Eco friendly retail packaging guide
In this Green Business Bureau eco friendly retail packaging guide, we explore sustainable packaging solutions for 6 of the most common types of packaging materials used. We explain our current waste crisis in detail, before defining an effective business waste management strategy to reduce packaging waste.
Use the links below to navigate this guide:
- The need for sustainable packaging: Giving perspective to our waste crisis
- Retail packaging defined: The impact of packaging waste and the rise of the ethical consumer
- Business waste management: Strategizing for sustainable packaging
- The 6 types of retail packaging waste
- Eco friendly retail packaging solutions and innovation
For a comprehensive guide on how to create a sustainable retail business, read: Sustainable Retail Guide: 40 Initiatives for the Retail Industry.
A Sustainability Program Checklist for Retail Stores
GREEN BUSINESS BUREAU
Sustainability Guide for Retail
The Sustainability Guide and Checklist for Retail Stores serves as a manual on how to launch and manage a sustainability program across all your stores. It is ideal for sustainability leaders and store managers.
The need for sustainable packaging: Giving perspective to our waste crisis
Henderson Island is situated in the South Pacific, lying halfway between Chile and New Zealand. This island and the surrounding ocean are one of the world’s largest marine reserves and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to its isolation, the atoll’s ecology practically remains untouched by humans. Yet, the pristine edges of this white-beached, verdant paradise have been stained by human activity 3,000 miles away. That is, 17.6 tons of trash has accumulated on Henderson’s beaches to date. The tendrils of human waste claim even Earth’s most hidden corners.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch measures three times the size of France.
And across the pacific ocean, to the north, we have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a region where our waste problem is visibly indisputable. Here, the ocean acts as a vortex engulfing enough trash to measure three times the size of France.
Thinking about packaging waste specifically, containers and packaging amount to 82.2 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated across the United States, which is 28.1% of total MSW generated. In 2021, Americans alone discarded 51 million tons of wrappers, bottles, and bags. Of this packaging waste, 91% ends up in landfill sites.
Retail packaging defined: The impact of packaging waste and the rise of the ethical consumer
The Environmental Protection Agency defines containers and packaging as products that are assumed to be discarded in the same year as the product was purchased.
We can see the degression in this definition – Earth’s resources are cast off quicker than our planet can regenerate them. Polluting packaging agents build up to foul habitats and ecological systems, creating unstable environments which threaten human well-being and security.
For instance, according to studies from the National Institute of Health (NIH), certain plastics found in consumer packaging can lead to cancers, diabetes, neurological disorders, hormonal imbalances, and other various ill-health effects caused by inhalation or direct contact. In addition, researchers estimate that over one million animals die each year after becoming entrapped or ingesting litter. E.g. a recent study by Plymouth University estimated that a staggering 700 marine species are threatened with extinction due to the build-up of plastic trash.
“Biodiversity loss can have significant direct human health impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services affect livelihoods, income, and local migration and, on occasion, may even cause or exacerbate political conflict. Loss in biodiversity may limit discovery of potential treatments for many diseases and health problems.” – Biodiversity and Health, WHO
Consumers seek sustainable packaging solutions
Your business packaging depicts the soul of your brand. This branding can decipher the difference between a meh shopping experience and a yeah moment. Packaging creates a barrier between your product and the outside world, protecting merchandise from damage. In addition, product packaging is a marketing tool, providing customer information that will also influence sales.
In summary, product packaging is essential for retailers, which creates a conundrum when it comes to looking after our planet via waste reduction. You want to wow your customers while also reducing your impact on our planet. Luckily, the ethical consumer claims a market majority, meaning the two go hand-in-hand.
As the detrimental effects of packaging waste hit the mainstream, consumers are starting to take note. For instance, research by IPSOS found that three in four consumers seek to reduce waste by choosing products packaged in paper or cardboard as opposed to other materials, like plastic.
Business waste management: Strategizing for sustainable packaging
Are you utilizing post-consumer materials?
Are you making the switch to alternative greener solutions and technologies?
Are you removing expendable packaging, and adopting a minimalist approach?
