Shipping is a massive part of any company’s impact on the environment. While it’s easy to think of it in terms of the emissions of the truck fleets and cargo container ships traversing the globe while laden with packages, it goes beyond that. Even something as essential as the packaging you choose for your products can have a significant impact.
This is a constant push and pull. While you technically can slap a shipping label on just about anything and send it through the mail, there are many good reasons not to do so.
- Handling millions of parcels per day, systems like USPS and UPS sorting facilities don’t exactly treat packages with care; outer packaging is for protection from the impact of other packages as much as it is for containing the products inside.
- That same impact and damage to the outer package can mar the surface of a product or its packaging, hurting both the presentation and, potentially, integrity of the product itself.
- Some products are better off concealed; whether it’s expensive electronics, unique or vulnerable paperwork or information, or products that need “discreet” packaging, an outer container is beneficial.
At the same time, it doesn’t just feel bad to put a box inside a box inside a box for shipping; the immense use of cardboard, plastic, Styrofoam, and other packing materials has a tangible environmental impact. Minimizing your impact while making sure your products arrive safe and secure is a fine line to walk.
That said, both modern awareness and technology have combined to develop a variety of novel ways to package your products for shipping in more sustainable, environmentally friendly ways. Here are ten options you can consider pursuing.
1: Compostable Products
Compostable products are generally made of plant matter, usually something like corn, sugarcane, or bamboo, but can be made of nearly any organic material. There are a variety of different materials made to be compostable packaging materials today, largely mimicking the structure and resiliency of cardboard or something akin to a plastic mailer bag.
One thing to note here is that there is a significant difference between biodegradable and compostable. Biodegradable simply means that the material can degrade over time and exposure to natural processes. Compostable, meanwhile, has a stricter requirement: the product must be able to be broken down completely within 180 days in natural conditions and 90 days in industrial composting conditions.
This is something it’s worth paying attention to today. Many products have been labeled biodegradable over the years, including certain kinds of plastic products. Yet now, we are encountering immense amounts of microplastics and other microtoxins in our air, water, and even our bodies. Further, as it turns out, just because a product is biodegradable doesn’t mean it’s any good; there are many examples of plastics that are biodegradable but on the scale of hundreds of years. While that’s fine for the long-term health of the planet over generations, it doesn’t do anything for our current waste crisis.
Currently, truly compostable packaging materials are available but are somewhat more expensive than some other sustainable options. However, further use and investment in these products will only increase development and decrease costs over time.
2: Biodegradable Packing Peanuts
In the past, the primary material used for shock insulation in a package was Styrofoam. The simplest way to pack anything was to nestle it in a container full of Styrofoam nuggets or “packing peanuts” that would cushion the product from shocks, impacts, and other issues in the shipping process.
Of course, Styrofoam is horrendous for the environment since it’s a plastic product. Not only that, but it’s not economically viable to recycle, meaning it ends up in landfills and breaks down slowly into those same microplastics that suffuse our environment today. It’s even being banned across the country.
Fortunately, a better form of packing peanuts exists: biodegradable packing peanuts. Made of puffed corn starch, these packing peanuts have virtually the same physical properties as those made of Styrofoam in terms of shock absorption and compression. The primary difference is that, rather than being made of a petroleum-based foam, it’s made of an organic substance instead. Most typically, they’re made of corn starch.
While corn starch may not necessarily be native to your local area, it’s certainly far from toxic to most animals, and it’s not going to poison the land or the water. Also, unlike Styrofoam, it breaks down in a matter of weeks or months rather than centuries. The biggest downside is that corn itself has a significant environmental impact, which will need to be examined.
3: Cardboard Bubble Wrap
Cardboard is recycled in many ways. One such option is to take sheets of cardboard and compress, slice, and expand them into a fluffier, corrugated, and fluffed-up version. This paper product then becomes something with similar physical properties as bubble wrap and can be used in much the same way by wrapping products in it before putting them in an outer box for shipping.
Since it’s not made of plastic like bubble wrap, it’s much more environmentally friendly and sustainable. And, since the cardboard has been essentially shredded, it has more surface area exposed for biodegradation or future recycling efforts.
4: Thermal Paper
One surprising source of environmental impact from packaging and shipping is the labeling used on boxes and shipping labels. Specifically, the inks used in labels can be surprisingly impactful on the scales of global shipping.
One developing alternative is BPA-free thermal paper. This paper product is typically a basic paper covered in a layer of thermally-reactive coating. This coating can be “printed” on with a specialized kind of heat printer, essentially “burning” rather than using ink to print a label, logo, or other information on the paper tape. The end result is a durable label that is waterproof and doesn’t use ink.
The biggest downside to this product is that the thermal paper itself is not biodegradable or recyclable; however, there are environmentally friendly ways to dispose of it with lower impact than ink-covered labels and packaging.
5: Recycled Air Pillows
Another alternative to the traditional bubble wrap – and an item seen in virtually every Amazon package today – is an air pillow. These large voids of air use an absolute minimum amount of plastic and are filled with regular, everyday air, providing a large cushion with a minimal amount of material.
