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Packaging waste has been a long-time issue in the retail industry.
Heaps and heaps of plastic and molded foam end up in landfills and remain there for lifetimes to come.
With the pandemic forcing the shift to online shopping, the eCommerce industry gained a lot of momentum over a very short period of time.
As ordering everything from groceries to furniture is becoming more convenient than ever, consumers and businesses also hold more responsibility for developing sustainable processes to accommodate environmental initiatives.
It can be difficult to determine just how sustainable packaging materials actually are.
That’s why it’s important to assess the life cycle of chosen packaging materials to ensure brands are delivering on their sustainable responsibilities.
This comprehensive guide to sustainable packaging materials will help businesses and consumers alike make eco-friendly choices and ultimately pave the way to a greener future.
The Categories of Eco-Friendly Packaging
Sustainable packaging falls under 3 main categories based on the capabilities and specs of the materials.
Recyclable packaging is the most common type of sustainable packaging widely used across a large portion of the retail industry.
Recyclable packaging includes but isn’t limited to paper-based materials such as:
Paper-based materials get recycled and are soaked, chopped, cooked, strained, cleaned, bleached, and reformed to create new paper-based products, bringing the material full circle.
While it’s true that paper loses its durability the more it is recycled, the great thing about recyclable materials is that most, if not all, are biodegradable.
Meaning that at the end of its life cycle, it can be easily composted, once again bringing the material full circle without negatively impacting the environment.
While paper-based packaging can be composted, it does not work on a large scale as it relies on the infrastructure of composting and waste programs to bring the waste cycle full circle.
Materials that are engineered to be composted include:
- Mushroom packaging
- Cornstarch packaging
While mushroom packaging is still in the early stages of development as a compostable packaging material, bioplastics and cornstarch packaging have gained market share as reliable compostable materials, especially in the food and restaurant industry.
The food and restaurant industries account for a large portion of packaging waste due to the reliance on plastic and polystyrene materials for durability and hygiene.
However, compostable packaging like cornstarch and bioplastic materials are engineered to offer up-to-standard durability and hygienic properties and ensure that the packaging breaks down over a short period of time.
Bio-plastics and cornstarch packaging materials are marine degradable, meaning these materials will dissolve in water and serve as food for marine life.
Reusable packaging is just as it sounds.
Packaging and products are made with extremely durable materials to ensure a longer life cycle and encourage reuse, contributing largely to the circular economy.
Reusable packaging is one of the most eco-friendly solutions on the market as it eliminates the need for single-use plastic packaging, which contributes largely to global packaging waste.
Popular reusable product packaging types include:
Shipping products globally produces a solid amount of waste, using reusable pellets and shipping containers can also save costs in turn increase the ROI significantly.
Ultimately, reusable packaging will also be recyclable to ensure minimal impact at the end of a product’s life cycle.
Examining Sustainable Packaging Materials
The conventional corrugated box has 3 fiberboard layers in its structure.
The outer layers are called linerboards, and the wavy layer of paper sandwiched in between the linerboards is called a flute.
In some cases, to add extra protection to the products, corrugated sheets can be doubled-up, combining different grades of fluting.
The everyday corrugated box is the most common as a shipping and mailing option.
The walls provide the much-needed protection for even the roughest handling, and the material is relatively cost-effective.
Most companies use corrugated boxes to efficiently ship and deliver enormous amounts of products over long distances.
In contrast, some companies opt for printing on their corrugated boxes for more brand appeal.
Corrugated cardboard is 100% recyclable, however, some inks may compromise the recyclability of the material.
If companies choose to print onto corrugated cardboard, sustainable inks can be used to maintain sustainable practices.
Popular sustainable inks for packaging include:
- Soy ink
- Vegetable ink
- Water-based ink
Kraft Folding Carton
Raw kraft is durable, tear resistant and brown in color thanks to the kraft pulping process.
Ideal for creating durable wrapping paper and sturdy carton and rigid boxes, kraft paper board is actually also available in a range of colors and shades making it extremely versatile for branded packaging solutions.
The surface of raw kraft paper is textured and porous allowing for high-quality printing and finishing for a premium rustic look and feel.
kraft paper is stronger than regular paper thanks to the kraft process.
More lignin is stripped from kraft wood pulp leaving more cellulose which gives paper its tear-resistant and durable characteristics.
