Most retailers understand the importance of giving their products the presentation they deserve (in our recent post about Sustainable Print Design, we explained how research shows branded materials elevating a customer’s perceived value of what they bought by as much as 30% compared to non-branded packaging/materials), but many overlook a critical strategy in their toolbox: their packaging. With eco-friendly branded package design, you will maximize customer loyalty and long-term retention.
Businesses large and small are growing increasingly aggressive about their sustainability goals, and many are striving to eliminate single-use plastic in their packaging. To help drive this momentum, Fairwind Creative has partnered with EcoEnclose in an effort to minimize single-use package design and encourage our clients to adopt a plastic-free strategy.
When it comes to e-commerce, post-consumer paper is the best alternative material for poly (plastic) packaging. Cutting down trees for paper products and using new oil for plastic production has a serious negative impact on climate change – a huge environmental issue facing the world today. Recycled inputs are exponentially better than virgin inputs in almost any scenario as they pull from existing waste streams and not from our natural resources. However, as you consider a plastic-free solution, it’s important to recognize that the recycling process for poly and paper are quite different.
The process to convert recycled paper into new paper products is resource intensive, requiring more water in the process than plastic alternatives. Also, due to the thickness and weight of paper, its carbon footprint to transport it from the mill to the converter, then to the printer, then to you is higher than the lightweight and thin plastic options on the market. You could easily fit 1,000 poly mailers in a single parcel whereas a paper equivalent may take 2-3 times the storage space, which is a significant consideration when shipping, and factoring the carbon footprint of opting for paper. 100% recycled poly (plastic) packaging almost always has a significantly lower carbon footprint than a 100% recycled paper alternative.
Package Design and Disposal Factors
Another big consideration is what your end user does with your packaging. Can they easily dispose of your chosen packaging in a responsible way? Paper packaging can be curbside recycled and recycled up to several times to create new post-consumer materials, which helps protect our forests and avoids ocean plastic pollution. This ease of recycling makes paper a much more circular product as most consumers have access to curbside recycling for paper.
If your products require waterproof packaging, non-plastic packaging is unlikely to provide this level of protection. However, while paper is not 100% waterproof, it’s important to note that paper mailers and corrugated shipping boxes offer a very high level of weather protection!
Building Package Design In Your Operating Costs
Cost is another factor businesses face when making the decision to shift over to plastic-free alternatives. Plastic is significantly less expensive to buy, ship, and store. If this cost outweighs your company’s desire to reduce your carbon footprint, it will dictate how you source your packaging. If plastic feels like the right choice for you at this time, we encourage you to prioritized recycled plastic over virgin plastic or bioplastics where possible.
If you’re committed to moving toward plastic-free packaging, or even a combination of recycled poly and paper solutions, GREAT! Read on to learn more and explore some fun ideas for your own business packaging!
How to Go Plastic-Free
Start by making a list to determine where your single-use plastic currently exists in your packaging. In most cases, paper is the best replacement for plastic because it is most likely to be recycled and successfully go through the recycling stream. You may find other natural fibers out there, such as hemp or wheat straw; however, fibrous packaging is non-recyclable. There’s a big push right now with packaging manufacturers to acquire these types of non-tree paper inputs, and recycling would still be the ideal end of life scenario. In their plant form, these materials wouldn’t be recycled, but efforts are in the works to make these fibers into paper so that they can alleviate our dependence on trees for paper and still be recycled.
Many e-commerce businesses rely on plastic packaging products everyday for things like poly mailers, bubble mailers, internal or wholesale packaging bags, bubble wrap and plastic air pillows, hang tags (which often use plastic ties), packaging tape, stickers, labels, and more.
Historically, people tend to make the assumption that any paper packaging is a sound ecological choice, but it’s not as simple as that. Paper in the U.S. is typically wood-based, and “virgin paper” means “trees”. Often, these trees come from ancient old-growth forests — important carbon sinks that are essential for preserving biodiversity worldwide.
Our sustainable packaging partner EcoEnclose (innovators in eco-friendly packaging and shipping supplies) has adopted guidance from Canopy Paper (Canopy’s Paper Steps) on what to look for in paper-based packaging.
- Top priority: Maximum Recycled, Post Consumer Waste Content
- Secondary priority: Next Generation (NextGen) Fibers (natural fibers produced from agricultural waste instead of trees)
- Third priority: Virgin Paper Made with Certified Sustainable Trees (used only if recycled content or responsible NextGen fiber inputs are not feasible for your packaging
Everyday Plastic-Free Packaging Alternatives
“Poly” bags (polyethylene resulting in translucent plastic film, and polypropylene being completely clear) are plastic bags used for packaging individual garments, dust protection, and easy picking and pulling, etc. Both kinds are made from crude oil from which the monomer propylene is extracted. One single-use plastic bag is equivalent to 1.58kg CO2e, or 8km of driving, and sadly, most of them end up in landfills, or in the ocean and beaches, taking anywhere from 300-1,000 years to decompose. They release a toxic substance into our air, killing wildlife, and choking our ecosystems. Businesses are slowly transitioning toward eco-friendly alternatives when it comes to clear poly bags.
- Glassine (paper) bags: translucent, thin paper bags which are curbside recyclable and naturally biodegradable.