Are you maximizing space, removing unnecessary air pockets, and designing packaging to perfectly fit your product?
These are the types of questions sustainable retail brands must ask.
On top of this, according to Chemical Market Analytics in their 2022 Circular Plastic Industry Update webinar, the sustainable retail business must prioritize waste avoidance above all else. This means introducing initiatives whereby the consumer can opt-out of packaging when applicable.
Chemical Market Analytics goes on to group end-of-service life processing in order of preference for sustainability. This order, from the most preferred down to the least preferred, is as follows:
- Waste avoidance: Reduce consumption
- Waste avoidance: Reuse/Repair
- Waste recycling/recovery: Mechanical recycling
- Waste recycling/recovery: Chemical recycling
- Waste recycling/recovery: (digestion, composting)
- Fossil fuel energy avoidance: Incineration with energy recovery
- Waste contamination: Controlled storage
- Pollution: Uncontrolled disposal
When packaging cannot be avoided, next on the list of priorities is waste recycling and recovery.
According to a recent report by Jabil, 94% of packaging decision-makers at global enterprises – out of the 200 surveyed – have at least begun to discuss plans around sustainable packaging, looking at avoidance, recycling, and recovery strategies. However, less than one-quarter of these respondents had implemented a fully mature program.
The two biggest challenges retailers face when it comes to adopting sustainable packaging solutions are:
- A lack of sustainable packaging materials that can be leveraged at scale,
- Inefficient recycling and recovery processes.
The problem with recycling as a business waste management strategy
Out of the 51 million tons of wrappers, bottles, and bags that are thrown away in the US, 91% end up in landfill sites, the ocean or are scattered in the atmosphere as toxic micro particles, leaving only 9% to re-enter the economy through recycling and reuse schemes.
Yet, poor recycling and reuse rates are not from a lack of trying or consumer care. The large amounts of plastic waste material, the material’s poor recycling affinity, and the low efficiency and effectiveness of plastic recycling processes play a significant part. According to the independent global campaign network Greenpeace, if every household separated every piece of plastic, and disposed of it in a dedicated recycling plant, then our waste problem will remain equally as troublesome.
95% of plastic packaging material – valued at $80-120 billion – is lost from our economy every year. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s 2016 The New Plastic Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics report, 40 years after the launch of a well-known recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. And of the plastic that is recycled, when additional loss from sorting and reprocessing is factored in, only 5% of the material value is retained for subsequent reuse. And that 5% is converted to lower-value applications that cannot be recycled again due to material quality loss.
These factors mean poor recycling and recovery systems are more pronounced for plastics, as opposed to other materials like glass, paper, and aluminum – as can be seen in the table detailed below. Hence, choosing recycled plastic packaging materials or providing consumers with the option to recycle – at the current efficiency rates – is a strategic approach that will not solve our waste crisis.
Luckily, today we’re witnessing positive change. Material designers, suppliers, converters, mechanics, and innovators are working to solve these issues. As such, we’re witnessing a rise in eco friendly packaging solutions and improvements to recycling and recovery processes targeting each one of the 6 main packaging materials used by retailers.
