What Packaging is Sustainable?
A closer look at sustainable packaging and which packaging types are truly eco friendly
26 July, 2021 by
What Packaging is Sustainable?
Glenn Izard

Everything you need to know about sustainable packaging to help you choose what eco packaging to use.

Sustainable packaging materials are popular with most consumers nowadays, the desire to see sustainable packaging used by online companies especially has grown massively in recent years. The questions people are asking now is 'what sustainable packaging products do I choose?', and 'what do I look out for when I'm reviewing my packaging for sustainable products?'

Firstly, let's look at the big question, what is sustainable packaging?

What is sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is packaging that is sustainable...yes...full marks. But let's dig a little deeper. Sustainable means that something is 'able to be sustained'. So by sustainable packaging we are looking for packaging that we are able to produce, manufacture, supply, and dispose of in a way that we are able to sustain for many many years to come.

Sustainable packaging is packaging that passes the five sustainability tests in the different stages from raw material to waste. The five tests it needs to pass are;

  1. The raw material is a renewable source.

  2. The harvesting of its raw material is sustainable.

  3. The production of the packaging is sustainable.

  4. The distribution is low in carbon emissions.

  5. The packaging can be disposed of in a sustainable way.

So let's look at the question again, what is truly sustainable packaging?

What is truly sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is packaging that has a combination of all five factors outlined above. Firstly it should be made from a raw materials that are from a renewable source. Secondly, the harvesting of the raw material should be free from damage to the environment, habitats, and the livelihood of people. Thirdly, it's manufacturing and processing stages should be fair to workers and not produce harmful by-products and waste. The fourth aspect is how far it has had to travel and what amount of carbon emissions this has resulted in. And lastly, but by no means least, it should be able to be recycled, biodegrade in a natural environment, or able to be disposed of in a clean and cost-effective way.

Only when all of these five factors have been satisfied can we truly say the packaging is sustainable.

But we don't live in a perfect world and sometimes we are forced to make decisions. In truth, properly sustainable packaging is quite difficult to find, and you'll likely pay higher prices for it. Let's take paper for instance, most people would hail paper as a sustainable material. However, it falls down massively in the paper production stages where it racks up a massive carbon footprint and its chemical waste is having adverse effects on water environments. In fact, one of the widely cited contributing elements to the toxicity issues in the Baltic Sea are the paper mills on its west coast.

So, we have to make informed decisions. And those decisions are based on what you think are the most critical elements of the sustainable packaging combinations. Below we'll unpack more of the different types of sustainable packaging and what you need to look out for.

The four main categories of sustainable packaging

There are four main categories to consider when we are talking about sustainable packaging. It's important to understand each category and how they help the environment, but it's equally important to understand the trade-offs as well. Sometimes a recyclable material is not sustainably sourced, and some biodegradable packaging isn't able to be recycled. So, let's take a deeper look.

The four main categories of sustainable packaging are:

  1. Recyclable packaging

  2. Packaging containing recycled material

  3. Biodegradable packaging

  4. Sustainably sourced packaging

What is recyclable packaging?

Recyclable packaging is packaging that can be easily broken down into its raw material form. Common recyclable packaging types are cardboard boxes, plastic bags, paper & plastic void fill, pallet wrap, and mailing bags. During the recycling process the packaging is broken down into a reusable form and sent back to processing plants to be remade into new products.

Recycling is one of the best methods of sustainable packaging to focus on. Not only does it remove the danger of packaging becoming waste, it also reduces the need for using raw materials. But some materials that are able to be recycled are more difficult than others, and it's difficult to tell them apart.

Recyclable Cardboard: most paper and cardboard is recyclable, it's a commonly known fact that paper goes into the recycling bin and pretty much all of it will find its way into a recycling process to reappear back as recycled paper or cardboard products. But there are exceptions, take a look at how to test if cardboard is recyclable on our recent blog post.

Recyclable Plastics: plastic is a minefield for recycling, there are so many different types that are difficult for many of us to tell apart. That's why the recycling symbol on plastic bottles and trays are so useful. There are many different types of recyclable plastic, you can read up on which plastics are recyclable on one of our other blog posts, but here we'll list a few of the most common packaging products and let you know if you can recycle them.

Easily recyclable plastic packaging:

  • Air Pillows that are used for void filling.

  • Poly bags are almost all recyclable, the ones that may not be are retail display bags.

  • Pallet wrap is easily recyclable.

  • Mailing bags are easily recyclable.

Not easily recyclable plastic packaging:

  • Bubble Air Packs are a bit questionable as made from different materials.

  • Retail display bags that clothing is often packed in and flower wrap

  • Jiffy bags can't be recycled easily unless you can tear out the plastic bubble wrap on the inside.

  • Strapping is a bit questionable as there are different types.

