Consumers want eco friendly packaging. Businesses must respond.
As consumer pressure mounts for environmentally friendly products and services, the demand for eco friendly packaging alternatives has skyrocketed. To help your business meet consumer demand, this Green Business Bureau article presents 10 eco friendly packaging alternatives to meet your business shipping needs, and outlines how you can get certified for your efforts. We’ve listed these packaging options below. Click on the lines provided to jump to each packaging solution:
- Biodegradable packaging peanuts
- Corrugated bubble wrap
- Air pillows made from recycled content
- Recycled cardboard and paper
- Cornstarch packaging
- Mushroom packaging
- Seaweed packaging
- Biodegradable plastics and recycled plastics
- Organic ecological textiles
- Edible films
We then also introduce our buyer’s guide on eco friendly packaging for small businesses. This guide is designed to help you introduce eco friendly packaging into your organization’s supply chain, and get certified for your efforts.
What is eco friendly packaging?
Eco friendly packaging is hard to define, as it’s context-driven. Any packaging that causes less harm to humans and the environment, when compared to an alternative, could be described as eco friendly. That is, there are no standard and universal parameters to measure. Plus, there are no benchmarks to compare these measures to. This means to be eco friendly is dependent on the individual describing the material. Yet, as a rule of thumb, eco friendly packaging generally includes materials that are designed to not pollute the environment, harm the health of humans and wildlife, and support a circular economy.
Our reality: The global waste crisis and the need for eco friendly materials
Once more, 1/3 of this waste is packaging material of some kind!
This waste ends up in landfill sites – which release toxic gases (such as methane and ammonia), suffocate natural ecosystems, and impede the health of local citizens. Hence, it’s in our best interest, as business owners and citizens of Earth, to address our waste crisis. And it’s consumers that are raising their game to rise to this challenge.
In summary: Consumers hate packaging, especially materials that end up in landfills, so why would your business not seek green alternatives?
As the consumer perspective shifts, we’re seeing the market for zero waste and sustainable materials expand. For instance, Green Business Bureau (GBB) member Link Internationl Inc.‘s entire business model leverages this market expansion. Link International Inc partners with organizations to help them manage their waste stream to achieve zero waste, supply chain sustainability, and support a circular economy. Once more, Link International Inc. has gained online, and affordable green business certification with GBB, to showcase their commitment to being green.
Thinking about the above, we at the Green Business Bureau have been publishing a series of articles to tackle garbage waste across all facets of an organization. In this article, we address waste generated from the shipment of products by introducing 10 eco friendly packaging alternatives.
As you know, the shipment of a product from the producer, through to the retailer, and onto the consumer is a process that involves significant quantities of expensive, and environmentally degrading packaging materials.
Fortunately, we’ve seen a wave of innovative and novel eco friendly packaging alternatives come to the market. From biodegradable plastics to packaging made from mushrooms, there’s seemingly no end to the options available for the environmentally conscious business.
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10 eco friendly packaging alternatives
To draw our list of the 10 best eco friendly packaging ideas to meet your business’s shipping needs, we’ve turned to the scientists, the innovators, and the technologically minded. We present you with inspiring green tech solutions available on the market today.
1. Biodegradable packaging peanuts
New York has recently reinstated a ban on Styrofoam, the light, airy material used for takeaway cartons and loose-fill packaging, otherwise known as EPS (expanded polystyrene foam). And similar U.S. cities have followed suit. EPS is neither biodegradable nor is it economically recyclable, often finding its way into waterways where it can have adverse effects on marine life.
Styrofoam has been a standard in loose-fill packaging for fragile or otherwise sensitive items, cushioning against shocks and helping to prevent product movement. For businesses looking for the closest alternative to this packaging classic, biodegradable air peanuts are now available. These work in the same way as their Styrofoam brethren, but they do not linger for eternity polluting the environment. They are also less expensive.
2. Corrugated bubble wrap
We’re all familiar with bubble wrap packaging – a popular kids’ favorite. This packaging helps to protect fragile items during shipping. However, this is not an eco friendly material being plastic based. The good news is several sustainable alternatives are being developed as substitutes.
One of these is a wrap made from up-cycled corrugated cardboard. Rather than disposing of or recycling post-consumer cardboard waste, the material is given an additional life as a cushioning agent. Small cuts are made to produce a concertina-type effect that protects against shocks just as bubble wrap does. The only downside is that you don’t get the satisfaction of popping the bubbles afterward!
3. Air pillows made from recycled content
Inflatable air pillows are another great eco- and cost-saving alternative to Styrofoam or bubble wrap. Available in a variety of sizes, they are ideal for filling voids in boxes or providing cushioning around packed items.
