Packaging is the biggest source of waste. Nearly whatever you choose to buy, comes wrapped in packaging. The question is, what can we do? There are plenty of things we can do to make packaging more sustainable and in the process create stronger brands. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Businesses and designers have the responsibility and ability to start fixing this problem we have created by making more eco-conscious decisions. To quickly define what sustainable packaging is, in simple terms, it’s essentially packaging that causes minimal harm to the environment and ourselves.
Additionally, if you are looking for a supplier of sustainable packaging for your brand, I’ve made a list just for you at the end if you want to check that out. There are some amazing companies that provide an endless type of packaging for any kind of product.
How To Make Packaging More Sustainable
Packaging must and can become more sustainable. But for that to happen, companies must take decisive action and make better decisions. Humans are too set in their ways and unwilling to change which is why so many are reluctant to alter the way they live or change how their business operates. Nevertheless, it’s important to change and adapt to the current times and the new circumstances we are facing.
So how can we make packaging more eco-friendly? I’ve put together a list of things a designer must consider when designing sustainable packaging.
01. The Materials
First and foremost, we must consider the materials you are going to use. The material used is perhaps the most important part. Undoubtedly, plastic packaging is not an eco-friendly option (unless it’s recycled and recyclable but that’s up for debate). Phasing out plastic is part one of making our society more eco-friendly.
The best choice for materials is always recycled materials. From the main packaging body to void filling packaging to protect the product, everything can come from recycled sources. Typically, it’s recycled paper and recycled cardboard but surely not the only option. Lately, I’ve seen more companies using shredded cardboard instead or styrofoam to protect the contents of a package and other similar ways to make shipping products less harmful to the environment.
Here are some materials that would be ideal for sustainable packaging:
- (Recycled) cardboard
- (Recycled) paper
- Organic fabric (ideally recycled)
- Biodegradable packing peanuts
- Compostable poly bags (from plant-based sources)
- Mushroom packaging (a durable material made from mushrooms)
- Cornstarch packaging
- Seaweed (a new type of packaging that can also be edible)
- Recycled plastic
Packaging is also about good design. And part of that is having packaging that informs the user on the product and how it was made. Transparency is key nowadays with so many greenwashing claims going around. Some crucial information every packaging should have are as follows:
- The origin of the product and materials
- The materials used
- Third-party certification (fairtrade, organic, etc)
- What it contains (ingredients)
- Expiration date (if applicable)
- How to dispose of at the end (recycle, compost, waste bin, etc)
03. Is It Renewable?
Consider if the materials used are renewable or finite. A good example of a finite material is plastic while an example of a renewable material is paper because while trees can grow again and again, we cannot obtain more crude oil after it runs out which is what plastic is made of.
Using renewable materials is a must unless you choose to use recycled plastic.
The reason for this is quite simple. Mining finite materials is not a long-term solution because what are we going to do when it runs out? Society is not very good at thinking long-term. The majority care about short-term cost effective solutions. Don’t be like that. Think about the future and what will be more beneficial for you and the planet.
Non-toxic needs to be a minimum requirement. To eliminate any toxic materials during the manufacturing process as well as stopping any toxic materials being released when it breaks down at the end of its lifecycle. At every stage, it must be deemed safe to handle and non-toxic to all organisms. The best way to do that is to use natural, plant-based materials found in nature.
The chemicals we use do not magically disappear with time. Subsequently, if it reaches the ocean or another ecosystem and it starts to break down, slowly, it will release those chemicals too and might lead to unprecedented consequences in the future.
05. Fewer Materials
Using the right materials is one thing. However, we must use fewer materials too. How many times have you bought a product in a supermarket or online only to find out there’s more packaging than product. Granted, it’s an effective marketing scheme but it is wasting natural resources and energy for no real good reason.
As a rule, less is more especially when it comes to sustainability. So we need to start designing smarter and more efficiently.
Using our creative minds, designers can come up with smart ways to package products with fewer materials. I’ve seen it done. And to be honest, it looks even better than the typical packaging you see. It looks more interesting and cool and so people are more likely to buy it.
There’s another bonus to using fewer materials. If the products now take less space, transportation becomes more efficient as more will fit in the same amount of space. In turn, reducing transportation costs.
As long as it does its job which is to transport, describe the product and promote the brand, it’s good enough. Minimalistic packaging is the way to go.
06. The Manuacturing Process
Packaging needs to be manufactured too which requires energy.
The good news is that making use of recycled materials instead of virgin material has a lower carbon footprint which is not only good for the environment, but it’s also good for those who are interested in increasing profits which is all business owners. Another example of how sustainability benefits all.
Another point that I feel is important during the manufacturing process is the printing. Printing our designs needs to become more eco-friendly too which can be done in various ways including using plant-based inks.
Manufacturing also brings ethics into question. Are the workers paid a fair wage? Do they work in safe conditions? Are they treated fairly? These are just some of the questions that you need to ask. We often think about if the products are ethically made but forget about what brought them to our homes or stores.
07. Can It Be Reused?
While most packaging ends up in the bin quickly after purchasing the product, we could make packaging reusable and give it another function to extend its lifecycle.