Furthermore, the material they’re made of is typically both long-term biodegradable and made of recycled materials. This combination allows for void-filling and cushioning within a package without immense amounts of plastic waste from bubble wrap itself or other plastic internal packaging.
6: Custom-Fitted Packaging
Some kinds of products are consistent in size and shape and are themselves relatively durable. When this is the case, why not avoid the interior packaging material altogether? By investing some time into the development of customized shipping containers to form around a product and cradle it directly, you remove the need for interior packaging materials entirely.
The outer customized packaging can then be made of resilient corrugated cardboard or another impact-resistant material, and the product can be shipped with little or no additional packaging or inside a simple padded mailer or other outer package.
7: Fungal Packaging
While it might sound like something straight out of science fiction, there have been modern developments in using mushrooms to create packaging.
It works in a simple but ingenious way. Other packaging materials and substrates, which are in the process of being broken down anyway, are used as the foundation for growing mushrooms. Mushrooms have extensive root systems known as mycelium, which suffuse and lattice the substrate, sometimes even before visible mushrooms have grown. This material, suffused with mycelium, can then be molded into a desired shape for packaging material. Once molded, it is dried out and forms into a foam-like substance that can be used to cradle items in packaging.
The biggest benefit of this material is that it’s not just biodegradable – it’s in the middle of the process of biodegrading. Fungi are a key element of biodegrading anything, so something already suffused with mycelium is getting a head start. The packaging is made from a substrate of agricultural waste and can easily be returned to the composting process.
8: Recycled Plastics
Plastic is, unfortunately, still an unrivaled material for many different purposes. If it wasn’t so harmful to the environment, it would be a perfect material for many different uses all around the world. The impact it has on the environment, though, means it is slowly joining the likes of lead and asbestos in terms of “miracle” materials with hideous drawbacks.
While the manufacture of new plastic is devastating, a lot of plastic already exists, and that means it forms an opportunity. While some plastics can’t be recycled, others can, and recycled plastic can be used in a variety of different ways. Some recycled plastics can just be used for things like air pillows and wrapping; others can be formed into outer protective bags or boxes.
One of the greatest drawbacks, however, is that plastics can generally only be recycled 2-3 times before they are no longer viable for reuse. This recycling limit exists in almost any recyclable material; chemical changes to the structure of the molecules making up the material mean it will no longer be suitable after it has been transformed enough times. One of the only “endlessly” recyclable materials, in fact, is metal.
9: Metal Packaging
Speaking of metal, why not try it? Metal packaging is a sustainable and effective alternative to many different kinds of packaging. It’s certainly not suited for every possible purpose, and different kinds of metals have different challenges in both their use as packaging and in the process of recycling them.
However, in many cases, replacing other forms of packaging material with metal packaging can be a highly effective way to transition from an environmentally damaging material to a sustainable material.
10: Novel Materials
There is an ongoing investment in materials science to develop better materials for use throughout the supply chain. Whether it’s in packaging, shipping, containment, insulation, or another purpose, these new materials may find a sweet spot and become more widely used.
- Glassine, a wood pulp product that takes the form of a smooth, translucent paper product that can be used as wrapping and packaging.
- Bioplastics, which are made of organic molecules like cellulose rather than inorganic molecules like petroleum and chemical plastics.
- Seaweed Agar, which is a natural sugar found in seaweed that can be mixed with another product like corn starch to produce paper, cardboard, or plastic-like materials.
- Edible film, made from chitosan, a sugar derived from the chitinous exoskeletons of shrimp and other crustaceans, which forms a plastic-like film that is edible and non-toxic.
These and a variety of newer developments are currently being investigated. It’s always worth keeping an eye out for potential future developments in materials that can be more sustainable for your shipping process.
Investing in Sustainable Packaging
There are two keys to sustainable packaging, and only one of them has to do with the materials you’re using for that packaging. The other is this: reduce the packaging you use. It’s worth reviewing your entire process for packaging your items, both for their own containers and for the packaging they receive to be shipped, and determining if there are redundancies or inefficiencies that can be removed. Both the investigation and the development of new packaging will cost money, of course – and so will a shift to a sustainable packaging material – but it can all provide benefits as well.
Not only are you better for the environment, you can use it in your marketing. In today’s society, many people are growing increasingly concerned with the impact of the things they buy. Some choose to shop local when they can; others focus on buying products that are shipped in sustainable ways. By promoting your sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging, you can gain an advantage over the competition that still uses plastics and other harmful materials.
Do you know of other useful materials and novel processes that could make a difference? If so, let us know! We’re always on the lookout for new ways to promote sustainability throughout the world.
Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch, is a passionate advocate for ethical promotional products. With a mission to transform global supply chains, he serves on the Labor 411 Foundation and Advertising Specialty Institute’s Promo for the Planet Advisory Board. Daniel is dedicated to empowering socially and environmentally-conscious consumers.