Air pillows are small bags that can be inflated – hence, they consist primarily of air. This cuts down on the amount of plastic used in their production and transport compared to other cushioning materials.
Once more, air pillows can be reused, recycled, and are even biodegradable. Yet, it’s important you seek air pillows made from 100% recycled materials, with biodegradability emphasized.
4. Recycled cardboard and paper
Of course, all these filler materials need to be housed in something, and cardboard boxes are the industry standard. Compared to other materials – specifically plastic – one cardboard box reduces oil and carbon dioxide emissions by 60%. Plus, as an organic material, cardboard is 100% biodegradable and can be recycled 5-7 times. Yet, this doesn’t mean cardboard is a model sustainable material pure of environmental sins.
Biodegradation is a process that emits methane gas into the atmosphere. Hence, when the cardboard is dumped into landfill sites, the material’s breakdown comes with a heavy carbon footprint. Plus, the sourcing of new fibers demands tree pulp, which poses a significant deforestation risk.
To ensure your packaging is as eco friendly as possible, try to source post-consumer or post-industrial recycled paper and cardboard. Plus, seek materials marked as FSC-certified to ensure you’re supporting sustainably managed forests.
5. Cornstarch packaging
Cornstarch is an organic material that has made inroads into the eco friendly packaging industry. Derived from the corn or maize plant, corn starch has plastic-like properties making this material a good plastic alternative in many contexts – from bottles to other molded forms and loose-film packaging.
While a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-based packaging, cornstarch isn’t without its problems. As this material is derived from the grains of corn, it competes with human and animal food supply systems, possibly raising the price of corn, one of our dietary staples. Hence, it’s best to weigh up the pros and cons before using cornstarch plastic. Luckily, there are more effective alternatives as given below (mushroom, seaweed, and microbial polyester packaging).
6. Mushroom packaging
Cornstarch mush-room over for this alternative, eco friendly packaging solution. Yes, believe it or not, we’re talking about packaging that’s made from mushrooms.
Mushroom packaging is created using a process that cleans and grounds agricultural waste, which is then fused together by a matrix of mushroom roots, otherwise known as mycelium. This raw material can be molded into the desired shape. It’s then dried and used as packaging.
Agricultural waste is exactly that – waste – and therefore could not be used as a food source for humans or animals. Hence, this material avoids the possible controversy that’s linked to cornstarch packaging. Plus, not only is this a petroleum-free material, but it also naturally degrades at an incredible rate. Mushroom packaging can be composted at home, breaking down into non-toxic, organic matter. Yet, at the moment, this is only a packaging solution for smaller items.
7. Seaweed packaging
From corn to mushrooms, and then to seaweed. Seaweed is a green packaging solution that’s manufactured using the gelatinous substance agar – found in a variety of seaweeds and algae.
Today we can celebrate the award-winning designers who prototyped seaweed packaging. These designers have developed a method that extracts agar from seaweed and algae. That agar is then dehydrated to produce a material that can be used as packaging. The resulting state depends on the dehydration method used. To create a soft cushioning agent, the material is frozen to produce a stiff, film-like state that’s then compressed.
Being made from a plentiful and sustainable raw material, seaweed packaging could be the next big thing in eco friendly, biodegradable packaging alternatives.
8. Biodegradable plastics and recycled plastics
There’s no getting around it – sometimes plastic packaging is the only viable solution to meet your business and shipping needs.
Yet, in these situations, there’s no need to cut back on your eco-credentials, as you have 100% recycled plastic and biodegradable options available.
From drums, spill trays, and spill control pallets, you can opt for recycled plastic materials to reduce raw material extraction demand. Yet, it must be noted that there’s a limit to the number of times plastic can be recycled (2-3 times), meaning even recycled content will soon end up in landfill sites.
Another – and greener – alternative would be to source biodegradable plastic materials. Biodegradability describes the extent to which a material can be decomposed by living microorganisms producing water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. We’ve already discussed one bioplastic, cornstarch, but others such as those made from sugar cane and wheat exist – which again, compete with human food supplies. Yet, bioplastics also cover a sub-set known as microbial polyesters, or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) – aha, have we now found an ethical source of bioplastics?
PHAs are polyesters that are synthesized and stored by various bacteria and archaea. When these microorganisms are cultured in nutrient-limited concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, or oxygen with excess carbon, they produce biodegradable polyester chains. The only restraint on this plastic alternative is the cost of the carbon provided to be metabolized by the microorganisms. Yet, waste cooking oil and animal oils offer a promising, cost-effective, and sustainable option. Plus, bacteria have been genetically modified to create a more efficient process.
