How we package our products is almost as important as what we put inside. What you mail out is often the first impression a person has of your company so it is important to align your packaging and messaging, especially if your company offers sustainable items and services. Thankfully, eco-friendly packaging options and access to them have increased in the past few years. By replacing our traditional packaging methods, we can simultaneously enforce sustainability messages while remaining environmentally friendly.
As we become more consumed with online shopping, boxes are just about everywhere and used for everything. In fact, containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste (MSW), amassing 82.2 million tons of generation in 2018. In response to this, it is important to implement the many eco-friendly opportunities available. We all at least have easy access to cardboard boxes made from recycled material that are 100% recyclable themselves. Biodegradable boxes are often constructed from sustainable materials and plant by-products, such as cornstarch or sugarcane.
Although not as widely considered when it comes to boxing, the ink used to print information on boxes and labels can likewise be replaced by sustainable alternatives. Commonly-used petroleum and oil-based inks contain higher amounts of volatile organic compounds, including toluene and benzene. These chemicals are harmful to the environment and people. Safer and eco-friendly options are based on common oils including vegetable-based inks. Alternatives also include soy, linseed (flax), canola, algae, and safflower inks. Soybean and linseed oil are the two most prominent supplies utilized in sustainable inks.
The most frequently used packaging tapes are made from plastic that creates pollution in their production and recyclability issues down the line. One safer alternative is paper tape. Since this tape falls within the paper category, it is widely recyclable and compostable. Cellulose tape is another recyclable option and is used in medical tape, although it may be harder to find. Some options are available through select retailers and online stores. One of the best alternatives is water-activated tape. This is a starch-based adhesive tape that is made from a natural, renewable, recyclable and biodegradable adhesive. More sustainable options for tape include crepe paper and kraft tapes.
Because traditional poly mailers are made from polyethylene material (plastic), they are not biodegradable. Fortunately, there are various eco-friendly envelope designs and companies such as EcoEnclose that are substitutes to traditional mailers. Sustainable options are often made out of 100% recycled material and are in turn recyclable themselves or biodegradable. Other options derive their materials from plant-based alternatives including cornstarch, recycled kraft paper, and PBAT (a biodegradable polymer). One example of eco-friendly packaging is the Lumi Poly Mailers. This specific company offers mailers made from renewable bioplastic that is derived from corn starch and a synthetic binding agent. With the exception of bioplastics, you can compost most sustainable alternatives in a home compost bin or at industrial composting facilities, depending on local availability. You typically need to compost Bioplastics labeled “compostable” in industrial-level facilities where temperatures are high enough to break down the product.
Rather than using bubble wrap or big plastic bubbles as packing fillers, there are sustainable packaging options available. A more common alternative is paper. These paper options vary in size and volume while deriving from recycled fibers and being recyclable themselves. Other selection options include cardboard from recycled materials, plantable seed paper filler, biodegradable sealed air peanuts, and compostable packing materials derived from plant bases such as cornstarch, wood and pulp. Some of the most interesting options are seaweed and Mushroom packaging. Mushroom options are made from hemp hurds and mycelium (a network of fungal threads or hyphae). Mushroom fillers are also compostable. Seaweed options are derived from a gelatinous substance called agar, which is found in seaweeds and algae. This option is already used in multiple industries including the food market.
Contrary to popular belief, styrofoam is actually made of plastic. It is an expanded polystyrene foam known as EPS. This material is derived from polystyrene, a plastic that is often used to manufacture clear products such as food packaging and lab equipment. These plastic products can persist in the environment for more than a million years. Instead, it fragments into smaller pieces and can harm the environment and animals when disposed of. Estimates vary for the breakdown of Styrofoam from a few years to as many as 1 million, depending on environmental conditions. This means that all plastic ever produced that is not in useful circulation is now in the environment in one form or another.
Since plastic production has been booming since the 1950s, there is an accumulation of plastic as more continues to be disposed of into the environment. Additionally, styrofoam alongside other plastics currently makes up around 30% of the landfill volume in the United States. Many places, including Orange County in California and the city of Portland, Oregon have banned petroleum-based materials due to their harm to the environment.
Even if you cannot afford to adopt new, sustainable packaging now, there are more ways to practice sustainability. Practices such as using smaller boxes and thoughtfully composting or recycling what can no longer be used are important roles in sustainability. When recycling materials, it is vital to make sure you remove associated elements that are not recyclable such as plastic tape. In the instance that these materials are not removed, they may cause damage to machinery at a recycling plant. The unwanted components can contaminate recyclable materials and could render the entire item non-recyclable.
In 2019, Amazon was responsible for an estimated 465 million pounds of plastic packaging. As much as 22 million pounds of that may have ended up in rivers, lakes, or the ocean. Considering the massive impact our consumerism has on the environment, you can reuse boxes, filler materials, and envelopes from various shipments you receive. These supplies are often reusable by simply removing previous tags and maintaining their appropriate conditions. Plus, by normalizing this reduce and reuse behavior, you encourage your customers to do the same. They’ll also see that when it comes to sustainability, you really do mean business.