The 6 types of retail packaging waste
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the main materials that account for packaging waste are:
- Paper and cardboard
The below table shows how much of each packaging material contributed to the total solid municipal waste (SMW) generated in 2018. For each material type, we’ve indicated how much waste ended up in a landfill, was recycled, composted, or combusted for energy (measured by weight generated in 1,000 U.S. tons). The table has been adapted from the Environmental Protection Agency:
|Material type||Waste generated||Waste recycled||Waste composted||Combustion with energy generated||Lanfilled|
|Glass||9,790 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 12%)||3,060 (as a percentage of total glass waste generated is 31%)||0||1,310 (as a percentage of total glass waste generated is 13%)||5,420 (as a percentage of total glass waste generated is 55%)|
|Steel||2,210 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 3%)||1,630 (as a percentage of total steel waste generated is 74%)||0||110 (as a percentage of total steel waste generated is 5%)||470 (as a percentage of total steel waste generated is 21%)|
|Aluminum||1,920 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 2%)||670 (as a percentage of total aluminum waste generated is 35%)||0||250 (as a percentage of total aluminum waste generated is 13%)||1,000 (as a percentage of total aluminum waste generated is 52%)|
|Paper and cardboard||41,060 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 51%)||30,080 (as a percentage of total paper and cardboard waste generated is 73%)||0||2,160 (as a percentage of total paper and cardboard waste generated is 5%)||8,820 (as a percentage of total paper and cardboard waste generated is 22%)|
|Plastic||14,530 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 18%)||1,980 (as a percentage of total plastic waste generated is 14%)||0||2,460 (as a percentage of total plastic waste generated is 17%)||10,090 (as a percentage of total plastic waste generated is 69%)|
|Wood||11,530 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 14%)||3,100 (as a percentage of total wood waste generated is 27%)||0||1,650 (as a percentage of total wood waste generated is 14%)||6,780 (as a percentage of total wood waste generated is 59%)|
(Note: Percentages have been rounded up to the nearest whole number.)
The amount of waste generated for paper and cardboard is the highest (51% of the total MSW detailed – 41,060 thousand tons). Yet most of this waste is recycled (73%), leaving 22% to go to landfill. Plastic is the second highest MSW generated (18% of the total MSW detailed – 14,530 thousand tons). What’s concerning here is the recycling/recovery rate of plastic waste. In 2018, only 14% was recycled leaving 69% in landfill, highlighting the inefficiency of plastic recycling processes. These figures detail why plastic packaging waste is the main cause for concern, and why seeking alternative materials – glass, alumnium, steel, paper, wood – is in itself an impactful means of reducing a brand’s environmental footprint.
Eco friendly retail packaging solutions and innovation
We’ve drawn from the most recent green tech developments and innovative ideas to give you a complete list of eco friendly packaging options. We target the six main packaging material options, namely: Glass, steel, aluminum, paper and cardboard, plastic, and wood. We look at waste avoidance first as the most preferred solution for sustainability, before seeking recycling/recovery options.
Click on the links below to navigate through this section:
- Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce glass packaging waste
- Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce steel packaging waste
- Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce aluminum packaging waste
- Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce paper and cardboard packaging waste
- Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce plastic packaging waste
- Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce wood packaging waste
Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce glass packaging waste
Waste avoidance of glass packaging is achieved from material reuse. With this in mind, one brand showcasing material reuse in action is The Handmade Soap Company with their Anam Lotion product. The lotion is packaged in an aesthetically pleasing glass pump bottle with gold-etched branding. The glass bottle has been designed for infinite reuse by the consumer, and in so doing, extends the product offering. The brand also provides compostable refill packs at half the price of the initial purchase price. The Handmade Soap Company demonstrates how compostable packaging can be introduced into a supply chain that relies on glass packaging.
Material recycling and recovery
Glass is non-biodegradable, and there are no biodegradable alternative materials on the market. This means recovery options are solely reliant on recycling processes.
However, despite these green credentials, only 31% of glass waste is recycled (refer to the table above). This figure highlights a supply-demand discrepancy in the U.S. The main challenge for glass recycling is sorting glass material as per the material’s color.
“People toss bottles of every color in the bin and it comes back to us unsorted by color. It’s like unscrambling an egg.” – Robert B. Hippert, Sustainability strategy leader for manufacturing at O-I Glass
Mixed-colored glass cullet (cullet is recycled, broken, or waste glass) cannot be easily manufactured into new products with the desired optical properties. Therefore, light-based sensors are used to evaluate the chemical composition and color of pebble-sized chunks of glass to sort the material. However, at present these sensors operate at 75% recycling efficiency. With this in mind, sensor advances could improve the quality and availability of sorted, recyclable glass. One such advancement is Tech provider Redwave’s new CX series, which has improved the accurate identification of glass material by up to 50%.
