Molly Brogie is a content marketing journalist at Repsly. She has a passion for innovation and is committed to providing readers with informative and engaging material. Molly is a self-proclaimed gym junkie who loves Shakespeare.
Sustainable product packaging is quickly becoming one of the most important — and most challenging — aspects of the food industry. Consumers are placing more and more importance on the sustainability of the products they purchase. To be successful, businesses need to get ahead of this trend and develop plans for sustainable packaging.
What is sustainable packaging?
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition defines sustainable packaging as packaging that:
Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle.
Meets market criteria for performance and cost.
Is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy.
Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials.
Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices.
Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle.
Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy.
Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition also provides eight metric frameworks to assess how much any given package fulfills this definition. These requirements are extensive and make sustainable packaging design seem difficult. However, succeeding in just a few of these requirements can drastically improve the sustainability of product packaging. Focusing on scoring well in select metrics is a more feasible approach to sustainable packaging design.
Why adopt sustainable product packaging?
Eco-friendly packaging is a powerful way for small food and beverage businesses to save money. Using locally sourced materials and smaller volumes of packaging material cuts back on shipping distances and shipment weights, which drastically decreases money spent on material transportation.
"Transportation is tied so closely to energy that, when you manage logistics well, you also manage costs well," stresses Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. The tie between sustainability and transportation is undeniable, and recognizing it can drastically impact expenses. In addition, recycled materials often cost much less than their new counterparts.
Grow your business
Using sustainable product packaging will also help you maintain and expand your customer base. There is an ever-growing demand by consumers for environmentally friendly products. Meeting this demand with sustainable packaging is a simple way to maintain existing consumer support.
Also, new customers will more likely to choose an eco-friendly product over a less sustainable option. Eighty-four percent of global consumers say they seek out responsible products whenever possible, a 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR study found.
More generally, as many as 77% say they take sustainability into consideration when shopping at the supermarket. With that in mind, sustainable packaging design will draw new customers to a product and drive up sales.
How to create a sustainable product packaging design
The definition of sustainable packaging is broad, so there are multiple avenues to making product packaging sustainable. Here are some of the basics:
Pick a life cycle tool
Different systems exist for evaluating the sustainability of materials. The SPC produces COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment) online design software, which provides guidance on environmental standards. EarthSmart produces PackageSmart LCA Software, which helps designers visualize environmental impact of packaging designs.
Know where packaging materials come from
Using locally produced materials not only helps support local economies, but it can also save food businesses money on shipping and storage. Rather than paying to have massive orders shipped from overseas or driven across the country, companies that use locally sourced packaging materials can place smaller orders as needed and have them delivered at far more reasonable costs.
Even if — after these savings — the locally sourced option is still more expensive than an imported one, research suggests consumers might see higher prices as a worthy trade-off. Seventy-eight percent of surveyed consumers said they would be willing to pay more for products if they knew its packaging was sourced locally, according to a study from packaging manufacturer Sharpak.
Design for reusability
Companies like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Coca-Cola all create packaging that consumers can upcycle or recycle.
KFC swapped out disposable coffee cups for edible ones in 2015. Made of biscuit, chocolate, and sugar paper, the “Scoff-ee cup” could stand up to the heat of an espresso then vanish as a satisfying dessert, eliminating waste from thousands of paper and foam cups.
While the Scoff-ee cup never appeared to make it past the pilot stage in KFC’s U.K. restaurants, the experiment nonetheless showed large food companies that a switch to sustainable can do even more than avoid waste. It has the potential to become a signature piece of their brand image.
Consider using post-consumer or alternative materials
Post consumer plastics are inexpensive, sustainably produced and recyclable. Many traditional packaging materials can be manufactured from sustainable alternatives. There are multiple sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based plastic:
Polylactic acid (PLA) packaging is biodegradable, non-toxic and made from plants. PLA packaging is usually thin and weak and best used as a wrapper or outer layer. Although PLA warps in heat or humidity, companies like Plastic Ingenuity are developing more durable versions that can withstand temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bioplastics are plastics that are partially composed of renewable feedstocks like corn, potatoes, rice and wheat fiber. Bioplastics are stronger and more durable than PLA packaging, and can be used to produce containers and bottles. Unlike PLA, bioplastics are not always biodegradable.
Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) polyesters are biodegradable plastics produced by bacterial fermentation. PHA plastics act almost identically to petroleum based plastics, although they are slightly more brittle.
Milk protein plastics are made from casein. This plastic is a thin film best suited for tight packaging and keeping oxygen away from food products.
To make cardboard packaging more sustainable, there are also various options:
Post-consumer recycled fibers create corrugated cardboard that is just as strong and durable as pre-consumer cardboard.
Bamboo packaging is biodegradable and certified compostable. It is as strong as cardboard and slightly more water resistant. It can be used for boxes or as a protective casing around fragile products.
ProGreen is a recyclable alternative for wax-coated produce cartons. It is water resistant, durable and completely repulpable.
Notbox is a reusable, lightweight and durable cardboard box alternative. Notboxes can each be used for up to three years and can withstand 35 kilograms of compression.
Pick just a few of these avenues to focus on, and you will soon reap the benefits of sustainable product packaging. The planet will thank you — and so will your sales.