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Material Matters: How to Choose Sustainable Packaging Substances

Making sustainable choices in packaging design and production has never been so important, with 81% of consumers demanding greener options over plastic and other environmentally harmful materials. In a bid to please their customers by stepping up to the plate and transforming their operations to be more sustainable, brands are seeking recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options for packaging and shipping their products.
Innovations in sustainable packaging see exciting options coming into play. Intelligent reuse and repurposing make sustainable materials exciting, novel options that add value to brands and products even beyond their sustainability claims. Let’s look at sustainable packaging materials and how to choose them.
21 min read
08 January 2024
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Evaluating Material Options for Sustainability

When we think about choosing packaging materials for their sustainability, things like cardboard and paper come to mind, with plastic being the biggest offender against sustainable practices. But more and more sustainable, innovative materials are being created, some of which mimic plastic qualities very well.

As packaging designers, we want a wide selection of options for flexibility to meet the needs of different brands and products, and this is even more valuable when we’re designing packaging for sustainability, where we need to think carefully about the materials we choose.

How do we evaluate materials to determine their sustainability?

1. Where does it come from? Are the materials from renewable sources? Are they sourced ethically with consideration to the communities affected?

2. How much energy does it take to produce? What types of energy are used, and how energy-heavy is the material's creation process?

3. What’s the lifecycle of the material? More on this below: the lifecycle starts at the very beginning of collecting the raw materials and continues through the use and then disposal of the product.

4. Does it meet regulatory compliance and certifications? Sustainability certifications for packaging materials vouch via third-party assessment that they follow the environmental processes they claim to.

5. What will consumers think? How will the material be perceived by consumers? Will it add to the enticement of the product or deter use? Is it too expensive for consumers to consider worth spending money on? Consumer demand leads much of the drive for sustainable practices, so it’s important consumers are compelled to buy and use it.

Life Cycle Analysis of Packaging Materials

Assessing the lifecycle of a packaging material is key as this provides a fact-based, objective understanding of the product's environmental impact. This looks at the impact of the product on the environment through its entire lifecycle, from suppliers to processing and products to consumer use, disposal, and waste management. To understand a life cycle analysis, we need to know what we are measuring: the carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint is the measure of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by an entity (a business, organisation, product, community, etc.) A Carbon footprint is a globally recognised measurement, making it easy to compare how sustainable unrelated entities are. Factors that determine a carbon footprint include the processing of raw materials, the energy used to process them, water usage, distribution and transport necessary, and how consumers use the end product.

A lifecycle analysis or lifecycle assessment is the process used to measure the carbon footprint of packaging or any other item or entity. It encompasses four stages.

1. Goal Definition and Scope

Defining what is being measured is important to attain a precise measurement. This means defining the boundaries of the product being assessed. Is the entire lifecycle of the product being measured or just one element? Which processes in overall operations pertain to the product in question? What is the baseline measurement?

2. Inventory Analysis

At this stage, data is collected on the outputs and inputs of all measured steps. Raw materials, energy use, water consumption, how the product is used by consumers, maintenance and repair necessary, disposal, and waste management are all measured. Every element of the product's lifecycle is considered to determine the average profile of its output and inputs.

3. Impact Assessment

At this stage, the carbon footprint is defined. The data collected on resource use and emissions generated is classified according to its potential impacts and converted into its carbon equivalents. This reflects the global warming potential of each data metric in a comparable way and creates an overall measurement of the product’s carbon footprint.

4. Interpretation

Analysis following these results can reveal which components of the product's lifecycle are the highest contributors to its carbon footprint, helping to decide how to reduce it. Changes such as swapping out certain materials, changing processing methods, or even finding more local suppliers to reduce transportation emissions can significantly impact carbon footprint.

If you’re interested in conducting a lifecycle assessment to measure a carbon footprint, the International Standards Organisation offers two protocols to help guide this process:

Brands leading the way in sustainable materials

Sustainable packaging has been a hot topic for some years, aligning with a critical mission at the forefront of many brands’ USPs and values. Let’s look at ten examples of brands that have pioneered the sustainable space with new packaging design trends, inspiring others to follow suit with new and innovative approaches to reducing waste.