With innovation in mind, more than 20 companies across the recycled glass supply chain have come together to form a coalition that seeks to improve the country’s glass recycling rate. Beverage giants including Goose Island Beer, Heineken USA, and Rocky Mountain Bottle Company have teamed up with glass manufacturers, waste haulers, recycling processors, and trade organizations to work towards a common goal of increasing recycled glass usage in business. The coalition aims to bring best practices and innovative solutions to the glass recycling industry. For instance, two North Carolina material recovery facilities have installed sorting equipment at the front end of the recycling process rather than recovering glass at the process end, saving equipment from wear and tear and contamination.
“In the future, with material shortages due to climate change issues and resource scarcity, using a finite resource that is endlessly recyclable is a smart, long-term business solution” – Katie Wallace, New Belgium Brewing’s Assistant Director of Sustainability
Summary: What can your retail business do?
- Provide your customers with branded reusable glass containers, and offer refill options where applicable.
- Choose recycled glass products for your packaging material.
- Collaborate. Work with industry players to help improve the efficiency rate of the glass recycling processes. Show your support.
- Communicate to customers the importance of recycling your glass packaging material and explain how they can do this.
Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce steel packaging waste
Waste avoidance comes from providing reusable containers and product refill options as we witnessed above for glass. But also, using less material to achieve the same outcome is another means of avoiding waste.
With the latter in mind, the packaging manufacturer Ardagh Group has developed a high-quality, lighter steel that the chemical and consumer goods brand Henkel uses for its aerosol cans. These cans are a mere 0.13 mm thick meaning they use 15% less material than other steel counterparts, yet are more rigid. This lighter-weight steel reduces the carbon footprint and water consumption of material manufacturing processes, while also reducing the amount of waste material generated.
Material recycling and recovery
As with glass, steel is non-biodegradable and there aren’t biodegradable options on the market. This means recovery options are solely reliant on recycling processes.
Steel offers a sustainable packaging option if the material’s recycling affinity is leveraged.
Like glass, steel is 100% recyclable, meaning this metal can be recycled again and again. Once steel packaging has been used, selling this packaging to steel mills will start a new cycle of packaging production. Steel packaging is recycled at a far greater rate than any other packaging material (74% of packaging waste is recycled as seen in the table above).
“Steel is the most recycled packaging material in Europe and across the world – TATA Steel
Steel is claimed to be the easiest packaging material to recycle in the world. The metal is circular by nature as there’s no material quality loss once steel has been recycled.
However, more can always be done, and so we’re witnessing stakeholders throughout the value chain seeking to further improve steel recycling processes, recycling infrastructure, and customer communications to boost recycling rates. As such, for the 10th year running, the steel recycling rate continues to improve, reaching 85.5% in 2022.
To exemplify the progression in this industry, Norway Tomra Systems has developed a technology called laser object detection. Also known as LOD, this technology is meant to complement existing automated scrap sorting systems, yet deliver higher-quality scrap feeds. The LOD system can more efficiently clean scrap metal streams to avoid contamination which leads to a lowered recycling efficiency.
It’s important to note the environmental impact of material use extends beyond waste generated. Other factors such as the carbon footprint of processes must also be considered. One company taking a holistic approach to sustainability is the metal recycling processer New Box. New Box powers recycling processes using renewable energy to reduce the carbon footprint of such processes.
Summary: What can your retail business do?
- Seek lighter-weight steel material for packaging.
- Provide your customers with branded reusable steel containers, and offer refill options where applicable.
- Collaborate. Work with industry players to help improve the efficiency rate of the steel recycling processes. Show your support.
- Communicate to customers the importance of recycling steel packaging material and explain how they can do this.
- Take a holistic approach to sustainability. Seek providers of recycled steel that power operations using renewable energy.
Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce aluminum packaging waste
Aluminum is a popular metal used in industry due to its availability, versatility and mechanical characteristics. Like steel, aluminum is 100% recyclable meaning it’s a more sustainable packaging option compared to other materials that have a lower recycling affinity and are harder to recover/reuse. In this sense, simply switching from single-use materials to aluminum will help your business avoid waste.
