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Understanding the Basics of Sustainable Packaging

Any packaging, whether it’s consumer-ready boxes for the shelf or function-first B2B wrap for shipping stock, has an impact on the planet. Materials used to make packaging, from plastic laminate to the inks used to brand boxes and bags, all make their mark on the environment through factors like carbon footprint, sourcing and transportation, and energy consumption.
Our planet is bowing under the pressure of fast-paced packaging production. The EU alone generated 188.7kg of packaging waste per person in 2021. Changing how packaging production is approached is vital to protect our planet for future generations.
Sustainable packaging puts the environment and communities first to minimise the negative impact we have when selling products to consumers. Recycling materials is at the heart of sustainable packaging principles, which ensure that we mindfully take what we need to produce packaging and return as much packaging waste as possible to the sustainable cycle, reducing waste in landfills as much as we can.
Packaging design agencies have a crucial power as part of the packaging supply chain to improve awareness and empower sustainable methods and principles. Let’s take a dive into the fundamentals of sustainable packaging design. 
12 min read
11 January 2024
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The Impact of Unsustainable Packaging Production

There’s one particular infamous culprit in the packaging waste problem—plastic. Non-biodegradable plastic breaks down into microplastics that remain in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Whilst it does not biodegrade, it can be found littering the environment, causing harm to animal and plant life and releasing toxic chemicals into the earth and water. When incinerated, plastic emits harmful chemicals like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and is responsible for contributing significant volumes of greenhouse gases that affect climate change.

Due to its hygienic qualities (being disposable), non-porous qualities that retain moisture and freshness, and low-cost production, plastic is a too-popular material choice for packaging across all industries. UK households together dispose of 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging per year (66 pieces per household per week).

The only environmentally conscious way to deal with plastic waste is through recycling. But in the UK, that type of plastic waste management accounts for just 12%, with the majority (46%) being incinerated.

Plastic treatment methods in the UK

Image source: statista.com

Unrecyclable packaging waste causes myriad problems in the environment. Waste incineration and the use of landfill sites release carbon dioxide and methane gases into the atmosphere, causing air pollution that is harmful to people and wildlife, and contributing to a packaging carbon footprint that affects climate change. Birdlife and sealife that swallow plastics or become tangled in them can be injured and killed. In one study, 40% of Laysan albatross chicks die from plastic ingestion before even having the chance to fly the nest. Even when physical plastic material is not the cause of harm, toxins found in plastic leak into the water when plastic waste finds its way to the sea.

When packaging waste cannot be recycled or composted, it is incinerated, emitting greenhouse gases, or sent to landfills. Globally, 2.12 billion tonnes of waste go to landfills yearly, contributing to groundwater pollution, air pollution, reduced soil fertility, and the loss of up to 300 species per hectare.

Choice of material is the lynchpin in sustainable packaging production. If we choose materials that can be reused and safely returned to nature, we’re on the way to sidestepping all of these problems.

Eco-Friendly Materials in Packaging

Starting at the very foundation of sustainability, what materials should we use? The first thing that springs to mind about material sustainability might be where they come from—are they being ethically sourced? Are they being synthetically created in a way that pumps harmful by-products into the environment?

All these concerns are valid, and the ways material choice impacts the planet are myriad, including:

  • Resource depletion

  • Water usage

  • Local communities

  • Biodiversity impact

  • Transportation impact

  • Workers’ rights, safety, and quality of life

Fundamentally, sustainable materials should be biodegradable, recyclable, or made from renewable or repurposed resources. Selecting materials from suppliers trusted to support ethically sustainable practices means you can be sure they come to you in the least ecologically harmful way possible.

What is sustainable packaging made from?

Choosing the right packaging materials will significantly reduce your carbon footprint as a designer, supplier, or manufacturer. Sustainable materials can be reused, recycled, or broken down and returned to the environment safely. Here’s a list of the best sustainable packaging materials to look for.

Paper Pulp and Corrugated Cardboard

Paper pulp is a gooey material made from wood fibres from recycled paper products. Paper pulp can be remoulded to form new products; however, each time it is remoulded, the wood fibres become shorter, so the product's structural integrity decreases. The lifetime of paper pulp can be extended by adding fresh wood fibres.

Paper pulp is often used to create corrugated cardboard. This well-known packaging material is 100% recyclable and is highly resistant to crushing and tearing, making it a popular material for transporting products.

Kraft Paper

Made from paper pulp and chemically treated, kraft paper is resistant to tears, making it a durable packaging material. Kraft paper can be made from a broader variety of trees than most paper pulps. Kraft paper can be reused several times thanks to its durability. The chemicals used to make kraft paper do not affect recycling, meaning the material can go back into the production cycle easily.

Compostable PLA

Compostible pla products

Image source: news.vegware.com

This industrially compostable bioplastic is made from plant sugars (cornstarch, cassava, sugar cane, carrot, etc), meaning it breaks down leaving no harmful chemicals and does not require incineration like regular plastic. Compostable PLA is often used as a substitute for styrofoam and plastic packaging. Compostable packaging labelled as such should break down within 180 in a home compost bin or 90 days in a commercial facility.