- Thin, recycled Kraft paper bags: not translucent, but applicable for natural ink printing (like algae ink), 100% recycled content, 60% post-consumer waste.
- Paper roll wrap (or “burrito wrap”): ditch the bag altogether and roll-wrap your blankets, t-shirts, jeans, jackets, and other apparel, then tie up with with jute, sisal, raffia, or hemp twine – or a paper band featuring your logo printed with algae ink, or featuring a 100% recyclable sticker with your logo.
- Paper shopping bags: easy-to-fill flat-bottom construction, twisted paper handles, SQF-certified for food safety, 100% recycled, 95% post-consumer waste – brand them using algae ink, and for special flair, include custom branded, 100% recycled tissue paper!
Or… if it doesn’t make sense for your business to move away from plastic (or if the carbon benefits of poly make more sense for your ecological goals), consider 100% Recycled Clear Bags and other recyclable poly packaging products, some of which are made from partially post-consumer waste.
Eco-Friendly Labels, Stickers, and Tape
Tape, labels, and stickers are often an afterthought when it comes to packaging. It’s important to ask yourself if the tape you’re currently using aligns with the optimal end-of-life outcome for whatever it is you’re affixing it to. Most packaging tape is used on shipping boxes, and more than 70% of shipping boxes are recycled, and so we recommend using a tape that won’t prevent a box from being recycled when it ends up at the recycling plant.
Some common tape options include: non-reinforced water-activated tape (starch-based adhesive easily dissolves and separates in the repulping process, but not strong enough for large, heavy boxes), reinforced water-activated tape (strong, but non-recyclable, and a contaminant ot the recycling stream), Kraft flatback tape (easily torn by hand, but does not separate easily from the facestock or the corrugated box), and cello tape (cellulose material likely made from trees, renewable, biodegradable). Fortunately, all of these are available for custom printing, and none of these will prevent a box from being recycled!
For the icing on your sustainable cake, eco-friendly labels and stickers are the perfect choice! Your brand will really shine when a clever sticker or label featuring your own business brand is affixed to the seam of the package! Some can even be printed with algae ink!
More Plastic-Free Packaging Materials
- Poly Mailer Envelopes → 100% Recycled Flat Paper Mailers – designed with your business brand in algae ink, and accompanied by an eco-friendly shipping label!
- Bubble Mailers → 100% Recycled Padded Mailers
- Bubble Wrap → GreenWrap
- Styrofoam Packing Peanuts and Air Pillows → GreenWrap or Corrugated Bubble made from 100% recycled, 95% post-consumer waste
Custom Printed Package Design
Communicate your sustainability choices to your customers!
Once you’ve made the decision to change over to eco-friendly packaging, you’ll naturally want to share these amazing efforts with your customers. Noting your sustainability attributes on your packaging will knock their socks off! For example, “100% Recycled Paper”, “90% Post-Consumer Waste”, “Printed with Algae Ink”, or “100% Recycled Plastic”.
Another important thing to include on your packaging are the proper disposal instructions for the end-receiver, such as “Curbside Recyclable”, “Please Recycle with Paper”, or “Recycle in your single-stream blue bin or wherever paper is recycled!”. Take some time to review the custom printed packaging you currently use at home. Where it was produced, what is it made of, and how do you responsibly dispose of it?
Natural Ink for Packaging
Algae Ink by Living Ink Technologies is a revolutionary ink that utilizes algae cells for pigments, making it safer and cleaner to work with, and more compatible with the recycling and composting process. Each bucket of ink sequesters the same carbon as two trees! Black algae ink is available for all paper-based packaging, and it can even be used on some poly mailers, shipping boxes, t-shirts, fabric labels, and stamp pads!
Images provided by EcoEnclose.
Avoid Bioplastic, Especially PLA
“Compostable plastic”, or PLA plastic, made from bio-based sources like plants have grown in popularity, but they rely heavily on fossil fuels for production. Only a small percentage of households in North America have access to compost streams or facilities in their locations, and so these products instead end up in landfills where they break down over time, contributing to methane pollution. PLA is made from corn – a crop that wreaks havoc on waterways and soils. Bioplastic mailers are a top contributor to greenwashing in e-commerce packaging.
Beware of Greenwashing!
It’s important to communicate sustainability attributes and disposal directions clearly on your packages, but you have to be upfront and honest. If it’s “eco-friendly”, explain. If the box or bag is recyclable, tell them where, how, and with what? If the paper you used was FSC certified, you must have permission from the FSC to use their stamp – each printing facility has their own unique code that is used on the final product, so that it is traceable back to them. Don’t just slap a nondescript “chasing arrows” symbol on your package; be specific. If it was made from recycled content, how much? If it was made from 100% recycled materials, how much of those were from post-consumer waste?
The Whole Package
Fairwind Creative is pleased to provide a wide range of sustainable package design solutions. You invested a lot of thought into your brand and your products, and so it’s important to carry that through to the physical packages that line your store shelves or end up on your customers’ doorsteps. Your package design needs to reflect your company’s green efforts, and with all the options available these days, that’s easy to accomplish!
Book a meeting with Fairwind Creative today to brainstorm ideas for your sustainable product packaging!