For instance, beauty brand Sunday Riley replaced plastic packaging for certain product lines to use more sustainable materials like aluminum. E.g. the brand chose to use an aluminum foil pouch for its new Charcoal Smoothie Jelly Body Scrub. The body scrub was rebranded as a smoothie to fit with the packaging’s vibe. In this instance, single-use plastic packaging waste was avoided.
When thinking about waste avoidance, its important to think beyond the packaging waste your business is producing. You must address the environmental effects, and waste caused by packaging across the entire value chain. E.g. you must consider: Emissions from product transportation, packaging durability, and end-of-life processing. Using a cost-benefit analysis, you can select the right packaging option to fit your brand’s needs while reducing waste. For instance, CCL Container developed an innovative wine bottle made from aluminum. The bottle can keep wine fresher for longer, cooler for longer, is 100% recyclable, is more durable than glass and also weighs less than glass wine bottles. This means less product is spoilt or damaged and transportation emissions are reduced.
Material recycling and recovery
Aluminum is non-biodegradable and there aren’t biodegradable options on the market. This means recovery options are solely reliant on recycling processes.
Again, like steel and glass, aluminum can be endlessly recycled. However, as with glass, only a small percentage of this material is recycled (35%) despite the material’s affinity to recycling and recovery.
Hence, innovations in this area focus on making recycling efficiency improvements. To exemplify the type of advancements made we turn to FOR REC, a designer and manufacturer of industrial plants for the recycling and disposal of solid waste. The company recently designed a new XH hydraulic grinder to treat metals such as aluminum. This machine is capable of working at high productivity rates boosting the efficiency of aluminum recycling processes.
Summary: What can your retail business do?
- Take a holistic approach to sustainability when choosing what packaging materials to use for your retail brand. Think about the environmental impact of the material across the value chain, and how you can avoid waste.
- Provide your customers with branded reusable aluminum containers, and offer refill options where applicable.
- Collaborate. Work with industry players to help improve the efficiency rate of aluminum recycling processes. Show your support.
- Communicate to customers the importance of recycling your aluminum packaging material and explain how they can do this.
Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce paper and cardboard packaging waste
Paper and cardboard aren’t durable materials, meaning waste avoidance is challenging. Waste can, however, be avoided across the value chain. For instance, the green tech solution of grass cardboard uses chemical-free operations with significant energy and water-saving credentials. Hence, compared to paper and cardboard made from groundwood pulp, paper and cardboard made from grass fibers rely on less wasteful operations.
In addition, choosing FSC-Certified materials will ensure your brand supports sustainably managed forests. ~13-15% of the world’s total forest wood consumption is used to manufacture paper and cardboard. FSC certification ensures streamlined processes that avoid harmful environmental waste while also safeguarding our precious forest ecosystems.
Material recycling and recovery
Being carbon-based, paper and cardboard will biodegrade in any home compost pile. Compostable and biodegradable materials are part of the conversation to move away from packaging waste, but materials must be disposed of correctly. There are different levels of biodegradability that can be achieved, as detailed in the infographic below.
As you move up each category, it becomes more difficult for the materials to decompose due to the lack of bacteria.
If biodegradable material is disposed of in an oxygen-rich environment (such as an effectively managed compost pile), it will break down into biomass, carbon dioxide, and water. In oxygen-poor environments, the material will break down into the potent greenhouse gas, methane. For this reason, it’s vital for any retail brand to clearly state the proper disposal methods on product packaging. As for paper and cardboard materials, this means providing sufficient information on how to create an effective home composting system.
Compared to single-use plastics, the compostability of paper and cardboard makes the material a more sustainable alternative. With this in mind, retailers are swapping plastic packaging with paper and cardboard innovations. For example, Unilever revealed what it claimed to be the world’s first paper-based laundry detergent bottle. The move comes as the company seeks to remove single-use plastic packaging from its supply chain. The container is made from sustainably sourced pulp and is designed to be recycled in the paper waste stream. The bottles have no plastic lining, and are instead sprayed with a proprietary coating that repels water.