Mushroom

Mushroom packaging materials are actually made from processed agricultural waste held together by mushroom roots (mycelium). Mushroom packaging is highly sustainable, employing compostable waste as the bulk of the packaging. Ikea uses mushroom packaging to ship many of its products, a significant step to lowering its carbon footprint.

Seaweed

Seaweed packaging

Image source: techxplore.com

Abundantly available, fibre-rich seaweed can be grown in either fresh or salt water with the need for few resources. Seaweed contains agar, a binding agent that can be used to mould agricultural waste similarly to mushroom roots. Seaweed can also be used on its own and even consumed after use, making it a novel packaging choice for the food products of the future. Additionally, seaweed packaging is non-toxic, strong, odourless, and will not release chemicals into packaged food items.

Plastic

How has plastic found it’s way onto the list?! Some plastics are more sustainable than others. PET and HDPE plastics can be recycled, broken down, and used as raw materials to make new products. While materials like paper and cardboard retain their quality for a long time, the polymer chains in plastic are broken down, meaning the quality of the plastic degrades each time it’s used and must be sent to landfills or incinerated after some time. So, it’s still best to avoid plastic wherever possible.

How to Identify Sustainable Materials Suppliers

In the packaging design industry, brands like Noramble must be able to identify sustainable packaging suppliers if they want to make a difference. Sustainable material certifications and standards are some of the best trust signals demonstrating responsibility and commitment to the cause, holding businesses and organisations accountable for their environmental impact.

Certification

Details

ISO 14001

Specifies the supplier meets requirements for effective environmental management systems.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

Indicates the supplier sources paper and wood-based materials from responsibly managed forests.

Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)

Indicates the supplier sources wood from responsibly managed forests.

EU Ecolabel

Ensures the supplier uses products that meet high environmental standards along their lifecycle.

Carbon Trust Standard

Indicates the supplier takes measures to reduce its carbon footprint and work towards carbon footprint targets.

Green Seal

Denotes the supplier’s products meet stringent science-based environmental standards.

Recycled Content Certification

Signifies and specifies the percentage of a product that is recycled.

Cradle to Cradle Certified™

Demonstrates the supplier’s commitment to a globally recognised standard that supports circular economy (returning materials to the production cycle).

Reducing Waste in Design

When designing packaging to reduce waste, we use the five principles of zero waste for guidance:

  1. Refuse: there are materials and processes we should refuse to use to avoid harmful choices, such as the use of plastic when there’s a more sustainable alternative.

  2. Reduce: using only what we need to without wasteful and excessive use of material will help us keep waste down.

  3. Reuse: seeking out recycled materials and repurposing used materials means we’re working with what’s already in the production cycle and not creating new materials that add to the volume of packaging created.

  4. Recycle: ensuring what we design can be put back into the production cycle means we avoid creating waste that goes to landfills or is incinerated, and supports cradle-to-cradle design.

  5. Compost: focusing on packaging materials that are biodegradable ensure we can safely return what we use to nature.

Reducing waste in packaging design involves taking intelligent steps that marry form and function with sustainability from the very seed of the concept. In this way, we prioritise eco-friendly material choices, encouraging reuse and recycling (which minimises waste production) while creating something that ticks all the boxes for packaging design—from protecting and presenting the product to stacking up against competitor alternatives on the shelves.

We focus on the following elements to create a sustainable packaging design:

  • Employing minimalist design, which uses the least amount of packaging necessary to keep a product secure and protected, eliminating unnecessary layers and details.

  • Choosing sustainable materials early on, building the design around their qualities.

  • Designing with disassembly in mind so the packaging can be more easily separated and recycled, with components clearly marked with their individual recycling instructions.

  • Designing packaging that can be reused and repurposed. Adding instructions or indications to the design can make the product more unique and delightful as a whole.

  • Designing with ink, dye, and lamination in mind, reducing them where possible as these can complicate recycling.

  • Including clear educational messaging on the packaging as to how it should be recycled.

The Power of Consumer Demand for Sustainability

At the end of the day, we can only push green packaging as a choice so far. No matter how virtuous brands are, the major motivator for sustainable packaging is consumer demand: consumers' demand for better, environmentally safe products and rejecting those that threaten our planet’s future.

Increasing awareness of the availability of sustainably packaged products is key, and this is a visible packaging design trend. Already, an overwhelming majority of the population (95%) are very passionate about making better, more sustainable choices in the products they buy, and up to 70% of consumers said they’d be willing to pay more for sustainable packaging options. This indicates we need only to demonstrate the availability of sustainable choices to watch consumer uptake uptick.

Awareness of properly disposing of packaging is the second half of this issue, too, and design plays a critical role in this. If we can make disposal instructions clear and unmissable, the packaging is more likely to be deconstructed and recycled appropriately.

As we’ve stated, consumers appear to be willing to spend a little more for a sustainable product, which is key information, as green packaging usually contributes to a higher price. Increased pressure on, and encouragement of, consumers and businesses alike to make the right environmental choices is undoubtedly a contributing factor to this.

Ultimately, brand perception steers the ship regarding consumer choices in the future of sustainable packaging design. Consumers increasingly favour brands that put sustainability at the forefront of their value proposition, with an authentic and genuine drive to protect and repair the planet for new generations to come, something we can all relate to.

If the passion for sustainable packaging is something you share with us, get in touch. We’re Noramble, an independent packaging designer based in Manchester.

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