Companies such as Nestle, Pepsico, and Bacardi are introducing this new PHA plastic into their supply chain.
Click here to buy wholesale PHA to manufacture plastic packaging products, and click here for a list of recycled plastic suppliers across the USA, to meet your business’s shipping needs.
9. Organic ecological textiles
Ecological textile packaging will give extra value to your customers while also reducing business waste across your supply chain, being a multi-use, durable material. For instance, you can design reusable bags to replace plastic bags or textile wraps that can be reused as furniture surface protectors.
There are a variety of organic fabrics on the market including hemp, organic or recycled cotton, tapioca, and palm leaves (plus more). All of these materials are biodegradable, meaning they take relatively less time to decompose naturally. For instance, pure linen takes two weeks to decompose. In comparison, it takes 10,000 years for plastic bags to degrade. Once more, plastics degrade into microplastics, which seep into food chains, negatively impacting wildlife and human health.
Below we’ve listed some ideas on how you can use organic textiles for the shipment of your products:
- Organic cotton wool can be used as a cushioning agent,
- Linen and poplin can be used as anti-scratch wrap covers or bags,
- Hemp tape can be used to bundle products together.
10. Edible films
Take one moment to imagine. Imagine walking around the grocery store and seeing food items wrapped in edible skin. Imagine eating your wrapped fruit, chocolate bar, or ice cream right off the shelf, packaging included. Well, your imagination might soon be a reality with the invention of edible films.
More appropriate to the food industry, edible films provide a sustainable packaging alternative for wrapping food items. This packaging has the potential to make food storage, preparation, and of course, transportation simpler. Edible films have the potential to curb food and packaging waste, while also reducing chemical leaching from plastic coats.
Different natural products can be used to create edible packaging, but the most effective and widely used is chitosan. Chitosan is a sugar that’s made from the chitin shells of shrimp and other crustaceans. This makes chitosan one of the most abundant biopolymers after cellulose.
If you work in the food industry, switch to edible film packaging to protect and package your food items before shipment, rather than using environmentally-harmful plastics.
Buyers guide: Eco friendly packaging for small businesses
Adopting eco friendly packaging for your small business will require an internal shift, to introduce new ways of operating. You’ll need to assess and re-adjust your business supply chain to make a tangible and positive contribution to your organization and the world around you. To help you achieve this, below you’ll find our step-by-step eco friendly packaging buyers guide.
Step 1: Identify the current materials you use for packaging
Look at your products and review the packaging you use for every item you sell. This means going beyond the packaging used to ship/transport your products, to think about the packaging used for product storage and on-the-shelf marketing.
Compare packaging used between product types, locations, and every other part of the supply chain. Look through your packaging and decide what materials you can substitute, and which materials take up the most resources. Your aim is to cut down on the wasteful packaging you don’t need.
Step 2: Listen to your customers and employees
We know consumers want eco friendly packaging, meaning they’re a useful stakeholder group to collaborate with to support your green journey. Talk to your customers and find out what their pain points are. Do they feel you’re guilty of using excess packaging? Can they recommend packaging alternatives? How much more are they willing to pay for a more sustainable option? What packaging features are they willing to compromise on (e.g. aesthetics, design features)?
Don’t forget about your employees. Chat to those who work on the manufacturing and production processes. Do they have ideas on how you can reduce packaging waste, and switch to more eco friendly materials? Welcoming your employees to the discussion will create a positive, green culture – fundamental to the success of your overarching sustainability program.
Define your green goals by balancing the responses given by your customers and employees with the organization’s business needs (e.g. your product still needs adequate protection for transportation). Your aim is to create a world that can support your business, yet keep in mind that to do that, your business needs to support our world.
Step 3: Keep up with your competitors
As consumer pressure grows, more companies are adapting their shipping systems to be sustainable. Innovative companies will stay ahead of this change curve, setting precedent for everyone else.
You need to be a part of these trendsetters. Start with small-scale alterations, such as reducing the amount of air space within each packed item (a change that will even save you money). Switch to recycled materials, such as recycled cardboard or plastic. Then strategize and set goals for the big changes, such as swapping plastic from your supply chain with PHA (or other) alternatives.
Step 4: Focus on the long-term cost savings and draw a budget
The prevalence and increasing demand for plant-based, bio-based, and sustainable materials has accelerated research and development in this field, meaning these materials are becoming increasingly competitive in today’s market.
“Not only do bio-based materials and chemicals perform as well, they can actually perform better than petro-based incumbents and offer real business value to companies – Lux Research, Hunting For Value And Performance In The Bio-based Materials And Chemicals Space.