This proprietary coating stems from technological developments by the Canadian nanotechnology company CelluTech. CelluTech developed a cellulose-based, 100% renewable nanomaterial designed to replace plastic coatings on packaging. This cellulose-based product is permanently hydrophobic.
Utilizing a similar concept of paper-based bottle containers, booze brands Carlsberg and Absolut have been working for several years on designing paper bottles. They’ve managed to develop prototypes. For Absolute, 57% of these prototypes are made from sustainably sourced wood fiber, and the first test batch of bottles was launched in August last year.
These new paper-based liquid containers are called SPOPs. SPOPs can store liquids without disintegrating meaning the containers can be used to hold products such as shampoo, soap, and household detergents.
Paper and cardboard are the most extensively used packaging items accounting for 51% of the total generated waste. Yet much of this paper and cardboard waste is recycled (64%). And since 2018, the recycling rate has only increased, reaching 91.4% in 2021. These numbers are expected to grow further as investments of ~$5 billion are being pumped into the industry.
Leveraging these efficiency gains is fashion retailer Zara. As part of Zara’s zero-waste program, online orders are delivered in 100% recycled cardboard boxes made from boxes previously used in the store. The outlet reuses boxes, bags, and hangers until it’s time to recycle them, reducing the brand’s overall waste. (Zara has also swapped their plastic bags to use ones made from 100% recycled paper).
Summary: What can your retail business do?
- Seek grass cardboard which avoids waste in the material manufacturing process.
- Use FSC-certifified paper and cardboard material.
- Detail the compostability of cardboard and paper material on poduct packaging. Provide information on how the customer should dispose of this material for efficient biodegradability.
- Seek recycled paper and cardboard materials for your packaging, and reuse items when possible.
- Collaborate. Work with industry players to help improve the efficiency rate of paper and cardboard recycling processes. Show your support.
- Communicate to customers the importance of recycling your paper and cardboard packaging material and explain how they can do this.
Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce plastic packaging waste
Since the mass production of plastic 60 years ago, humankind has produced over eight billion metric tons of the stuff. 18% of packaging solid waste generated is plastic, making this the second most used material compared to paper and cardboard. However, what makes plastic more problematic is the material’s poor recyclability – as we’ve seen from the Ellen MacArthur report mentioned above. That is, plastic can only be recycled 1-2 times, and when this material is recycled, only 5% is reclaimed. Plus, plastic is nonbiodegradable and takes years to break down in the environment: Plastic bags take 20 years, plastic straws take 200 years, plastic water bottles take 450 years, and disposable diapers take 500 years. And when plastic does break down, the material disintegrates into tiny microparticles called microplastics. These microplastics accumulate within food chains, harming wildlife and humans.
Due to the degrading environmental impact of plastic pollution, and the limited recyclability and recovery options available, the most effective waste management strategy here is waste avoidance. Replace your plastic packaging using the five other effective packaging materials discussed in this article. If plastic is the only viable option, then turn to emerging new technology that seeks to improve the recyclability and recovery of plastic-like material. We discuss these options below.
Material recycling and recovery
In our article, 10 Eco-Friendly Packaging Alternatives for Your Business’s Shipping Needs we explore plastic alternatives to common packaging items. Read this article for more information on each proposed alternative. To summarize, we’ve listed promising innovations below:
- Biodegradable packaging peanuts: Instead of plastic styrofoam, opt for biodegradable packing peanuts which are made from natural materials like wheat and corn starch.
- Corrugated bubble wrap: Traditional bubble wrap is plastic-based, but luckily more sustainable alternatives are available such as corrugated bubble wrap. Corrugated bubble wrap is made from upcycled corrugated cardboard.
- Cornstarch packaging: Cornstarch is an organic material that’s derived from the corn or maize plant, giving the material plastic-like properties and therefore making it a good alternative to plastic that’s able to biodegrade. However, being derived from the maize plant means this plastic alternative competes with human and animal food systems. PHA discussed below is a better alternative.
- Mushroom packaging: Mushroom packaging is created using a process that turns agricultural waste into packaging using a matrix of mushroom roots. This is a petroleum-free material that also naturally biodegrades.
