We all know beautiful packaging when we see it. It has a special look and feel that catches our eye and pulls us in. We buy it. We get it home. We unwrap it. We discover a superfluous layer of packaging, unnecessary wisps of tissue, or extra air – sometimes sealed in more plastic. And then the thought hits us – as good as this package looked on the store’s shelf, we know it’ll spend the majority of its ‘life cycle’ rotting in a landfill or floating in our oceans.
In my career as a sustainability-focused designer, realizations like this break my heart. I know there’s a more sustainable way forward. Sourcing, designing, utilizing, and living with packaging must have a minimal environmental impact and footprint, for today and tomorrow.
Sustainable practices aren’t niche anymore — they must be the standard. For many in the food and beverage industry, that concept can feel intimidating as a process and expense. How and where do you begin? How does my production process impact my ability to commit to sustainability? How much will it cost our bottom line?
Working through these questions and living in this new standard where sustainability is non-negotiable starts with how we choose to think about the process by which we make packaging decisions. This will become your sustainable strategy. It will be unique to you, your work, your consumers, and your impact; the overarching strategy should be the same – critical and mindful thinking every step of the way.
Here are five ways to activate your sustainable packaging strategy.
1 Ground Your Work In Expert Criteria
When coming up the curve on the how and why of sustainable packaging, there’s a great place to start – the Sustainable Packaging Coalition® (SPC). In addition to their many resources, case studies, and best practices, SPC has developed and refined eight criteria points that address packaging specifically. Their goal is simple: more sustainable packaging on the market.
The criteria include:
- It is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
- It meets market criteria for performance and cost;
- It is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
- It optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
- It is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
- It is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle;
- It is physically designed to optimize materials and energy;
- It is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles;
The criteria are both common sense as well as a call to think bigger and more intentionally about the process. It is that level of mindfulness that will serve as the through-line for this process.
2 Look For Ways To Reduce Waste
The most effective way to create sustainable packaging? Eliminate the waste that is created in the first place. It’s important to pay close attention to how packaging functions and how or what can be disposed of. Look at the entire supply chain, starting with where and how raw materials are sourced and the ways in which they are processed.
Here are several critical questions to consider when looking for opportunities to reduce waste:
- Can the packaging be smaller, lighter, or made from fewer materials?
- Can our new packaging be fully recycled?
- Can our new packaging be made out of 100% recycled content, such as post-consumer waste or post-consumer recycled?
- Can our new packaging be completely home or industrial compostable?
3 Design Backwards
In order to consider the full life cycle assessment (LCA) for a project or a package, our Mindful & Good team uses Cradle-to-Cradle design thinking. Through this process, we develop innovative and inventive approaches by specifying several criteria that are important to our sustainable strategy with clients: fewer materials, recycled and non-toxic elements, designed for reuse and the circular economy.
What that means is that our team thinks about how we can minimize packaging completely and select materials that are either recyclable or biodegradable. To do that strategically, we design backwards from the package’s final destination to package concepting – in that order.
One of the first questions we consider in thinking backwards is this: will it be compostable or put back into the recycling stream?
If compostable is an option, here are some packaging substrates that work:
- Paper: Paperboard, paper wrapper made from recycled and/or renewable materials
- Compostable Plastic: Plant-based plastic made of corn, seaweed, algae, wood cellulose, or sugarcane; AirCarbon, a new zero-waste plastic, is another option
- Other Compostable Materials: Mycelium (mushrooms), hemp, wheat, or bamboo
If compostable is not an option or will not work, we consider packaging options that are recyclable, such as:
- Paper: Paperboard, paper wrapper made from recycled and/or renewable materials
- Glass: Material(s) made from recycled glass
- Plastic: Material(s) made from recycled and/or renewable plastic
- Metal: Material(s) made with aluminum
4 Innovate & Label
Unfortunately, it’s no secret – standard plastic is still the “cheapest” when it comes to packaging. Despite best efforts, there are far too many businesses and industries that depend on it – from corporations to small and local. Even farmers package produce, such as berries, using plastic clamshells and plastic bags to keep costs down. Over 63% of municipal waste consists of plastic packaging, and just 35% of that gets recycled. Even far less is composted.
It is important to innovate with new packaging formats designed to improve recyclability and ones that use recycled content as much as possible. Completely compostable or low to zero waste is even better.
There are many new alternatives to standard plastics that are plant-based, compostable, and biodegradable which we’re big fans of along with paper pulp, tree-free paper and algae-based inks and plastics.
Regardless of the packaging substrate used, it is of the utmost importance to encourage consumers to buy more sustainable packaging. How so? It’s all in the label, quite literally. The label (both copy and visual) is an important place to educate and explain the packaging’s sustainable attributes and how to dispose of it. (Yes, even if it’s *gasp* plastic. Just make sure that plastic is made from post consumer recycled material as much as possible.)
Iconography and/or certifications like How2Recycle can be powerful ways to tell the story of the package itself, what it is made out of, and if it can be composted at home, composted in an industrial facility, or recycled are key.
5 There’s No Better Time Than Now
The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a new approach to the planet and values-based decision-making. It opened consumers’ eyes to how, when, and why we invest time, energy, attention, and money into causes that matter to us today and for generations to come. For many people, reducing their environmental footprint came high on the list. McKinsey research found that households used lockdown as an opportunity to change their behavior and reduce pollution – with 60% going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging.
There is hope. This is the right time to begin these conversations with your teams, partners, and consumers. Today’s consumer is growing more aware of packaging’s environmental footprint. This rising public awareness is sparking responses from legislators around the world. If there’s any place to start though, it’s how we bring the topic of sustainable packaging to our consumers – how we begin the conversation, educate on the process, and make affordable and accessible options available.
We only have one livable planet, every person and company has to play a part in preserving it, to be mindful and good stewards for the next generation.
Looking for Sustainable Packaging Design? Contact us.
Sustainable Packaging Suppliers & Resources
Better Packaging Mailers, envelopes, labels, shipping supplies & more
EcoEnclose Custom mailers, boxes, labels & more
Elk Packaging Custom pouches, wrappers & more
Epac Flexible Packaging Custom pouches, bags & more
Green Cell Foam Packaging material made from US-grown corn
Guacamole Airplane Open-source database of sustainable packaging suppliers
Lumi Mailers, boxes, tape & more
Mohawk Renewal & Mohawk Loop Paper stocks for packaging & print materials
Mushroom Packaging Packaging material made from hemp hurd and mycelium
Neenah Conservation & Neenah Environment Paper stocks for packaging & print materials
Noissue Boxes, bags, mailers, tissue, tape, stickers, & more
Pure Labels Compostable stickers & labels
Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) Membership-based collaborative including sustainable packaging resources and guidance
Sway Seaweed-based flexible packaging
Waste Not Open-source database of sustainable suppliers
This article was originally written and published for our friends at Foodbevy