Did you know that over a quarter of household waste generated in the US is from packaging, much of which comes from online purchases. With retail e-commerce sales in the US expected to increase by a staggering 50 percent in the next four years it's time to rethink packaging. Many companies claim to offer ‘sustainable’ packaging solutions, but what exactly is sustainable packaging and how do you choose which is right for you? As with most things in sustainability, there is no easy answer. Let’s take a look at three types of sustainable packaging options currently available, remembering that although not perfect they are a step in the right direction.
1| Compostable Packaging
Packaging that is compostable is made from renewable plant based fibers which at end of life can be 'broken down' (through the process of composting) to nourish the soil. Composting can be done at home or in an industrial facility and requires specific conditions (the right level of heat, water, and oxygen) to work. Once these conditions are met fibers will break down into an organic substance called ‘humus’ which returns nutrients and carbon to the soil. To be certified 'compostable' products must be able to be broken down in a home compost within 180 days and an industrial compost within 90 days. Compostable packaging has great potential but it is reliant on the customer to do the right thing - if the packaging is not composted correctly or is thrown into recycling or trash the benefits will be lost. Therefore, educating your customers on what to do with your compostable mailer after use is critical. 👉 Here's some great compostable mailers here
Note: Compostable should not be confused with biodegradable - they are two separate things. Compostable products decompose under specific conditions within a specific timeframe leaving beneficial organic material. A biodegradable product can be made of any material (including plastics) that decomposes over time - whether it be 6 months or 600 years. These products are very likely to leach harmful residues (chemicals, carbon dioxide and microplastics) into the environment as they break down.
2| Recycled Packaging
Recycled packaging is made from pre-used paper or plastics. A recycled polybag mailer usually includes a mix of high density plastics (e.g. single use water bottles) and low density plastics (e.g. plastic bags). Choosing a recycled polybag mailer over a conventional one helps to (1) keep single use plastics out of the waste stream for longer and (2) reduce consumption of virgin resources that are required to create new packaging. Recycled polybags are a good option as they are much more durable than current compostable packaging however they cannot be composted, are not easy to recycle (you cannot put them in curbside recycling bins) and will shed microplastics and toxins when they finally decompose. This takes us to our next category of sustainable packaging...reusable packaging.
3| Reusable Packaging
Reusable packaging is exactly as it says - packaging that can be used again. This could include a recycled polybag - if designed with second use in mind (e.g. a second adhesive strip for sealing after opening) or a canvas tote that could be used over and over again. The benefits of reusable packaging are obvious in that they reduce production and waste. However reusable is only as good as the intentions of the user. If a user does not re-use the packaging then it will end up incinerated or in landfill and contribute to further waste and pollution.
Who is doing sustainable packaging well?
Encouragingly there are a number of companies starting to offer sustainable packaging solutions for retail brands. One company doing this really well is noissue - a New Zealand owned company on a mission to reduce the environmental impact of shipping.
+ noissue offers easy to customize compostable, recycled, and/or reusable packaging products
+ They also offset their shipping emissions, invest in social and environmental impact projects (including a tree planting project),
+ and endeavor to educate and empower customers through a range of engaging resources and online communities
Choosing sustainable packaging, just like everything else in sustainability, is complex. It relies on thoughtful design, responsible production and customer education. Although there is no ‘quick fix’ or ‘perfect solution’ there are many companies, like noissue, focused on providing brands with 'better' alternatives to conventional packaging.
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*THR3EFOLD is proud to be an affiliate partner of noissue and support the great work they are doing to move the dial on sustainable packaging for brands in the fashion industry.