- Seaweed packaging: Seaweed packaging is manufactured using the gelatinous substance agar. Award-winning designers developed a method that extracts agar from seaweed and algae. The agar is then dehydrated to produce a material that can be used as packaging. Seaweed packaging startup Notpla has recently partnered with delivery service Just Eat to provide seaweed-lined takeaway containers that are 100% edible and biodegradable.
- Biodegradable plastics and recycled plastics: Using 100% recycled plastic material as a packaging solution is better than opting for the raw material. However, we know the issues associated with recycling plastics. Another, greener alternative would be to turn to biodegradable plastics, such as cornstarch plastics and PHA (discussed below).
- Edible films: Used for food packaging, edible films are used to protect food items. They are made from natural materials, the most popular being Chitosan. These materials have the potential to curb food plastic packaging waste and chemical leaching from plastic coats.
Biodegradable plastics have the potential to mitigate the build-up of plastic waste in our environment and the harmful effects of this. Cornstarch plastics are one such option. But other options made from sugarcane, and PHA plastics are available. One brand leveraging biodegradable plastic technology is fashion retailer Pink Boutique. Pink Boutique has switched from using polyethylene mailing bags to a greener option made from sugarcane. Sugarcane is a water-efficient crop that absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows. The final sugarcane bag is 100% recyclable.
“The cost of the sugarcane bags was about 25% more than what we were paying before, but we looked at all the sizes we were using and then restructured the size range to get the economy we needed. As a result, we’re not paying more – we’re just being more economic about how we use the bags – Pink Boutique to use sugarcane biopolymer mailing bags, Owner and manager of Pink Boutique Julia Blackie
Following suit, fashion brand Maggie Marilyn has also made the switch to biodegradable plastics using root starch non-plastic bags which can biodegrade in water. These biobased bags are hence commercially compostable (made from 99.5% plant material), and the brand is making strides to ensure the bags are also home-compostable.
However, despite these advancements, according to a report released by the United Nations, widespread adoption of biodegradable materials will not significantly decrease the volume of plastics finding their way into the environment. This is due to consumers not disposing of the biodegradable packaging appropriately.
As a result, biotechnology companies like Danimer Scientific are collaborating with brands to create compostable and biodegradable plastics that ease the disposal burden on the average consumer. One such advancement is Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) plastics (these plastics also have the added advantage of not competing with human food systems).
PHAs are natural polyester chains synthesized by various bacteria and archaea. These micro-organisms can metabolize carbon found in waste cooking oil or animal oils to produce biodegradable plastic material. PHA has received FDA approval meaning this plastic material can now be used by food retailers. As such, retail brands such as Nestle, Pepsico, and Bacardi are introducing new PHA plastic into their supply chain.
What’s good about PHA plastics is that they’re marine biodegradable, meaning once these plastic materials enter the ocean, they will naturally biodegrade.
Moving onto to recycling processes, recycled plastic material comes in the form of post-consumer resin (PCR). Developments to reduce plastic waste from packaging must also look to improve the efficiency of key recycling processes that produce PCR. One company making waves in this industry is the world’s largest plastic recycler KW Plastics. 90% of kW’s raw material comes from packaging, mostly plastic bottles.
KW purchases bales of high-density polyethylene and polypropylene – commonly known as two and five plastics – from throughout North America and beyond. This plastic waste is reduced, washed, and then ultimately transformed into a multicolored variant of PCR. KW has managed to innovate new packaging designs that incorporate PCR, such as their caps and closures, which are getting significant market attention. In doing, KW is extending the use-life of plastic, to keep the material cycling within our economy.
Summary: What can your retail business do?
- Switch to biodegradable plastics when possible, preferably PHA plastics, and detail how these materials should be disposed of by the consumer.
- Seek PCR plastic materials.
- Switch to alternative packaging materials to avoid plastic use where possible.
- Communicate to customers the importance of recycling plastic packaging material and explain how they can do this.
Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce wood packaging waste
According to the latest market research report by Techavio, the global wood packaging industry is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.45% between 2022 and 2029.
