I recently ordered an adapter online. When it arrived, what should have been a simple, if boring, package confounded me. I opened the box to find it filled with layers of bubble wrap. Nestled underneath was another box with a plastic window, covered in shrink wrap. When all was said and done, I had to trash a ball of plastic that significantly outsized the product I had ordered.
There is no one correct answer to solve the problem. Solutions exist on a spectrum from making simple, easy changes to radical packaging reinventions. Yes, time and budgets will always require consideration when making decisions like these, but when holding a long view, pursuing sustainability is good for both the planet and the bottom line.
The easiest (and, at least in the short-term, the cheapest) way to increase a packaging system’s sustainability is to choose simpler, more recyclable replacements for existing components. Replace virgin, coated cardboard with 100% recycled, uncoated cardboard boxes. Swap out plastic bubble wrap and styrofoam packing peanuts with kraft paper fillers like GreenWrap and crinkle-cut. Or trade plastic molded inserts for paper pulp or custom cut cardboard.
Brands like Aesop and PF Candle have shown that these alternatives are no less brandable, especially paired with other options, like paper tape and simple printing or stamping. With many municipal recycling regulations in flux due to changes in the global waste economy, it’s more important than ever to realize that we can’t recycle every plastic grade. These solutions take materials that would most likely become trash and allow them to be recycled or broken down naturally.
Considering replacement materials for existing systems is good but only gets us so far. When we swap bubble wrap for a kraft paper void fill, we then have the opportunity to shrink the box itself.
Reducing, or even eliminating, packaging parts can have a large impact when scaled. For example, Apple recently shrunk iPhone boxes by removing the wall adapter and headphones. By condensing the packaging, they fit 70% more boxes on one pallet. With Apple’s scale, this amounts to a 2 million metric ton reduction of carbon emissions annually. (It also increased Apple’s profit margins.) Withdrawing the unnecessary can save both raw materials and fuel in the shipping process, but in some cases, it can prevent something from having to be shipped in the first place.
Simplifying the individual box also presents an opportunity to streamline the system. Can all shipping configurations fit in an optimized box size? Can multiple product inserts be consolidated into a universal insert? This asset of sustainable packaging is challenging because it takes time to engineer and rethink systems, but the long-term ecological (and economic) benefits are worth the investment.
Beyond reducing, reusing, and simplifying, there is a next step: complete reimagination. Packaging is already pushing the boundaries towards newer materials. Custom insert molding can now be grown from molded mycelium in a low-impact process that renders a beneficial product to composting. E-commerce staples like poly mailer bags are also moving to both 100% recyclable materials and compostable alternatives. Insulated packaging is moving to corn-based foams and recycled denim.
Some companies are asking if the most sustainable way to ship a product is not to ship it at all. By providing open-sourced instructions for particular products to local manufacturers, products can reach consumers, unshipped. Some are figuring out how to move towards regenerative materials like seaweed that capture carbon and provide ocean habitats. Others are even working towards eliminating single-use materials by moving to circular packaging systems of reusable, returnable packaging.
The good news is that sustainable packaging isn’t a choice between values and profit. It is an opportunity to demonstrate environmental benefits and increase your brand’s value. And those same benefits to the Earth lead to increased efficiencies in the shipping process, greater brand awareness, and customer loyalty. Addressing the impact of current packaging will require a collective effort across industries. But when we all start questioning the status quo and taking steps in the right direction, change is possible.