In the guide below, we explain what sustainable packaging is, along with the different materials used, examples of sustainable packaging in different industries, and more.
It compliments our separate guide on the pros and cons of sustainable packaging.
What Is Sustainable Packaging?
Packaging is material used to wrap, enclose, or protect goods and items.
Sustainable packaging is packaging that improves upon the sustainability impact of traditional packaging, such as some types of plastic packaging
Sustainable packaging may have a better impact on sustainability in one or several of the following areas:
– The Environment
– The Management Of Resources
– Society & People/Humans (Especially Human Health & Safety)
– The Economy
Other Criteria Sustainable Packaging Has To Meet
Other than contributing to environmental, resource management, and social sustainability, sustainable packaging still needs to meet other criteria that are critical in the use of the packaging.
Suppliers, distributors couriers and transportation companies, sellers/retailers, consumers, regulating bodies, and other parties all have requirements from packaging.
Some of these include but aren’t limited to:
– Financial Feasibility
As one example, the packaging should be cost effective/affordable for businesses and other parties using the packaging
Some packaging may even save money, and be more profitable for businesses
– Functional, Practical & Performance Requirements
The packaging should be able to fulfil the requirements of what it is being used for to a certain performance criteria
The traits and properties of the packaging are usually key to this
For example, the packaging should be able to protect the item it’s covering, and may have to be a combination of durable, tear resistant, flexible, waterproof, airtight, and be lightweight to fulfil certain uses – just as a few examples
A specific example of this might be packaging that needs to keep certain types of food fresh, and needs to be airtight and waterproof
– Comply With Legislation, Regulations & Standards, & Not Compromise Other Critical Requirements
Packaging should also comply with any legal requirements or standards/best practices in place for different industries, or the packaging itself
The packaging should also not compromise or be a risk to critical standards for society such as standards in safety, hygiene, health
It should also protect again potentially fatal risks such as contamination
Sustainable Packaging Solutions – How Can Packaging Be Made More Sustainable?
Some of the key ways packaging might be made more sustainable might include, but aren’t limited to:
– Modifying The Packaging Material Itself
This might include modifying the key materials the packaging is sourced from, and made from.
As an example, the packaging material might be changed from being based on a non renewable resource like petroleum or natural gas, to being based on a renewable resource like some type of plant based monomer
Another example might be changing the packaging material over from a material made from virgin resources, to packaging material made from recycled resources.
Another example might be changing the packaging material from material that takes a long time to naturally decompose or doesn’t ever natural decompose, to biodegradable, compostable or naturally decomposing material.
– Modifying Practices In The Packaging Supply/Production Chain, & Lifecycle
This might include modifying how the packaging is sourced, how the packaging is produced (the production processes involved), and/or the waste management of the packaging.
An example of more sustainable sourcing might involve sourcing resources from a recycled or recovered metal supplier, instead of from a supplier that provides newly mined and newly processed metal.
An example of a change in the production process might involve using more sustainable energy to produce to packaging material, or using energy, water, and other resources more efficiently in production.
An example of a change in waste management might be recycling or re-using the packaging at the end of it’s lifecycle, instead of sending it to landfill, or allowing it to be littered and become waste pollution.
– Modifying The Packaging Design
Design involves the material structure, material properties, material composition, and more.
An example of changing packaging design might be changing the design to make the packaging easier or more time efficient to recycle at a recycling processing factory, or, making it easier to recover the resources from the packaging so these resources can be re-used.
In What Specific Ways Might Packaging Become More Sustainable?
