Sustainable Packaging: The Basics
Sustainability has become a big buzzword in the consumer goods industry. In fact, the green packaging market is projected to reach $451.7 billion by 2028 with an estimated CAGR of 6.1% to 7.0%*.
From recyclable and compostable materials to refillable and reusable containers, there are a variety of options available for companies looking to reduce their environmental impact. All of these methods have their pros and cons, but each one moves the needle a little on sustainability and can be used in combination to support holistic environmental progress in the packaging industry.
Let's explore some of the different types of sustainable packaging and break down the best applications for each.
- Recyclable Packaging: Recyclable packaging is made from materials that can be recycled after use. This type of packaging is typically made from materials such as paper, cardboard, metal, and certain types of plastic. The benefits of recyclable packaging are many: it reduces waste and conserves resources by putting materials back into the ecosystem instead of continuously depleting our resources by making virgin packaging. One downfall of recyclable packaging is the limitations on recyclability. Mixed materials (such as toothpaste tubes made with many layers of different films) may not be recyclable. Even fully recyclable plastics have limitations on size and color; darker colored packaging often fails to be detected by optical recycling sorters and small components such as bottle caps can fall through the cracks in a recycling facility. Only about 8.7% of plastic is successfully recycled each year in the United States, which means that 91.3% ends up as landfill waste**. Plastic recycling in particular can be confusing since there are various types and resin codes; check out our post on recycling for tips. In conclusion, recycling is not perfect, but it brings us to our next point--
- Packaging Made from Recycled Materials: Recycling allows us to create new packaging using recycled materials instead of virgin materials. For example, paper and cardboard packaging can be made from recycled paper products, while new clothing and packaging can be made from recycled plastic. Glass and aluminum are especially recyclable packaging materials and, unlike plastic, do not lose integrity through the recycling process. Since virgin aluminum can strip bauxite ores, it's important that we maximize the use of recycled aluminum. Note, however, that packaging made out of recycled plastic is often not 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) material. Many packages are only 10-50% PCR material, meaning that virgin plastic is mixed in. Although this does still reduce the amount of virgin plastic used at first, a PCR item sometimes cannot be re-recycled as plastic is not infinitely recyclable. PCR materials also have an aesthetic implication, sometimes altering the color and appearance of the finished product. Utilizing recycled materials to make new packaging is great, but be wary of the pitfalls with recycled plastic specifically, and remember that recycling itself still does expend energy and incur carbon emissions from shipping materials to recycling centers.
- Compostable Packaging: Compostable packaging is made from materials that can be broken down into organic matter when composted in a home or commercial composting facility. If you're not sure what the difference between home composting and industrial composting is, start with our blog post here. Either way, compostable packaging can be made from a variety of different materials and helps reduce the amount of waste sitting in a landfill. Compostable packaging is often found in single-use food and beverage containers, as well as in packaging for personal care products and home goods. Beware that some compostable packaging is not compatible with water (e.g. paper push-up sticks, jars made of wood chips). These may be more suitable for short term single-use food takeout or anhydrous formulas such as deodorant or balms. Chat with us if you need more durable compostable packaging that is compatible with various liquids & solvents across a years-long shelf life.
- Refillable or Reusable Packaging: Refillable or reusable packaging is another sustainable option. This type of packaging is designed to be used multiple times, reducing the need for single-use packaging. Refillable packaging is especially wonderful when the refill portion is compostable or recyclable, and the reused portion is durable. For example, a household product may reuse the pump or sprayer cap (which cannot be recycled), and allow users to repurchase concentrates or tablets for refilling. This is doubly a sustainability win because it reduces the carbon footprint from shipping each time when the refill is lighter and smaller that the fully assembled product. Reusable shopping bags are another great example, where we reuse more durable bags instead of single-use plastic bags from a grocery store. Refilling and reusing saves our wallets, too!
Sustainable packaging is an important part of the effort to reduce our environmental impact. Each of the above solutions has unique use cases, and when we combine all of them we are collectively making progress as an industry and as consumers. When it comes time to discard your product at the end of its lifecycle, make sure to sort it carefully for recycling, composting, or landfill. In addition, repurpose or upcycle your packaging when you can--many things like hand soap pumps or containers can be used for much longer than the original contents last.
Citation: *Research Dive, Future Market Insights; **EPA.gov,