On this note, the World Economic Forum showed that sustainable sourcing reduced costs along a business’s supply chain by up to 16%. In addition, as consumers seek sustainable materials, these cost reductions come with an increase in sales.
In addition, across the globe we see leaders address our environmental crisis with new policies, legislation, and taxation. And business waste has come up for scrutiny in recent years. For instance, on the 1st of April 2022, the United Kingdom introduced the Plastic Packaging Tax – applying to plastic packaging produced in, or imported into the UK that doesn’t contain at least 30% recycled plastic. Will the USA follow suit? In 2021, Congressman Tom Suozzi introduced a bill that would impose a fee on the sale of virgin plastic for single-use products. Sourcing eco-friendly packaging materials will help you stay ahead of legislation, policy and taxation updates, meaning you’ll be well-and-truly prepared when the business landscape changes.
You must consider these hidden business savings when drawing your budget for sourcing eco friendly packaging materials.
Step 5: Set your green goals
Use our 10 eco friendly packaging ideas, your budget, and the information gathered from your customers and employees to define your sustainable packaging goals – for the packaging used in product storage, transportation, and for on-the-shelf marketing. These goals should be fluid, and open to change as you continuously evaluate the business landscape for further improvements and innovations in the eco friendly packaging market.
Be sure to set short and long-term goals. Your short-term goals should be quick wins to drive momentum. Long-term goals are likely to demand more financial backing and a restructuring of your supply chain.
Step 6: Work with the right supply chain partners
Research supply chain partners that align with your green goals. Look for green business certification which demonstrates a business’s commitment to sustainability. Your aim is to form positive and collaborative B2B relations with ethical, sustainable, and certified suppliers. As a consumer of sustainable packaging, think about what improvements your suppliers can make. Support your suppliers in developing more sustainable material-sourcing and production processes.
Step 7: Buy in bulk
Bulk buying reduces costs per unit, meaning your investments will go further. Bulk buying is also better for the planet by minimizing the transportation of goods. Larger packages mean the delivery truck can be packed more efficiently reducing emissions from the burning of fuel.
Also, think about bulk buying when delivering your products to customers. Can you deliver items to multiple customers together, rather than running separate logistic trips? This idea goes beyond the scope of this article, but if you want to learn more head to Supply Chain Sustainability: Your 20-Tip Guide to Creating A Sustainable Supply Chain.
Step 8: Make continuous improvements and get certified
How do your consumers feel about your new packaging?
How much are your logistic costs now compared to the costs of your old packaging system?
How has the market changed? Are there any new, alternative packaging materials – even more beneficial to the environment – that you can introduce into your supply chain?
Sustainability is a continuous process, one where you need to be collecting and analyzing relevant internal business data, plus the business landscape for further green developments.
Without keeping track of the green improvements you’ve made, it can be hard for you to assess the impact of the changes introduced.
Once more, you’ll want to conduct regular audits to identify how you can streamline packaging and distribution processes further.
Keep in mind that sustainability is a holistic approach that goes beyond the packaging materials you use. That is, you’ll need to be visiting all facets of your organization to create a truly sustainable business model.
To help you, the Green Business Bureau has developed an affordable EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner for small business owners like you, helping you keep track of the green initiatives you’ve introduced and get certified for your efforts.
Measure results and set goals for the future. Whether that’s introducing more sustainable packaging materials, or simplifying your distribution systems, GBB has more than 400 green initiatives covering every operational area of a business. These green initiatives can be ordered by effort and impact, helping you implement low-hanging fruit changes first, to kick-start your program.
Once your sustainability program is rolling, you’ll receive green business certification for your efforts, having your very own clickable Green Seal of approval. Your customers can use this Green Seal to access your online EcoProfile and view what green changes you’ve successfully installed, and your green goals for the future.
The changing tide of packaging
With many eco friendly alternatives on the market at competitive prices, more businesses are recognizing the opportunities to make the switch to eco friendly packaging. As such, smart business owners throughout the country are making the change today to ensure they are ahead of the game tomorrow. To showcase their commitment to being green, and to guide their sustainability program, businesses are seeking green business certification platforms like the Green Business Bureau.
For more information on sustainable packaging for your business, why not read our Sustainable Packaging Guide for Small Business.
Cory Levins serves as the Director of Business Development for Air Sea Containers. Cory oversees the development and implementation of ASC’s internal and external marketing program, driving revenue and profits from the Miami FL headquarters. Before joining Air Sea Containers, Cory Levins was the Director of Business Development for Marketing and Real Estate Lending Companies. Cory enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, sports, and the ocean.