Some of the specific outcomes sustainable packaging might lead to that might make it more sustainable than other packaging might include, but isn’t limited to:
– It has a reduced carbon footprint, or some other reduced environment footprint such as reduced pollution, reduced toxicity (for environments and wildlife), or something else
– Packaging might be made of material less toxic or harmful to human health, and worker health
– It uses feedstock resources more efficiently in it’s production, or uses energy or water more efficiently production
– Uses renewable or abundant resources over scarce resources like petroleum or natural gas based plastics. Similarly, it might use natural materials over materials made from synthetic polymers
– It is lighter therefore not as much fuel is burnt during transportation
– It can be packed alongside other packaged products or items in a more efficient way, therefore increasing overall sustainability efficiency
– It requires less packaging material to be used overall (square area, mass, etc)
– No packaging is used at all, or minimal packaging is used (like for example what some zero waste stores do)
– The packaging itself is made of recycled material, or renewable material
– The packaging material can be re-used or recycled in a sustainable way (so materials are recoverable), as opposed to being single use and less sustainable. Alternatively, the packaging material might be able to be managed as waste in a more sustainable way than regular packaging
– Packaging might be biodegradable, compostable or able to organically decompose in nature
Types/Forms Of Sustainable Packaging
Sustainable packaging may come in some of the following packaging forms:
– Bottles & Lids
– Can Holders
– Food Containers
– Other Containers
– Food Trays
– Food Wrap
– Other Forms Of Packaging
A List Of Different Sustainable Packaging Materials, & Examples Of How They Might Be Used
Different types of sustainable packaging material can include, but isn’t limited to:
– ‘Zero Waste’ Packaging
One form sustainable packaging is no packaging at all at a specific stage of the supply chain or product lifecycle.
Zero waste stores for example may promote the use of minimal packaging, or no packaging at all.
The store for example may use suppliers/distributors that are more efficient with packaging waste, and may require that customers bring their own bags, containers, etc. for certain products instead of proving bags and packaging themselves to customers.
– Packaging Made Of Recycled Or Re-Used Material
Instead of material made from virgin material, packaging may instead be made from partial or fully recycled or re-used material.
For example, paper packaging may be made from partially or 100% recycled paper.
– Bio-Based Or Natural Based Packaging
Sourced from a plant, animal or micro-organism source, or some other natural source.
In this instance, natural monomers (like plant proteins) are extracted from these sources and made into polymers.
This is in comparison to a packaging material that is fossil fuel based and made into synthetic polymers (having said that though – plastic packaging does have some sustainability benefits across some aspects)
One example of bio-based packaging materials is some forms of bio-based plastics.
Another example is the use of a natural based wraps over plastic wraps, such as the use of Beeswax Wrap. Beeswax wrap can be made of organic cotton, and coated with beeswax, and a mix of other ingredients like pine resin and jojoba oil (or another type of oil). Some Beeswax wraps are also washable and reusable instead of being single use.
– Packaging Material Made From More Sustainable Sources
As one example, paper packaging might be sourced from sustainably managed wood plantations. or from wood offcuts and post consumer wood waste.
Another example is beeswax wrap made from sustainably sourced beeswax and organic cotton from a recognised third party independent certification group
– Packaging Material Made With More Sustainable Production Processes
For example, the production of the packaging might involve using renewable energy over fossil fuel energy.
It could also involve using less water, or more effectively managing production waste so it doesn’t contribute to waste pollution or contribute to toxicity in the environment.
– Other Potentially Sustainable Packaging Alternatives
The greenbusinessbureau.com and trend hunter.com resources both have more examples of potentially more sustainable packaging alternatives
What Industries Sustainable Packaging Might Be Used In
Sustainable packaging could be used in a range of industries such as the textiles industry, transportation, building and construction, food and beverages, and more.
Sustainable Packaging For Food & Beverages – Examples
Some examples of sustainable packaging used for food and beverages may include:
– Washable and reusable food containers
– Washable and reusable drink bottles
– Recyclable or compostable takeaway food containers
– Beeswax food wrap
Sustainable Packaging For Clothing – Examples
Some examples of sustainable packaging used for food and beverages may include:
– Compostable labels/tags, tape, and stickers
– Compostable, or reusable mailing bags, envelopes or satchels. Or mailing bags, envelopes and sachels made from recycled plastic. Or mailing bags made from
– Cardboard boxes made from recycled cardboard
– Washable and reusable garment bags
– Biodegradable or compostable garment bags. Or, garment bags made from sustainably sourced and certified paper
1. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ Resources