Sustainable packaging is becoming a priority, for both consumers and businesses. It’s an exciting time in the world of packaging, as new and improved ways of creating sustainable and circular packing options are being created or becoming more accessible to small businesses.
In this post we’ll go through all the different sustainable and eco-friendly options you could choose from to package your products. You’ll also find a few examples of where you can source each of the options mentioned, but this is by no means an extensive list.
What is sustainable packaging?
Sustainable packaging is packaging that reduces its environmental impact over time, by either leaving no trace (or very minimal traces) in the world after its use or its ability to be reused numerous times. There are 3 major ways in which packaging can be sustainable:
- through ingredients (especially using recycled or renewable materials)
- by minimising the production process or supply chain
- through its reusability
I’ve broken down all the types of packaging available into 4 categories, to make it easier to find what you’re looking for: outer packaging (for packaging your products during transportation), filling materials (which protect your products during transportation), product packaging (such as labels, that showcase your product), innovative packaging (new types of packaging coming to the market).
Compostable mailing bags
Best for: clothing and other soft items
Compostable packaging is usually made from plant-based materials such as corn, sugar cane and bamboo, or bio poly mailers which are made from starch (a vegetable bi-product). Compostable is the ability of a material to naturally decompose (break down) back into the earth without leaving any toxic residue behind. It’s important to note that for a material to truly be compostable, it should be able to fully decompose within 90 days in commercial composting conditions or within 180 days in a home compost.
Compostable mailing bags are great for soft items such as clothing, as they are not very protective for fragile items. However, they are waterproof and scratch resistant, which makes printing work very well, so you can fully display your branding on the outside of your packaging. You can also find bags that come with two adhesive strips, so it can be used twice before putting it in the compost bin.
Best for: fragile items such as jewellery and make-up
Corrugated boxes are made from corrugated (multiple layers of paperboard) cardboard, so they are very sturdy and rigid, but can be quite soft to the touch depending on the finish. When looking for an eco option, make sure they are not coated on the surface, as they will not be biodegradable anymore.
Because they are made from multiple layers, they can be used many times before they start to lose their shape and hold, and they can be recycled at the end of their life. Similar to the mailer bags, printing on these boxes works really well – so you can really bring your brand to life. Printing on the brown/kraft version of these can be a bit more tricky, as colours don’t come out as vibrant, so a stamp might work best for these.
Best for: smaller objects, clothing
Paper mailers (which look similar to a large envelope) are usually made from thick kraft paper, which is manufactured from wood pulp, including resinous pine trees which are usually left out of the regular paper manufacturing process. As with the corrugated boxes, they can be recycled and come in a variety of different shapes and thicknesses to suit your products.
You can also find alternatives that have paper cushioning, so more fragile items, such as jewellery, can be protected during transportation. The paper mailers are a more lightweight version of the corrugated boxes, so they can be more eco-friendly when it comes to transportation.
Best for: all types of paper-based packaging
If you’re looking to make your outer packaging more branded but don’t want to invest in fully branded boxes, paper tape is an excellent option. It comes in many sizes, so it can go over any type of mailer or box you have. Some companies (such as noissue) offer a reinforced version as well, which can offer even more protection for really heavy-duty items.
The paper tape can give your packaging a more natural look and it can be just as sturdy as the plastic version. They usually come in two varieties: self-adhesive or water activated (where the “inner” side has a plant-based adhesive that bonds with the box when wet). Because they are recyclable and biodegradable (some even fully compostable), they can be disposed of with the box/mailer itself.
Cornstarch packing peanuts
Best for: filling material
Cornstarch peanuts are a great alternative to bubble wrap to keep your products safe when travelling. They are made from natural materials derived from corn or maize, so they usually dissolve in water (which can be a fun activity for children) without polluting the water systems. You can find coloured peanuts (look for ones that are naturally coloured!) to add some branding to the packaging experience. It’s important to know that, because cornstarch packaging peanuts are made from corn by-products, they can compete with the human and animal food supply.
Best for: wrapping products
Honeycomb paper is shredded strips of paper that are folded in an accordion shape that helps cushion your products during transportation. They are created by cutting small grids into the paper to produce the same cushioning effect as bubble wrap but without the plastic. They are very flexible and lightweight, so it’s very protective for more fragile items, and it can be used to fill in any gaps between your products. It usually comes in a kraft brown colour, which can give your branding a more natural look and feel.
Best for: wrapping products, filling material
One of the most versatile packaging materials, kraft paper is usually made from recycled paper and can be re-used multiple times before being recycled or biodegraded. You can use it to wrap your products to add more protection (as a more sturdy alternative to tissue paper) or to fill in any gaps between products to keep items from bumping into each other during transportation.
As it has a natural brown colour, similar to the corrugated boxes mentioned above, printing on these can work well, however colour will not come out bright or vibrant. If you want a natural look yet still have some of your branding on the packaging, you can opt to stamp the paper instead, which only uses one colour of ink.
Best for: securing packaging
Natural twines are a natural alternative to ribbons and can add natural texture to your packaging. My two favourites are raffia and jute. Raffia is a palm straw native to the tropical regions of Africa, especially Madagascar, and it creates a straw-like material similar to ribbons. Jute is a vegetable plant used in making numerous types of fibres, including twine.
They both come in their natural brown colour or you can find naturally dyed versions to add more personality to your packaging experience. As they’re both fully natural products, they are completely biodegradable without leaving any toxins behind.
Best for: wrapping orders
Possibly the most commonly used filler material, tissue paper. It’s a very thin material, so while it might not the best for protecting fragile items, it’s great for filling in gaps or creating a very branded unboxing experience. You can find both white and coloured tissue papers, or you can design your own to bring your brand to life (such as those at noissue). I recommend using thicker paper (if possible), so that your customers can reuse the packaging after receiving their order from you – especially if you opted for the custom version.