On the positive side, this shift could mean the industry is moving away from less sustainable plastic packaging solutions. On the downside, material use growth suggests waste-avoidant strategies aren’t being effectively implemented. That is, switching to wood packaging over less sustainable plastic materials is a positive sustainable move, however, complacency must be avoided and packaging should still be limited and reduced where possible.
One such development designed with waste avoidance in mind is the re-engineering of wood pallets used to package products during shipping. Innovations include the design of smarter smaller pallets that demand less wood material and hence contribute less waste.
3D printing with cellulose is another waste avoidance innovation. Scientists from Singapore University of Technology and Design have developed a process for printing objects using cellulose. The process involves mixing a small amount of chitin with cellulose fibers. The result is a strong, lightweight, and inexpensive material called Fungus-like Adhesive Material (FLAM). Researchers have used this technology to print various items, including packaging. Packaging can be printed around a given product, to remove air pockets, and reduce excess packaging material waste.
Material recycling and recovery
Wood fibers can be recycled at least 5-7 times, and sometimes over 20 times. And once wood fibers are too degraded to be recycled they can be used as bioenergy (as a fossil fuel energy avoidance strategy).
Wood fibers are recycled into wood chips, mulch, sawdust, plywood, plasterboard, paper, and cardboard. However, only wood that’s free from contaminants like leaves, plants, dirt, rock, concrete, plastic, and metal is accepted for recycling. In these instances, an alternative recovery option utilizes the biodegradability of wood material. When added to compost under the appropriate conditions, wood products will decompose to create excellent nutrient-rich compost.
Recent technological revolutions have increased the recyclability and recovery capability of wood materials. One breakthrough was developed by the sustainable waste repurposing company, Lixea. Lixea has developed technology that dissolved wood waste, separating the components to make something novel and new out of them. These separated materials are the building blocks for further processing and can be converted into products such as bioplastics, renewal fibers, and biofuels.
Summary: What can your retail business do?
- Seek technologies, such as 3D printing, that reduce material use, prioritizing waste avoidance above all else.
- Collaborate. Work with industry players to help improve the efficiency rate of wood recycling processes. Show your support.
- Communicate to customers the importance of composting wood packaging material and explain how they can do this. Introduce a packaging reclaim system in your supply chain where wood products are sent to specialized composting facilities.
- Communicate to customers the importance of recycling wood packaging material and explain how they can do this.
Systemic change in retail packaging is needed for complete waste reduction
The World Wildlife Fund revealed how some of the world’s biggest brands are measuring up on their commitments to tackle packaging waste via WWF’s ReSource program. This program includes brands such as McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks. The program was launched in 2019 and set an ambitious goal of ridding the planet of 50 million tonnes of plastic waste.
From ReSource’s 2021 report, plastic waste had been reduced by 3,100 tonnes and businesses were using 35% more recycled content.
Yet despite this progress, the report also revealed that for eight brands, 7.2 million tonnes of plastic was used, representing a 5.3% increase in plastic waste in one year. Coca-Cola and packing company Amcor were the biggest culprits, contributing 78% of the total.
With this information in mind, the report concludes: A systematic change is needed whereby packaging is redesigned and reduced to get rid of items that are likely to be sent to landfill, burned, or mismanaged.
Leading on from this, we hope this Green Business Bureau article has shed some light on the issues surrounding packaging waste, and the innovative reforms that are available for retail brands globally. Like WWF, we aim to hep businesses reduce plastic waste – and waste caused by other materials. With systematic change, your retail brand can lead a waste reduction revolution.
Are you a brand that operates with purpose? What systematic changes have you made in your business to improve the sustainability credentials of operations? How do you communicate your sustainability achievements to your stakeholders?
If you’re making meaningful investments to create a sustainable brand – adopting environmentally friendly packaging and beyond – it’s important you gain the credit you deserve while also receiving professional guidance as you progress along your sustainability journey. As such, you need to certify your brand as sustainable. For more information on green business certification, get in touch to book a demo with the Green Business Bureau.