Making packaging reusable is a way to design for the circular economy and another way for designers to problem solve and think of innovative solutions. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. I’ve seen paper bags turn into clothes hangers and paper mailers turned into colouring books. Let’s bring another use to packaging.
Another simple example is turning packing boxes into storage boxes. If the boxes don’t look good and people don’t like the way they look, they will throw them away. On the other hand, if they are designed well with beautiful colors and illustrations, individuals will want to keep them and reuse them.
08. The Disposal
The disposal of the packaging is another very important part of sustainable product design. The reason behind this is simply because packaging (in most cases) is single-use. Packaging has a very short lifespan since we don’t care about the packaging, we are interested in the product. Packaging is only there for transportation and promotional reasons. So if it cannot be disposed of safely, then it can never be eco-friendly.
There are different ways that packaging can be disposed of:
- Go in the waste bin (non-recyclable)
- Recycle it
- Compost it
A lot of the packaging used especially in the food industry cannot be recycled so it ends up in the waste bin never to be used again. A lot of biodegradable and compostable packaging still ends up in normal bins anyway though due to a lack of education or because not everyone has a compost bin yet.
While recycling is not the answer to all our problems, it can be part of the solution. Recycling existing materials is always better than extracting new materials.
But we need to make it clear that it can be recycled by putting the recyclable sign on packaging. Otherwise, everyone will not recycle it.
The ability to recycle all packaging will bring us a step closer to reaching the circular economy.
Compostable packaging is meant to go in your compost bin or your back garden as it will break down into organic molecules. But it’s not as simple as that. I wish it was. Companies use the word compostable on their packaging but it seems like each one has a different definition for it.
This is why you need to be on the lookout for greenwashing and know exactly how to dispose of it. Search if it will compost in your garden or does it need to be sent to a special facility? While compostable packaging looks very promising, it still has a long way to go. Check for the compostable label to make sure that you can compost it at home.
The Biodegradable Packaging Problem
You have probably heard of or seen biodegradable packaging and unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about it. While it is better than normal plastic, it’s not the answer to all our problems, and here’s why. Don’t believe that just because something is biodegradable is good for the environment.
First of all, biodegradable packaging could take decades to actually biodegrade which they don’t specify! Also, there’s a lot of biodegradable packaging that can only break down in special facilities. Therefore if it finds its way into natural ecosystems like a lot of waste does, it may never even break down, or it will take a long, long time. Plastic for instance can degrade and break into smaller and smaller pieces which is what we know as microplastics. But they are not safe for wildlife or habitats in general.
So always be sure to check which bin to put biodegradable packaging in. Check what your local council offers. Some might need to go in a bio-waste bin or to a composting facility. Always check the label for any disposal instructions.
Why Is Sustainable Packaging Important For Your Brand?
So are you still wondering why choosing sustainable packaging is the better choice? Well here are 6 reasons that might convince you. There’s no better alternative to sustainable packaging. It wins against all other options.
Plastic is getting out of hand and landfills are filling up. Every year every person sends around 400kg of waste to landfill. By choosing eco materials that can be recycled and composted and by reducing how much packaging you use, we will together be able to reduce that number.
Play your part in society and help the planet. Think about the best option rather than the most convenient option. And maybe sustainable options cost a bit more but know that you are paying for ethical and environmentally friendly packaging that doesn’t harm people or the natural surroundings.
Good Branding (Attract More Customers)
It’s the 21st century and people are starting to like to buy in a way that aligns with their values. By using sustainable packaging you are projecting a message that people want to hear. You are telling people that you care about the planet and that you are doing your part to improve the state of the environment.
When you make the switch to eco packaging, you will attract more and better customers
The packaging and the design should make it clear straight away what the product is about and who it’s for. Effective design needs the right colors, fonts, etc for your target audience.
This one is two-fold. First of all, more customers will start buying your products. In particular, the younger generations are more likely to buy something if it’s sustainable and ethical. Increase loyalty and increase sales by projecting to the world that you care about your impact on the world.
Secondly, using fewer materials and recycled materials reduces costs. As mentioned before, transportation costs will also go down. It’s a win-win situation.
Better For The Planet
Apart from the fact that it reduces waste, plastic waste in particular, using sustainable packaging has many other countless benefits. Some of these include:
- Doesn’t further contribute to the depletion of natural resources
- Reduces carbon dioxide emissions
- Protects ecosystems
- Reduces pollution
It’s Aesthetically Pleasing
Let’s be real, eco-friendly packaging looks more appealing to the eye. There is nothing good about single-use plastic. It doesn’t look good nor does it feel good buying something that will stay on the earth for the next several centuries.
On the other hand, recycled paper packaging used with the combination of good design is the perfect recipe for customer satisfaction.
Sustainable Packaging Manufacturers
If you are a brand or business that sells a product, I would recommend looking at some of these for any packaging needs. They each other different types of packaging for different products. Of course, these are not the only ones, but they will get you started:
So If you have a brand, maybe it’s time to rebrand.
The planet is a critical state and everyone and I mean everyone needs to care. If you have a business you have an even bigger responsibility to do something because you can inspire so many people to make better decisions by making them follow in your footsteps.
Using sustainable packaging is just one part of it. Make your products eco-friendly, educate others on this issue and start changing things up.
All images from Unsplash