Raw kraft paper tends to be more porous than regular paper too, making it a little less effective for printing but extremely accepting to special finishing processes such as:
Because kraft is a raw material, it is 100% recyclable, and sustainable coatings can be used to elevate packaging artwork designs.
Tin boxes are an up-and-coming sustainable packaging substrate because it is 100% recyclable and reusable while still providing a luxurious look and feel.
Tin can be processed and returned to the production cycle without deteriorating in quality and they are also magnetic making it really easy to extract from waste streams if needed.
For luxury brands looking to improve on sustainable practices, tin packaging is a great way to add a higher perceived value while still encouraging consumers to recycle or reuse.
Tin is also impenetrable, making it great for keeping food products like chocolates and small treats hygienic and protected from exterior elements.
Molded pulp is commonly used for creating box inserts to provide extra support and security to products.
It serves as an effective alternative for plastic inserts as it provides more durability and protection to products within packaging boxes.
The material is molded to the product making it convenient and durable for packaging a versatile range of products for a tailored look and feel.
Coatings and varnishes can also be added to the surface of molded pulp inserts to create a more luxurious feel.
However, it is not recommended to print on molded pulp due to the textured nature of the surface.
In a nutshell, cornstarch packaging is a biodegradable packaging material that can replace polystyrene (Styrofoam) and plastic.
Available in both transparent and opaque material, it can be used in a variety of ways.
Currently, the most popular way to utilize cornstarch packaging is for take away food.
This includes packaging options such as;
Unlike petroleum-based plastic, cornstarch packaging is biodegradable and renewable, making it an excellent choice for eco-friendly packaging material and plastic alternatives.
Collapsible/Magnetic Rigid Boxes
Magnetic closure rigid boxes have two magnets placed in the rigid boxes that lock together to firmly seal the box shut.
Because of its sturdy and solid construction, consumers like to reuse them making it a great sustainable packaging solution for premium products.
Plus, the magnetic closure offers a sleek unboxing experience that further encourages consumers to keep these boxes for storage or decoration.
Magnetic closure boxes are available in standard and collapsible styles.
Collapsible magnetic closure rigid boxes are packed and shipped flat, which can greatly reduce shipping and handling costs as well as the carbon footprint.
Collapsible rigid boxes generally come with double-sided tape that adheres to the collapsible faces of the box making it no longer collapsible for your customers.
However, in many cases, businesses will keep the collapsible feature of their packaging functional so that consumers can easily collapsible and store packaging for reuse.
Why are Coatings Important for Sustainable Packaging?
Fully recyclable packaging is still a challenge to produce.
There are so many layers to packaging and each one is made of different materials, coatings, and inks.
There have been different measures for companies to reevaluate their current use, including bans on certain kinds of materials such as single-use plastic.
While these are small steps, there are bigger goals the industry is working towards.
Specifically, using more recycled content to create flexible packaging, eliminating the unnecessary use of plastic, developing newer forms of plastic that can be recycled, and increasing the circulation of already used plastic to encourage recycling.
With the focus on plastics, it might not seem obvious where coatings fit in.
Businesses have taken some major steps toward providing consumers with sustainable and recyclable products. However, a lot of the industry has been greenwashed over time.
While the materials businesses choose do play a crucial role in the sustainability of products, the coating, as mentioned previously, often compromises the recyclability of the packaging.
While coatings are useful because they provide additional functionality that might not exist if plastic is completely eliminated, it still poses the question: how eco-friendly is this packaging really?
Consumers are becoming more conscious of eco-friendly initiatives and are becoming much more educated on this topic as a whole.
With that being said, customers will eventually catch on to brands that claim to be environmentally friendly, yet use coatings that ultimately make the packaging non-recyclable.
Greenwashing is becoming more prominent, but so have consumers’ knowledge of this phenomenon.
This is why businesses taking steps towards sustainable initiatives need to acknowledge and embrace the importance of sustainable coatings along with sustainable packaging as a whole.
Water-based coatings are becoming an increasingly sustainable alternative for flexible packaging.
- Barrier coatings
Water-based coatings are durable, can withstand rough conditions, and work as a protective layer, just as any other non-sustainable coating would.
Other technologies and options are being developed, so it’s clear more innovation is to come for sustainable coatings and will hopefully pave the way for fully sustainable packaging solutions.
Overall, we can expect to see more innovation in sustainable packaging materials and a larger shift to sustainable practices in business.
Using this comprehensive guide to sustainable materials for packaging, businesses will be able to make educated decisions when switching to sustainable packaging for a greener future.