You’ve seen the labels, you’ve read the claims. Packages come in all kinds of compostable, biodegradable, natural and cruelty-free designs. Trends in eco-friendly design no longer stop at the recycling bin, either. Today’s sustainable packaging innovations are literally sprouting from the earth. In this post, we cover some of the most exciting developments for the future.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING?
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition defines eight criteria that make a package sustainable:
- It’s beneficial, safe and healthy for people for its whole life cycle
- Its price and performance are competitive
- Renewable energy is used not only to produce it, but to ship, source, and recycle it
- Renewable or recycled source materials are given priority, i.e., paper rather than plastic
- Clean manufacturing best practices are used to produce it
- Its materials are healthy throughout its life cycle
- Its design is energy efficient and optimal material
- It follows a closed loop design so it is either reusable, compostable, biodegradable or fully recyclable
In creating its definition, the SPC responds to both commercial and environmental interests, which reflects the complex balancing act that sustainable packaging accomplishes. Sometimes anomalies arise from the various competing criteria of sustainable packaging.
For instance, during production, a paper bag is less sustainable than a plastic bag. It requires more fresh water to produce and it contributes three times more carbon emissions into the air. However, manufacturers didn’t realize this until they did a full life cycle analysis of the two forms of packaging. Of course, we have the perception that plastic is less sustainable than paper, because it can take thousands of years to break down in nature.
This case shows that we can’t always judge quickly how sustainable our packaging actually is. This particular comparison also highlights a generally accepted truth of sustainable design: the longer a product is used, the less an impact it has on the environment. Reusable designs always perform better than single use paper or plastic designs.
Each design has pros and cons that manufacturers carefully consider as they develop packaging solutions. Then again, the ultimate sustainable packaging solution is having no packaging at all.
Why should packaging be sustainable
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the United States generates almost 80 million tons of packaging waste each year and roughly half of that is used to package single-serve food items.
Packaging material suffers the fate of linear design, which requires an abundance of new materials to supply a seemingly endless stream of waste. We produce, purchase and toss packaging without any thought of the consequences.
The useful lifespan of disposable packaging is very short, yet packaging manufacturers choose plastic as one of their favored materials. It’s cheap, lightweight and durable. About 40 percent of the world’s plastic is used to produce packaging. But plastic can stay intact for an indefinite period of time--we’re talking thousands of years.
So packaging desperately needs a sustainable makeover. More and more, consumers don’t want to accept the guilt of packaging waste. They’ve turned to social media with hashtags like #plasticfree or #zerowaste to express an interest in cutting down on waste.
However, businesses can benefit from this heightened interest in sustainability, too. It gives them opportunities to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Sometimes sustainable packaging is even more cost-efficient.
That’s why we’re now seeing a spike in clever packaging concepts. Let’s take a look at seven ways sustainable packaging is disrupting the mold.
1. REUSABLE PACKAGING
Do you ever wonder why the package you unwrap or empty doesn’t just go back to the manufacturer? Well, now it can.
One of the most well-known companies specializing in reusable packaging is Loop, the brainchild of recycling innovator Terracycle and UPS. You can order products ranging from condiments to cleaning products and return their containers once you’re finished back to the manufacturer to get reused. It’s made possible by a convenient reusable shipping tote and return delivery service provided by UPS.
Another packaging company operating in the reusable packaging space is Returnity. It helps companies operating in e-commerce develop returnable packaging solutions for their products. They make it user-friendly for customers by giving easy instructions for returning the packages.
In the Netherlands, a pilot project targeting delivery food waste called Sharepack is in the works. Restaurants can sign up with the program, while their delivery customers can easily drop off the containers at drop-off points for points to use at the restaurants participating in the program. The containers get collected, cleaned and reused continuously.
2. PLANT-BASED PACKAGING
Manufacturers are exploring plant-based materials of all kinds for consumer goods such as pineapple-based leather and cork-based shoes. So why not apply the same logic to packaging materials? After all, renewable plant-based materials generally outperform plastics in life-cycle analyses. Learn how plants have inspired sustainable packaging innovations.
Since 2009, Coca-Cola chose to update its plastic PET based bottle, the wasteful packaging design it notoriously popularized in the 1970s. It did so by placing 30 percent of the non-biodegradable plastic resins with plant-based materials to create its Plantbottle. However, in 2015, it announced a 100 percent plant-based bottle prototype, but the model has yet to hit the market.
Plantic food packaging
One of the major concerns of food manufacturers with switching from traditional plastic is that the shelflife of food could decrease. However, Plantic, a manufacturer of renewable plant-based packaging, solved that riddle with its designs. Now, grocery stores such as Wegmans in the U.S. and Coles in Australia, have started using its plant-based plastics.
IKEA uses Mushroom-based packaging
Ecovative Design has developed a packaging material that binds agricultural products with mycelium, the molecular building blocks of mushrooms. Big name brands like IKEA have already incorporated Ecovative’s 100 percent biodegradable packaging designs.
The Guardian adopts Potato-based packaging
The Guardian, one of the world’s best environmental news sources, announced earlier this year that it would stop wrapping its newspapers in plastic. It settled on an alternative malleable film made of potato-starch that can be composted. The futuristic name of this material is Bioplast 300.