  • Plastic tape is not recyclable.

Reusable Packaging: Packaging that can be reused is also recyclable packaging as it can be used for something else other than its primary use. Boxes that can be used to return items, or used as storage boxes are good ideas for reusable packaging.

What is Recycled Packaging?

Recycled packaging is different from recyclable packaging. Recycled packaging is packaging containing recycled material that has already gone through the recycling process, or packaging that is being used for something else as well as its primary use. Recycled paper packaging is often identified by a recycled certification logo and recycled plastic by the recycled content logo.

There are many types of cardboard and plastic packaging that contain recycled material, some as much as 100%! Recycled plastic packaging has recently hit the spot light with the new plastic packaging tax that is coming into force in the UK during 2022 (read about how to dodge the plastic packaging tax on another blog post), so let's take a look at some examples.

100% recycled cardboard packaging: Yes it's a thing, you can buy cardboard boxes and cardboard packaging that is 100% recycled (except for the glue that is). 100% recycled cardboard boxes are made completely from recycled paper fibres, and you can even get an controlled wood certification on the recycled material to prove it.

Recycled mix cardboard packaging: Most cardboard packaging has some recycled content in it, it varies a lot but your supplier should be able to let you know what percentage of the material is recycled.

100% Recycled Plastic Packaging: 100% recycled plastic is a bit mucky and grainy and really only good enough for low quality coloured films. That said, our popular opaque mailing bags are made from recycled plastic, and they work perfectly. New technologies are making fully recycled plastic quality better all the time so better films are emerging constantly.

Mixed Recycled Plastic Packaging: Much of the plastic we use in our packaging has a level of recycled content. This is often manufacturing waste that is the same grade as the film being produced, so clarity and quality are not compromised in the slightest.

What is Biodegradable Packaging?

Biodegradable packaging is packaging that will biodegrade into the environment by means of a biological process whereby microorganisms break down the material into the environment. Biodegrading is specifically a biological process, not just an oxo-degradation, the microbial action will break the plastic down into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass which is inert and non-harmful to the environment.

However, biodegrading is not just degrading, the two are very different and are often confused in the packaging sector. In fact some companies selling biodegradable packaging don't even know the difference themselves, leading to misuse of the word biodegradable and many packaging materials sold as biodegradable which are in fact not biodegradable at all!

The most common biodegradable packaging by far is paper and cardboard. As it is made from pulp wood the fibres are 100% natural and will easily rot in the presence of moisture. Although there are many biodegradable plastics available in the form of oil based plastics with additives and bioplastics that are made from plant starch, their usefulness in addressing the plastic problem is not that straightforward as outlined in the section below.

Busting common myths around Biodegradable Plastic

There are many myths out there surrounding biodegradable packaging, and some circulated by the very people selling the products themselves, that are simply not true. Here's a few of the common ones, and the myths fact checked by authoritative sources.

OXO degradable Plastic is NOT Biodegradable: This is one of the most blatant myths out there on the internet which simply isn't true. People think that because it breaks down into small flakes it must be biodegradable. And it's even spread by suppliers of OXO degradable plastics. Well here's the deal, it just breaks up that's all. Instead of one sheet of plastic you have lots of little sheets of plastic and tiny fragments. Here's the proof and an explanation of why oxo degradable plastic is not biodegradable. Don't get me wrong, in one sense it does play a role in reducing the plastic problems in the world. If the plastic broke up in the sea water it wouldn't be harmful to wildlife as waste. But it would still be there, just in little pieces instead of big pieces.

Biodegradable Plastic is NOT the answer to the plastic problem: It's a common thought that biodegradable plastic is eco friendly and yes in one sense that is true, but it's not the end of the story. The problem with biodegradable plastic is that it biodegrades in certain conditions. Most compostable plastics need an industrial composting facility to maintain a steady high temperature and ideal conditions for biodegrading. So that's ok if it ends up in one of the few biodegrading facilities in the UK, but what if it doesn't? The likelihood of it making it to one of the biodegrading facilities is also very small, all plastic is filtered out of the material going to these facilities en masse, for a plastic bag to get in there someone would have to pick it up out of the mess of rejected waste and read the print that says it is biodegradable, walk back to the composting skip and pop it in. Do you think that is going to happen on the sort of scale it needs to?...No neither do I. That said, they do break down quicker into the environment than a normal plastic bag so there is some benefit. Here's your authoritative source on biodegrading plastic.

You CAN recycle biodegradable and oxo-degradable plastics: Many sources will tell you that biodegradable and oxo degradable plastics can't be recycled. Their argument is that it contaminates the recycled plastic and the degrading elements then are mixed into many different products. While this is true, the reality is that it takes a considerable dose of the degrading additive to be added to plastics to enable them to break down. This means that even if a quarter of all the plastic that is produced had a degradable additive, the total amount of additive in the recycled plastic would be a quarter of the recommended additive levels. In other words, the additive wouldn't work even if it was there. And what's the chance of a quarter of the world's plastic production having a degrading additive? Pretty much zilch.

