Struggling with layers of unnecessary plastic, cardboard, and even styrofoam every time you buy something? We are too. Packaging can account for 1/3 of waste in developed countries and only 7% of plastic gets recycled globally. However, the drive for less packaging does exist. PWC recognized four stakeholders driving the adoption: fast-moving consumer goods, retailers, government and trade bodies, and packaging producers. Of course the demand for more sustainable options (consumers) significantly drives supply (producers). Let’s see what options companies have to be more sustainable in their packaging needs and what consumers can ask for:
1.) Just reduce. Of course the best option for sustainable packaging is to use less and studies do show that consumers like minimal packaging the best. However, it is important to still protect the content inside because if the amount of damaged goods increases it can outweigh the environmental (and also financial) benefits of reduced packaging. A redesign eliminating all unnecessary materials will go a long way and even reduces company expenditure on packaging materials.
2.) Clear recycling labels/instructions to close the loop. People do want to recycle, but it isn’t necessarily easily to know what is recyclable or not. And then if you are out, it is even trickier to know for sure what that place of business recycles and what goes where. Recycling is important as even materials that are supposed to be able to be composted don’t break down in landfills. How 2 Recycle is addressing this issue on the consumer side at least and we hope it catches on. It is a voluntary, standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public.
3.) Recycled materials. This one is low-hanging fruit. Why use virgin materials when post-consumer recycled materials are available? The market for recycled paper products is established, the options are out there, and they are not much more expensive that raw materials. According to the SPC the main deterrent for companies to use recycled materials for packing is the quality. Over contamination, appearance, or physical performance are noted as the main concerns.
4.) Rapidly renewable paper products. Paper is better than plastic, but rapidly renewable materials such as hemp, bamboo, or even fiber from acacia and eucalyptus are even better! Using these materials reduces deforestation of virgin and/or slow growth forest. A company’s use of bio-based packaging materials is determined by availability, performance, and price, which are currently limiting more widespread use. However, technological innovation is reducing such limitations.
5.) Cassava or Tapioca. Yes, there are companies that offer packaging made from tapioca starch derived from this tropical root. However, the packaging alternative hasn’t received enough attention -yet. Cassava root usually grows in developing nations; Thailand is responsible for 10% of global production. Benefits of this packing material include that it’s compostable/biodegradable, as long as there is oxygen getting to it, and it can be combined with bamboo or other fibers.
Of course this list is not exhaustive and sustainable packaging options are not mutually exclusive. The options a company has to choose from and cost-benefit scenarios are dependent on the product to be packaged and the location. The integration of sustainable materials into to the actual product is ideal, but packaging is a great place to start and can be just as important.