and can both be recycled (see materials section).
In order for your product to sell and avoid being thrown out or expire, make sure your package design speaks directly to your customer's pain points and clearly shows the benefits of the product.
Another great way to reduce waste is to make sure it is easy for your customers to access all the product inside the packaging. It is very common that many products, especially liquids like yogurt or shampoo are hard to access. If this is the case with your product, design your packaging to be easily disassembled and put clear instructions on your packaging.
Use packaging that protects the product inside from getting damaged and create a design the encourages people to buy the product. This way it does not expire or have to be thrown away.
Before we look at options for materials, there is one universal rule to go by - stick to one material. When you mix materials, it becomes difficult for consumers to understand how to recycle them and they often end up in landfill. Now let's look at our options.
Picking the right materials for your packaging is a key step. The first choice you want to make is between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging.
Let's look at each first.
As the name explains, this is any packaging that can be recycled into something new. Common options are plastic, glass and paper. Although these might not seem like sustainable options, they are often light, protect the product well and most importantly, people know how to recycle them.
A big part of the sustainable chain hinges on the consumer correctly returning the packaging to the recycle loop. If you have a new material that requires a special kind of recycling behaviour from the consumer, chances are it will be left in the general trash, unfortunate but true.
Since it takes energy to recycle the materials and transport them between stations, the end result is better than always making new packaging but it is far from green. Still, recyclable packaging is a big improvement for many companies so they should not be disregarded.
Let's have a closer look at pros and cons of some of the most common materials:
Glass or plastic:
Glass is a popular choice and often thought to be more environmentally friendly than plastic, but glass has a big problem- it's weight. In a comparison calculation between glass and plastic, environmental footprint company Ecochain concluded that plastic was more sustainable than glass when you looked at the overall environmental impact (see factors below), mainly because of the fuel associated with the heavy transports.
Glass vs. plastics - which is the best choice
The calculation also included factors like pollution but does not mention microplastics, a problem we have yet to see the full consequences of. Other downsides to glass is the fragile nature, it's affect on shelf life compared to plastic and the fact that glass can only be recycled into other glass, while plastic can become many different products.Glass does have some benefits though. Many consumers keep glass packaging to use again. For examples to can your own jam, use as coffee cups or as plant pots. 'Re-use' is always better than 'Re-cycle' but most packaging eventually has to be recycled (or we would all drown in jam jars).
Paper in itself has many benefits. It is often biodegradable, light and flexible. A big problem with paper however is that many paper packaging options include a plastic or foil lining. You might have noticed this of you buy a product that needs a longer shelf life and could contain some moisture. When you combine paper and plastic, you massively reduce the chances of the item being recycled. The same goes for glues.The conclusion is therefore that paper packaging is a good option as long as you can keep the product safe while only using paper - no laminates or glues.A common concern with paper packaging is that it leads to deforestation. In a report by B.J McFarland, the author looks at the causes of deforestation and brings up pulp as one of the factors, although a low ranking one (see the graphic from WWF below). Most paper packaging is made from soft woods that we find in more temperate climates while rainforests often have older hardwood trees. The consequences of paper production however has other consequences, like monocultures (just growing one type of plant) affecting biodiversity and the fact that it takes a lot of water to grow trees quickly.
Biodegradable vs compostable
Biodegradable means that the packaging breaks down by itself after a certain amount of time. This is because it is made from materials like corn husks and potatoes that have a less stable chemical composition compared to plastics that take a lot more energy to break apart. Compostable means that the packaging can break down but the conditions have to be right. If you have ever composted vegetables at home, you know that it requires moisture, microorganisms and the right oxygen and nitrogen levels. This is why you keep your compost in a container with a lid (besides the smell of course). If compostable packaging is thrown away in landfill where it is exposed to a lot of air, it actually breaks down at a similar rate to other materials.
Biodegradable materials therefore have a bigger buffer for human error (not recycling correctly). However, when you pick your manufacturer for either of these options, make sure you look at their practices. Some biodegradable and compostable packaging is made from waste products while some is specifically grown to be used in packaging. The second option often means that a lot of water and land needs to be used, creating a less sustainable outcome.
Besides the material we use, the ink we use to print our package design also makes a difference. A good place to start is to choose vegetable inks rather than petroleum based options. Another factor to look out for is if the ink contains any heavy metals like zink, copper or barium. These are not only bad for ecosystems but also for the health of those dealing with the manufacturing process.
Vegetable inks are an alternative to petroleum inks and are less harmful. For the most sustainable result, make sure you ask your supplier how the ink was made to get inks made from vegetables grown sustainably rather than monocultures like soybean.
Use one type of material instead of combining, gluing or laminating materials together. Consider how the packaging is made (for example how the crops that make up your biodegradable materials were sourced) and make it as easy as possible for consumers to recycle the materials.
As you might have noticed, a big link in the chain of sustainable packaging is end consumers successfully recycling our packaging. The best way to increase the chances that your packaging ends up in the right pace is with clear labelling.
If you use compostable materials, explain where to dispose of them. If you have a lid and bottle of different materials, explain how each should be recycled. If your packaging needs to be disassembled before recycling (like removing a paper sleeve from a plastic yogurt pot), make it easy and clear.
Use clear labels with explanations, symbols and even little images to make it as easy as possible for consumers to correctly dispose of your packaging.
One reason products get recalled or have to be thrown away is because their packaging was seasonal. Many brands create a special Christmas or Easter design while the product remains the same. While this can increase sales, many stores don't like to stock seasonal items past the holiday - even if the product is still good.
When you design your packaging, choose a design that will last. Avoid doing seasonal designs and only order the amount of packaging that will get sold in the time the design is still relevant.
In the hierarchy of sustainability we have "Reduce, Reuse and lastly Recycle". In most sections of this article we have looked at how to reduce materials and encourage recycling. Now it is time to consider re-usage.
A great example is Tuned Pale Ale by Matt Bauer Design. The bottle has ridges on the side to make it playable in a number of different ways and the wood box has different heights and slits to allow you to play the box when turned upside down. The idea is to encourage people to have fun and use the bottles and box as instruments during parties.
Having a second use can also be a memorable experience for people buying the product and is therefore a great branding investment as well.
Create an engaging experience or aesthetically pleasing packaging that people want to keep and use for longer as a way to be more sustainable and build your brand awareness.
To create the most sustainable packaging possible, we need to consider the full lifecycle of our packaging. The shape, materials, manufacturing, transport and how it is recycled are all important to keep in mind.
The biggest takeaway we want you to have after reading this article is that even if it feels overwhelming, improvement is better than business as usual. Start by looking at where you are now and what improvements you can make. Or be brave and embrace the challenge!
If you want to create more sustainable packaging and want a partner to help you get there, get in touch and we can help you out.
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