Sustainably Sourced Packaging

Sustainably sourced packaging is packaging that has been sourced from renewable raw materials, and also harvested in a sustainable way. We also include sustainable production in this too as many raw material processing plants carry very large cost to the environment in carbon footprint and local pollution.

When we look for sustainably sourced packaging, we are looking for packaging made from raw materials that are renewable like trees, plants, and recycled materials. However, these raw materials can also be harvested in an uncontrolled way which can ruin local environments. That's why we look for packaging materials that are made from controlled wood certified raw materials, ensuring that forests the paper pulp is harvested from are operating in a controlled way. Controlled wood certification bodies control not just the cutting down of the forests but also impacts on local communities, wildlife habitats, and the surrounding environment.

Many plastic packaging products use oil based plastics which are a non renewable source, however, if we look into the alternatives of bioplastics that are made from starch, they too don't rank too highly on the sustainably sourced graph. The problem with bioplastics is that if you take the full lifecycle from the growing stages, then through production, it is very chemical heavy. These chemicals create their own problems and we can't say that bioplastics are without their cost to the environment.

So, what is the answer? Well, there are advances in bioplastics manufacturing going on all the time and we are starting to see much cleaner manufacturing processes. As time goes on, we can expect this to improve and bioplastics will become a viable solution to our plastic problem.

Is paper bad for the environment?

Rolling back 30 years there was considerable alarm at the ecological impact of paper manufacturing on the local environments and carbon emissions. That alarm has been growing over the years until things started to be done about it in the 1990's. Paper manufacturing uses a considerable amount of energy, water, and chemicals, and the uncontrolled usage and disposal of these has resulted in some very serious consequences. It is also true that paper creates several times more carbon emissions in production than plastic does and remains one of the highest carbon footprint packaging materials. However, that said things have moved a long way very quickly and with paper mills under constant pressure from governments and consumers there have been many technological advances that have helped tremendously. In particular the ISO 14001 environmental management standards have enabled customers to check paper mills that are committed to producing their paper in a sustainable way.

While historically paper mills have contributed large scale damage to the environment you can rest assured that most cardboard packaging manufactured in the UK is considerably less likely to have damaged the environment in the same way. Concern still arises over far eastern imports though where paper production is not regulated like it needs to be.

How do I choose Eco Friendly Packaging?

Choosing eco friendly packaging is quite tricky, your head is probably spinning trying to process all the information I've already given you! With bioplastics and paper not as sustainable as we thought they were, and biodegradable plastic probably not biodegrading anyway because it doesn't get discarded in the correct way, it's all a bit of a minefield. But here's a simple breakdown of all that we discussed and what you need to look out for when buying eco friendly packaging.

When choosing eco friendly packaging made from paper or cardboard, pay specific attention to the following points:

  1. Does it have Controlled Wood certification? Controlled wood certification ensures that the paper has been grown and harvested in protected forests and processed in a sustainable way.

  2. What percentage is recycled fibre? High levels of recycled fibre in the paper or cardboard means less raw materials have been used. Recycling paper is far more sustainable than harvesting new trees.

  3. Has the raw material been processed under ISO 14001? The environmental standard ISO 14001 ensures the paper has been produced to higher environmental standards.

  4. Has it been produced in the UK? UK produced packaging generally means it has a lower carbon footprint because of less transport.

When choosing eco friendly packaging made from plastic, pay specific attention to the following points:

  1. What level of recycled plastic does it contain? Recycling plastic is the best solution we currently have to the plastic problem, if you can use packaging with a high level of recycled content it means you are using less non renewable raw material.

  2. Can it be recycled easily? Check the type of plastic the packaging is made from and make sure it can be easily recycled.

  3. Is it biodegradable? Don't be too worried about the plastic being biodegradable, it's a bit of a gimmick. Chances are it won't reach a biodegrading facility anyway and it needs ideal composting environments to break down naturally. It'll most likely still be floating in the oceans for years.

  4. Is it made from starch-based bioplastic? Bioplastics are the better of the biodegradable plastic options for biodegrading but it still has a detrimental impact on the environment in its growing and production stages. Look for bioplastic that is made from by-products and waste rather than the actual crop itself. Again, ISO 14001 would be good to see.

So, that's my summing up of sustainable packaging. It's a bit complicated but one thing is for sure, if we all keep asking the sustainability questions, better technologies and innovative solutions to the waste packaging problem will continue to be developed.

What Packaging is Sustainable?
Glenn Izard 26 July, 2021
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