3. EDIBLE PACKAGING
Some inventive packaging designers decided to close the waste loop right at the dining table. Instead of throwing your food wrapper into the waste, why not just eat it after you finish your meal? That’s the idea behind edible packaging.
- Ooho edible water bubble
Thirty thousand edible Ooho water bubbles made by Notpla were recently handed out at the London Marathon. An excellent alternative to plastic bottles, the seaweed-based containers can be filled with water or other beverages. When you finish drinking the contents, you can eat the pouch or toss it and it will biodegrade in four to six weeks.
- Loliware biodegr(edible) cups
Loliware is using seaweed to innovate its way out of the ocean plastic dilemma. Attractive colorful seaweed products such as this edible cup could replace unsustainable plastic event cups. So, what makes them different from something like an ice cream cone? They can be used more than once over the course of an evening for starters, and they are a form of entertainment in and of themselves.
4. PLANTABLE PACKAGING
The next step beyond sustainable packaging that does no harm is sustainable packaging that actually does some good when it’s discarded. That’s the idea behind plantable packaging that contains seeds in the packaging pulp. Here are a few examples.
In a collaboration with Seeds of Change, an organic seed company, Pangea Organics developed compostable packaging that contains seeds. It’s bath and body care products could take root when you plant it, giving life to medicinal herbs.
Bloom Everlasting Chocolate infuses its biodegradable packaging with seeds that sprout the same plants used to make their natural flavorings: rose, orange and mint. With the helpful instructional guide that comes with each bar of chocolate, the product can become your next DIY gardening project.
5. COMPOSTABLE AND BIODERRADABLE PLASTIC ALTERNATIVES
Even though many sustainable companies still like the look, feel and texture of plastic packaging, they seek guilt-free substitutes. Fortunately, companies have developed materials that have similar benefits. But these come without the long lifespan and fossil fuel-derived ingredients that make conventional plastic so problematic.
L’Oreal’s Paper Bottles
Loreal’s Seed Phytonutrients eco-friendly beauty product line houses its skincare products in bottles made of paper, not plastic. The recyclable and compostable packaging design uses a paper label and interlocking tabs, so glue isn’t needed. Most surprisingly, the bottles resist water, so you can store them in your shower.
Alter Eco’s Stand-up Pouch
Instead of a plastic vacuum-sealed pouch, why not use one made of plant-based, non-GMO, compostable materials? That’s the idea behind the pouch made by Gone 4 Good that encloses Alter Eco’s Heirloom Quinoa. While these pouces still require the use of commercial composters, it’s a step in the right direction away from non-biodegradable plastic.
6. MINIMAL PACKAGING DESIGN
When possible, the best packaging design involves as little packaging as possible. Many manufacturers that rely heavily on packaging, such as Amazon, seek ways to shrink, lighten and otherwise minimize their packaging designs.
Puma’s Clever Little Bag
Aimed at eliminating unnecessary cardboard, Puma’s new shoe packaging design is a reusable, resource and material efficient bag they’re calling “The Clever Little Bag.” It reduces the cardboard used in its packaging design by 65 percent.
Packsize perfect fit boxes
Packsize uses an automated in-line packaging system that can instantly measure and package a product in the smallest package possible. This way, no standard-sized cardboard is wasted in the shipping process.
Tapeless cardboard boxes
Box Latch creates box reusable cardboard sealing clips and latches that eliminate the need for tape. This improves the likelihood that your box will get recycled, because plastic tape contaminates otherwise recyclable cardboard.
7. UPCYCLED AND RECYCLED PACKAGING MATERIALS
To reduce the amount of existing waste on earth, we have to tap the waste stream as a resource for materials. Products that use recyclable or post-consumer waste materials help create new markets. When you purchase these products, it helps make the expensive process of transforming waste to goods more cost effective.
- Nike’s 100 percent post-consumer waste packaging
To make a mark with its shoe packaging, Nike stepped up to the challenge of upcycling materials from the waste stream including lids, milk cartons and orange juice containers. It’s a durable design that can be used as a backpack. Stepping forward as a leader of sustainable design, Nike also published its free circular design guide on its website this year.
- GreenKraft clamshell containers
GreenKraft uses recycled cardboard to provide plastic alternatives for delivered food. Its novel designs help cut down on unnecessary take-away food packaging waste.
- Ecoenclose recycled packaging
Providing a number of alternatives to packaging products usually made with plastic, Ecoenclose makes a point of aiming for 100 percent recycled material designs. Acting as part for-profit company and part consumer advocate, this brand wants consumers to make educated choices about sustainability.
What all of these designs show is that constraint is the mother of all invention. As we zero in on achieving zero waste, creativity abounds. Sustainable packaging solutions are evolving from harmful to harmless and even toward beneficial designs for the natural environment.
...water bottle designs meet a wide range of sustainable criteria? From BPA-free lids to recyclable stainless steel design, our product innovation experts have specifically designed them for durability. Read about our own sustainability innovations resulted in a product we’re proud of.
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