sustainable ecommerce packaging

5 Sustainable Packaging Alternatives for 2021

Think about it. What’s designed to be thrown away as soon as it’s received?

It’s no riddle. You’ve got it, the answer is packaging. Now is the time for a new response. Packaging should support a circular economy, designed to be reusable, durable, and in some instances, edible.

We all have a story about online orders. We expect a delivery, only to open an oversized box that’s mostly empty space. Yet again, we find a whole lot of nothing in a cumbersome container. One time, fairly recently in fact, I ordered moving boxes, unaware they’d arrive in their own giant parcel. I was buying boxed containers. The ugly irony was not lost on me.

It goes without saying that packaging plays an essential role in today’s market. It extends shelf life, ensures that food safety standards are met, allows for the safe transportation of goods. However, unless we rethink the ways in which we utilise packaging, we’re contributing to a growing environmental catastrophe. 

Perilous Plastics

Packaging is supposed to protect goods, but irresponsible packaging is guaranteed to harm the environment. 

In the UK alone, around 40% of plastic is used in packaging, generating around 2.4 million tonnes of packaging waste per year

These plastics sit in our landfills, producing a miasma of greenhouse gases as they decompose, persisting for centuries.

While this waste grows, new single-use packaging is constantly being produced to meet consumer demand. The earth’s resources are being mined, quarried and harvested to provide these disposable packaging materials. So, the cycle continues, packaging is produced to be thrown away, all the while, more damage is inflicted upon the environment. 

There’s no way around it: there’s just no such thing as responsible plastics. Studies show that even biodegradable plastics cause a problem. A biodegradable material should decompose back into its original elements without causing harm to its environment. We do not currently have the conditions (50C and prolonged UV exposure) to support a natural degradation. Rather, these bioplastics often require commercial composting facilities, which aren’t always available to the average consumer. In truth, these ‘green’ plastics are more likely to end up in the oceans.

Packageless Shops – An Empty Gesture?

You may have witnessed a media buzz about zero-waste supermarkets

Much like durable fashion, package-free shopping is a contemporary trend made out of an old school tradition. True, some of today’s supermarkets and wholefood retailers are offering packageless grocery services in a number of fashionable cities around the world. Even if you’re not local to these services, you’ve seen the visuals: towering jars of pastas, grains, and cereals, lined up, waiting for a shopper to take their share in multi-use tupperware.

What is also true is that only a few generations ago, all shopping tended to be packaging-free. Our grandparents would simply fill their bags at grocers, markets and farms, where flour was sold straight from the barrels, and vegetables straight from the stand. 

What’s my point? It’s undeniable that in the past half century alone, pre-packaged goods slowly but incessantly took over traditional ways to shop. It’s also undeniable that sometimes we have no alternative. Although supermarkets may be slowly rolling out packageless groceries, in a post-pandemic world, we may have no choice but to shop online. 

The problem is that you can’t put a plaster on a gaping wound. The only way to stem the unsumurmoutable tide of waste is drastic, immediate action. It’s down to eRetailers to take responsibility, selecting sustainable packaging solutions.

A Sustainable Solution

In order to reconcile the harmful consequences of packaging with its potential branding advantages we must utilise sustainable materials. 

Eco-friendly packaging, sometimes called sustainable or green packaging has to meet certain criteria. For example, it may be made from materials that are wholly compostable or legitimately biodegradable. The ingredients should be 100% recycled or raw. The production process should be minimised, reducing the supply chain and carbon footprint when sourcing materials. 

So which materials meet these criteria? Ethical Magazine have listed 5 eco-friendly alternatives to traditional plastic packaging. 

1 – The Boon of Bamboo 

More than just a panda’s go-to grub, bamboo has been a reliable building material for centuries. 

An evergreen flowering plant, bamboo is of cultural significance in large parts of East, South and Southeast Asia, yet could offer large-scale benefits throughout the world.

For example, you may not be aware that this wonder material has a higher compressive strength than wood, brick or concrete. It’s also rigid and thermally resistant, able to withstand heat of up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Essentially, it’s as strong and durable as you’ll ever need it to be.

