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10 Jan 2023

Sustainable Packaging: A Pressing Logistics Challenge

So, you have decided to go green when it comes to your ecommerce shipments and opt for sustainability packaging? Congratulations. This is a big step to take and will without doubt bring many benefits, not only to your business but also to the planet.

Depending on your product, you may opt for renewable, recyclable, or reusable material for your eco-friendly packaging. This article will explore the differences between these approaches and highlight some of the issues to consider when choosing which sustainable packaging best suits your needs.

We also offer pointers to the type of packaging you should look for when choosing which products to support. Let’s begin with a quick definition.:

What Is Sustainable Packaging?

By general agreement among environmentalists, sustainable packaging is any type of material used for wrapping, storing, or shipping that has a minimal impact on the natural environment.

How to Measure Sustainability

When assessing environmental packaging, it is necessary to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions of a product across its entire lifecycle. You need to ask the following sorts of questions:

  • Are the raw materials I am using grown responsibly?
  • Are they contributing to deforestation or habitat destruction?
  • How much post-consumer waste does my packaging create?
  • Will my packaging contribute to marine plastic pollution?
  • What kind of toxins might my packaging leach into the earth when it decomposes?
  • What percentage of recycled or renewable material does my packaging product comprise?
  • What manufacturing process was used to create the product?
  • What is the biodegradation/compostable capability of the product?
  • If using corn-based fillers, is the corn grown organically (i.e. without excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides)?

Criteria for Sustainable Packing

The Sustainable Packaging Solution and other eco-aware groups list some of the following criteria for packaging to be considered sustainable:

  • It is beneficial to communities and the environment throughout its lifecycle
  • It is cost-competitive
  • It performs to industry specifications
  • It uses renewable energy throughout its lifecycle
  • It uses renewable or recycled materials
  • It is made using clean production technologies and best practices
  • It is designed to optimize materials and energy
  • It is focused on minimizing waste.

Renewable/Compostable vs. Recyclable vs. Reusable Packaging

Big brands and packaging manufacturers alike are striving for a more eco-friendly face to present to a consumer base that is increasingly demanding sustainable logistics practices from vendors.

Three clear trends are emerging when it comes to ecological packaging:

  • Using materials that are renewable and compostable
  • Using fully recyclable materials
  • Using reusable materials

Renewable material includes matter derived from the following resources:

  • Corn starch
  • Seaweed
  • Mushroom (mycelium)
  • Hemp
  • Cotton
  • Tapioca
  • Palm leaves
  • Sugar cane
  • Wood pulp
  • PLA starches
  • Cellulose-based products

Swedish home decor giant Ikea is leading the way when it comes to mushroom packaging. Ditching harmful polystyrene, it has switched to packaging comprising mycelium-based material that is grown in a controlled environment in less than a week and is fully compostable.

Cellulose-based packaging, which is derived from wood pulp, is particularly versatile and has been shown to fully biodegrade within 28 to 60 days. PLA materials are made of renewable resources such as sugar cane or corn.

Recyclable material includes cardboard and paper wrappings and PET and HDPE plastics. These materials can be pulped, shredded, or melted down and remolded into raw materials to create new packaging.

Because they can be reused, these materials tend to be cheaper than single-use compostable materials and therefore favored by companies concerned with their bottom lines. One drawback of this system is that plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times before they must be sent to landfills or incinerated.

Reusable material is packaging that allows either the business or the consumer to put the same type of purchased product back into the original containers, such as gels, liquid soaps, and shampoos.

Due to the logistics challenges involved in returning the packaging to the manufacturer (transport and handling), the carbon footprint of reuse requires a minimum number of reuses for the system to be more eco-friendly than single-use packaging.

Stores that allow consumers to refill their containers with shampoo or liquid soap, for example, are leading the way in encouraging sustainable packaging.

In Numbers: Why Eco-Packaging is Vital for Our Future

Because there are more than eight billion humans on the planet, the sheer size of the problem is overwhelming. Consider the following:

The UN reports that the world produces about 460 million metric tons of plastic waste pollutants annually, half of which is discarded after a single use.

More than one-third of this waste is made up of packaging material of some kind.

Globally, we use 5 trillion plastic bags each year—more than 700 per person per annum.

Most of these will end up in landfills. 10% will find their way into our oceans.

An estimated 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean each year.

In the  fashion industry alone, some 150 billion packaging plastic bags are used every year.

Sobering statistics indeed. Clearly, the time is long overdue for retailers, etailers, and consumers to support the shift to sustainable materials for packaging.

Towards More Sustainable Packaging

To help you decide which sustainable packaging is best for your shipping needs, we offer the following tips. Note that one size does not fit all when it comes to packaging. Much depends on the nature of the product being shipped.

1. If Using Renewable Material

Typically, this involves the use of corrugated cardboard or paper made from organic materials, as described above. If you choose this option, make sure you advertise that your packaging is renewable and compostable. This will earn you kudos from environmentally-conscious consumers.

2. If Using Recycled Material

Use only enough packaging as is needed to protect your goods, no more. Aim to create as little post-consumer waste as possible. High-end shoemaker Rothy’s eco-friendly packaging strategy, for example, involves shipping its products in vegan, biodegradable boxes made from 85 % post-consumer recycled materials.

Other renewable packing materials include biodegradable cassava-based mailers, packing peanuts, and non-reinforced paper tape. For liquids, instead of plastic containers, consider using aluminum or glass bottles.

3. If Using Non-Renewable Material 

Typically, this involves the use of plastics. If you choose this option for reasons of economy or protection of your products, use recycled and repurposed material and aim for the barest minimum in post-consumer waste.

4. If Using Reusable Material

If your products are sold in plastic bottles or containers, consider switching to glass or aluminum and offering consumers the option of returning the packaging through a returns app, such as Shopify’s Returnly. The returned items can be sterilized and refilled, significantly reducing the amount of disposable waste. You can access the Returnly app for download via Shopify’s app store

Ship in Smaller Packages

Reduce the amount of packaging material you use by choosing smaller boxes, bags, and containers. Use the smallest container necessary for your product to limit the amount of infill that you need. Aside from reducing your carbon footprint, smaller and lighter parcels lower your shipping costs.

Choose your Partners with Care

Before signing up with packaging manufacturers, do some research into their sustainability policies and green credentials. Do they subscribe to fair trade practices? Do they use sustainable materials? How are they lowering their carbon footprints? Based on the answers to these questions, you can decide if you want to work with them or not.

Create Your Own Guidelines

Depending on what sustainability message your brand wants to send to your customers, you can create internal packaging guidelines to reduce your carbon footprint and win their approval. Ideally, your guidelines should be based on the following principles:

  • Packaging should contain as much recycled content as possible.
  • The packaging should be entirely recyclable.
  • When sourcing organic materials, ensure that they are grown responsibly.
  • Avoid using chemicals deemed harmful to the planet.
  • Give explicit instructions on your packaging concerning its disposal.

If embracing sustainable packaging practices seems like hard work and a costly endeavor, consider that consumers are turning away en masse from businesses stuck in their traditional polluting ways. To stay in the game, you have no choice but to adopt sustainable business practices—and the planet will thank you for it many times over.