Notpla

Image source: notpla.com

1. Notpla

Specialising in plant-based materials, particularly seaweed, Notpla creates revolutionary packaging products that are biodegradable and edible; some even dissolve in water. Notpla offers an alternative to petrol-based coatings that do not break down, saying their materials break down “like fruit peel”.

Notpla’s packaging takes advantage of seaweed that is abundantly available with ‘near-magical properties’ including capturing carbon in the water it grows in to reduce its acidity.

Airmycelium

Image source: evocative.com

2. Ecovative

Evocative is pioneering a sustainable material that primarily uses mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms). The company claims its AirMycelium technology is capable of unsustainable products like plastic and leather with 100% mycelium.

The material made from robust mushroom root structures can replace styrofoam moulded packaging and single-use plastic packaging with material that is 100% compostable.

Mylo leather

Image source: boltthreads.com

3. Bolt Threads

Bolt Threads, a materials solutions innovator, is known for developing Mylo, a leather alternative made from highly sustainable materials and suited for fashion and luxury brands and health, wellness, and beauty products. Mylo is made from mycelium (mushroom root) and Microsilk, another product produced by Bolt Threads inspired by spider silk.

Bolt Threads created Mylo in a vertical farming facility powered by 100% renewable energy. The result is a soft, supple imitation leather that can be used for high-end packaging and unboxing experiences.

Algopack flower pots

Image source: aglopack.com

4. Algopack

Algopack has developed biodegradable plastic using brown algae as a sustainable alternative to traditional, petrol-based plastic. Algopack aspires to totally or partially replace plastic production with its algae alternative, a venture which captures 960kg of CO2 per tonne and consumes no water as part of its processing.

The adaptable material can be used to replace rigid, single-use plastic products and can biodegrade in 10 weeks.

Newlight aircarbon

Image source: newlight.com

Newlight aircarbon

5. Newlight

Newlight’s mission to turn greenhouse gases into high-value materials takes form in its product AirCarbon. PHB is a naturally occurring polymer made by almost all living organisms. Newlight has harnessed PHB as AirCarbon, a substitute for synthetic plastic that breaks down in compost.

AirCarbon is a carbon-negative material when made with renewable energy.

Biofase

Image source: biofase.eu

6. Biofase

Biofase has developed an innovative technology to manufacture biodegradable packaging products from avocado pits. This use of the normally discarded avocado pit provides a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastic for items like single-use cutlery and straws.

Biofase is responsible for the first-ever renewable and sustainable straws, a significant development for the food and drink industry, and bodes well for packaging products.

TIPA bag

Image source: tipa-corp.com

7. TIPA

TIPA Corp’s sustainable material mimics the properties of traditional plastic, making it a good substitute for unsustainable materials used for packaging fresh produce, dry food, baked goods, and even fashion items.

The versatile plastic substitute solutions can be seamlessly used with industrial machinery and manufacturing processes, making them ideal for packaging.

Paptic bag

Image source: paptic.com

8. Paptic

Another plastic substitute solution, Paptic’s flagship product, is a material made as an alternative to plastic bags. The renewable, reusable, and recyclable material is made from wood fibres.

Paptic is designed for its strength, durability, and “positively distinguished haptic properties”. It outperforms paper and has a smaller impact on the environment than cotton.

Pollastic bags

Image source: betterpackaging.co

9. The Better Packaging Co.

The Better Packaging Company specialises in compostable courier bags from plant-based materials, including cornstarch, PLA made from waste corn and other plants, and PBTA made from petroleum, specifically engineering to biodegrade faster.

Another of the brand’s ranges, Pollast!c, is made from recycled ocean-bound plastic collected from coastal communities in Southeast Asia.

Elopack pure pak

Image source: elopack.com

Known for specialising in packaging for liquids in the food and drink industry, Elopack creates sustainable, paper-based cartons to reduce carbon emissions. Elopack’s Pure-Pak® carton solution is made with wood fibres primarily from sustainable and controlled forestry.

Are you seeking packaging solutions for a product? Talk to Normable about how you can get involved in the fight to save and protect our environment with sustainable packaging options.

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