Bamboo is easy-to-produce, and in fact, is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Certain species of bamboo can grow 36 inches in a 24-hour period, or 1 inch every 40 minutes. It can be grown in many different parts of the world, requiring less land and resources to grow than most trees. Most importantly, bamboo packaging is entirely biodegradable and compostable.

Dell is an excellent example of a company that utilises bamboo in its packaging. 

At the time of this article, Dell is using bamboo to package two-thirds of all their portable products. Although I’m not saying the Silicon Valley tech giant is entirely environmentally friendly, Dell has made great strides in terms of sustainable packaging. The company pledges that 100% of its packaging will be made from recycled or renewable materials by 2030.

2 – Honey Up to Beeswax Wraps 

Bees are an endlessly fascinating superorganism. 

Our planet’s best pollinators, crops such as blueberries, apples and apples are 90% dependent on honey bees. But it’s not just their ability to pollinate plants that we rely on, nor is it their honey yields. In fact, beeswax-coated cloth presents an existing eco alternative to traditional packaging materials. 

Used as a replacement for plastic food packaging, these wraps are essentially lengths of fabric that have been treated with beeswax. The wraps are typically made from cotton (organic, ethically sourced cotton is clearly ideal), sustainably sourced beeswax, oils and resin. The combination of ingredients results in a malleable and reusable food wrap with antibacterial properties. The warmth of your hands softens the beeswax, allowing it to be moulded around a container or produce so that it’s easily resealed. It’s washable, reusable and recyclable, with the durability of cotton. Most of all, it won’t end up in the ocean like the single-use plastics that it should be replacing. 

3 – Try Mushroom Packaging 

The UK based Magical Mushroom Company has a distinctive name, immediately conjuring images of the recreational drug that it shares it with. 

What the company provides however, is a sustainable mushroom packaging alternative that’s ideal for eCommerce. It’s not so much psychoactive but ethically proactive.

To be specific, the company’s packaging is composed of what they term ‘MycoMaterials.’ Consisting of mycelium, a substance derived from mushrooms and that grows in a mass network of roots anywhere you find woodland, The Magical Mushroom Company have pulled a neat trick out of the hat. Making a great alternative to polystyrene packaging, retailers can reduce the waste used to safely secure and deliver their goods in a sustainable fashion. 

MycoMaterials are sustainable, home compostable and a valid substitute for plastic foams, making for an eco-friendly solution for a host of retailers and sellers. 

4 – Consider Cocoform

An innovation from ENKEV, a natural fibre company, Cocoform takes its name from its main ingredient: coconut. 

Specifically, Cocoform is a combination of 60% coir (coconut fibres) and 40% natural latex. Both coir and natural latex materials are renewable, biodegradable and compostable. Essentially, Cocoform is a marriage of two entirely sustainable materials. Cocoform fibres are removed from the coconut shell and formed into a mat of layers, between which latex is injected. The sheets are subsequently heat pressed and given specific forms, depending on the dimensions of the product that they’re containing.  

ENKEV provides flat sheets, available in 2000 x 2000 mm dimensions. The density and memory speed can be customised, and once molded, can be used for a variety of packaging solutions. 

5 – Hemp, an Ancient Answer

Not just grown to fuel the current cannabis oil craze, Hemp is one of the oldest botanical fibres, with an origin dating back to 6000 years.

But what makes hemp so eco-friendly? It is entirely biodegradable, doesn’t take much water or soil nutrients to grow, and it acts as a carbon sink, absorbing great quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere. Hemp is often used as an ingredient in bioplastics, but pure hemp can also be used as a packaging material. For instance, hemp as an alternative  packaging material can be seen in the cosmetics, food and clothing industries alike. Foldabox is a UK company that offers packaging solutions for businesses looking to make sustainability happen. 

Concluding Thoughts – Pick Your Packaging to Represent Your Values

You’ve heard of the familiar saying, “dress for the job you want to have.” 

If you strive to become a leader in your industry, your packaging should follow the same logic. Your package should represent the position in your industry you’d like to have. On the one hand, high-quality printing and distinctive design will support your brand strategy. On the other hand, carefully choosing your packaging materials speaks loudly about the ethos of your company. 

Your choice of materials not only has severe consequences on the environment, but the reputation and credibility of your company. Your packaging should convey a very specific message to the consumer. So, say it with sustainability.

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