Packaging of products and goods tends to be excessive in today’s marketplace, mainly for convenience to compliment our busy on-the-go lifestyles, and of course, for marketing purposes. In past blog posts, we have discussed packaging and highlighted the impact it has on the environment due to its un-recyclability. However, what if this packaging was actually sustainable? Not all packaging has to be bad. There are lots of sustainable alternatives that have made their way into producer and consumer markets that help to reduce the amount of plastic and landfill waste generated. This blog post will address some of the reasons why companies are moving towards sustainable packaging and take you through some examples of innovative, sustainable packaging.
Why Companies are Moving to Sustainable Packaging
Recently, companies have become environmental stewards in the development of sustainable packaging and/or are adopting sustainable packaging to better suit their products. This includes coming up with innovative materials that work to provide the necessary wrapping desired, but are either highly recyclable or compostable. The two main driving factors behind this push for sustainable packaging is to please consumer demands, as well as adapt to improving government regulations.
Consumers everywhere are becoming more and more environmentally focused and companies want to capitalize on that. To do so, they are establishing new products and designs to meet the needs of these growing markets. Not only does this include new sustainable products, but also sustainable packaging for existing products. If companies can market any part of their product as ‘sustainable,’ then they are able to capture environmentally conscious consumers and hopefully continue to turn profits. Even consumers that are not necessarily looking for an environmentally friendly product are not going to be discouraged from buying something sustainable, so they are able to appeal to a larger, more consistent market. Win-win for the company and the environment.
The other reason that companies are coming up with and adopting sustainable packaging is due to government regulations. As we have discussed in previous blog posts, the government of Canada plans to ban the use of single use plastics by 2022. A lot of these single use plastics are packaging related. In addition to this federal government regulation, the Ontario government has also released legislation to make producers responsible for 100% of the disposal costs associated with their products. This includes the packaging of those products and the end of life recyclability. If a product and its packaging are not recyclable, that will cost a company more then if it was highly recyclable. These two government driven regulations initiate the need for sustainable packaging (and products). Given this, designing and adopting packaging that has the environment in mind is more relevant than ever more.
Types of Sustainable Packaging
As companies strive to reduce their environmental footprint, and meet the needs of the above, innovative packaging has been developed all around the world out of some of the most unsuspecting materials. Here are some sustainable packaging options that could easily replace their unsustainable counterparts:
- Mushroom Styrofoam
This packaging is really what inspired this blog post. This way of packaging is completely innovative, sustainable and notably a gold-certified cradle-to-cradle product. This means that not only is this product 100% biodegradable and made from renewable natural resources, it up-cycles byproducts that would otherwise have no use or low economic value. This mushroom styrofoam is made from fungus roots/residues that are regularly found on mushroom farms, and generally have no value/use otherwise.
Mushroom styrofoam can take many forms as well, which makes it adaptable to many types of products. It can be formed into any size, shape or mold. With that said, it can be utilized like ‘packing peanuts’ to protect goods, or it can be perfectly molded to fit a product so that it is well secured.
Operating just the same as styrofoam, this sustainable alternative well exceeds its plastic counterpart. Plastic derived styrofoam is made from polystyrene foam that is labeled as a plastic #6 in the recycling world. This specific plastic has very low reliability and is therefore often considered landfill waste in many Canadian municipalities.
2. PLA Plastics
Another plant derived sustainable packaging alternative is Polylactic Acid (often referred to as PLA plastic). PLA Plastics are derived from sugars found in plants such as corn or sugarcane. These PLA plastics are sustainable and compostable, making them a great alternative to regular unrecyclable plastics.
This plastic alternative is generally perfect for take out containers, that also would be considered a plastic #6. This is highly applicable to cold coffee beverage containers (think any cold beverage you’d get from your local coffee shop) or food clam shells. Both of these uses for PLA plastics are perfect, as the food/beverage that they contain can also be composted. This makes it easy for the end user to dispose of, as it does not need to be rinsed or cleaned before.
3. Paper Take Out Containers
Although not quite as innovative as the above mentioned packaging options, paper take out containers are the original sustainable packaging plastic alternative. It is hard to believe that some companies still use the plastic versions of these take out containers, as the paper is cheaper in cost and also better for the environment.
Paper take out containers are similar to that of PLA plastic, as they generally hold food (or sometimes beverages). Given this, the paper material makes it easy for disposal as it can be composted with its contents.
4. Corrugated Bubble Wrap
Again, not super innovative but absolutely more sustainable than its plastic alternative. Bubble wrap is not recyclable in any way and therefore a sustainable alternative is highly necessary.
This corrugated bubble wrap is really just what it sounds like. It is corrugated paper (like the material you would find between corrugated cardboard boxes), often found in rolls that can be used as protection for packing. Depending on its use, this could either be recycled or composted.
5. Organic Fabric Bags
Instead of using a plastic bag to wrap goods or products in, companies have moved towards fabric or reusable bags. Although these are somewhat controversial, as they still require resources to make and distribute, if they are made from a sustainable fabric source, they are more sustainable at the end of their life compared to plastic.
These fabrics would be hemp, organic/recycled cotton, tapioca, palm leaves and many more. All of these materials, even if they end up in the landfill, can biodegrade in about 100 days, compared to the 10,000 years it takes for a plastic bag to decompose.
It should be noted that if you can avoid using packaging all together, that is truly the most sustainable way to navigate the consumer market. This would require purchasing things in bulk, in person vs online, and used rather than new. However, when packaging is required, aim to shop sustainably.
As we become more environmentally focused on a global scale, I suspect we will continue to see different materials utilized to create new types of sustainable products/packaging. I would have never thought that mushrooms could be styrofoam or that corn could be plastic, but here we are, trying our absolute best to decrease our environmental footprint. We have only provided a small list of items that are currently being used, but there are always evolving products that are changing the packaging marketplace. I am interested to see what the next new alternative will be – what do you think?