Biodegradable air pillows
Best for: filling material
You’ve certainly seen plastic air pillows in packaging before, and in recent years biodegradable and recyclable ones are coming to the market and have become more accessible. They are very lightweight and can be re-used multiple times before they start to lose their shape. I encourage you to double-check they are fully biodegradable, as many “eco-friendly” ones that don’t biodegrade seem to sneak through sometimes.
Best for: paper products, clothing
Glassine is a smooth paper made from wood pulp from hardwood trees such as aspen, oak, birch and gum, so it’s fully recyclable and biodegradable. It has quite a unique translucent glossy finish that allows what’s inside it to show through. It’s important to note that currently all glassine is made with virgin paper pulp and the manufacturing process is quite resource intensive.
As a result of this process, glassine is pH neutral, waterproof and acid-free, making it ideal for packaging paper products or artwork. Due to its surface texture, it’s not very printer friendly, but paper stickers or stamps can work very well as a replacement.
Best for: food, beauty
Cellulose packaging is made from the cellulose harvested from plants (mainly wood, cotton or hemp). Given that it’s made from natural materials, it’s biodegradable and home compostable, despite its plastic-like appearance. It’s a see-through and moisture-resistant material, so it’s ideal for food packaging. You can find these either as small pouches to contain your products (such as those from eco-craft) or get them manufactured specifically for your product type and dimensions (such as NatureFlex), where you can have custom-designed packaging.
Best for: jewellery, clothing
There’s nothing more sustainable than packaging that can be reused indefinitely, such as muslin bags. They are made from hemp, organic or recycled cotton and even palm leaves, so they are biodegradable. They have a soft texture and can give your brand a really natural and organic look. You can screen-print or stamp the bags, to add your own branding and create a beautiful packaging experience for your customers.
Best for: labels, display cards
Seeded paper has really been growing in popularity over the last few years. It’s paper made from post-consumer materials (usually recycled cotton, paper or wood pulp) embedded with wildflower, herb and sometimes even vegetable seeds. Your customers can plant the paper, which will decompose, and seeds will germinate from them. It’s definitely a conversation starter and can also be used for thank you cards, loyalty cards or any other promotional materials you use.
Best for: custom packaging needs
Mushroom packaging is made from mycelium (the roots of mushrooms) and it was developed by a New York-based biotech start-up Ecovative. The raw material (a mixture of agricultural waste and mycelium) is moulded in any shape you want and then dried. It’s very low energy consumption and CO2 emitting, as well as helping cease food waste.
It’s a very lightweight yet sturdy material, so heavy items can be transported safely. Because it’s all natural, it’s fully compostable so it degrades naturally, even in a home composter. It’s a very customisable material which can give your customers an incredible and unique packaging experience.
Green cell foam
Best for: filling material
Options: Green cell foam
Green cell foam is naturally made from US-grown corn, so it dissolves in water and is fully compostable (including in a home compost). It’s a foam-like material that has shock and thermal protection, so it can be a great solution for heavy or temperature-sensitive products. As it’s similar to packing peanuts and light brown in colour, so it’s great for cushioning items during transportation.
Best for: custom packaging needs
Options: Paper foam
PaperFoam was invented in the Netherlands and is a compostable packaging material created through injection moulding. Similar to mushroom packaging, it’s a very lightweight yet sturdy material that can be used in protecting heavy items as well. Due to the manufacturing process, it’s a highly-customisable material that also comes in a wide range of colours and textures, so you can truly customise your packaging to fit with your own branding.
Best for: food
Seaweed packaging is made from agar (a gelatinous substance found in seaweeds and algae). If you’ve heard of agar-agar, which is used as a thickening agent in cooking, then you’ll be familiar with this. It’s not only made from renewable resources and biodegradable, but it’s also vegan-friendly. It can come in many forms (capsules, straws, poly bags etc), which has led to the creation of edible packaging such as the edible water bubble Ohoo!.
Reusable / upcycled packaging
Best for: all types of packaging
Options: already existing packaging
Why get new packaging when you can get creative and re-use packaging that’s already been produced and exists in the world. Or find ways for your packaging to be upcycled by your customers. Get creative with how your customers could use their packaging after they’re finished with their product/packaging, to give them a new life. Some ideas include turning cardboard boxes into children’s toys, their empty candle jar as a make-up brush holder or your beautifully designed kraft mailers into gift tags.
If you’re considering sustainable packaging…
Do your own research
Always ask your manufacturers or suppliers a few questions before you decide to invest in packaging from them. Sustainability is never black and white, and factors such as your location, where you ship your products to most often etc. come into play. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has an extensive library of resources on sustainable packaging, as well as what certifications certain brands and products have.
Include sustainability from the design stage
Sustainable design is designing packaging with the main purpose of doing as little harm to the environment as possible. Whether you design your own packaging or work with a professional packaging designer (like us), including sustainability from the design stage is the best place to start. Here at Kind and Ivy we take an environment-first approach to packaging, such as keeping packaging to a minimum and, where possible, using lighter weights and smaller boxes, designing with finishes that are kinder to the environment (such as embossing and debossing), as well as recommending vegetable inks and plant-based coatings to our clients.
Always check your local businesses
Yes, brands like Noissue are great at spreading the word about sustainable packaging and making it more accessible but don’t forget about your local businesses. You can check on Etsy what businesses around you are making seeded paper or search on Ecosia (your eco-friendly Google alternative) to find your closest manufacturers. Not only will you save on CO2 emissions from transportation (papers and cardboard can be quite heavy), but also you get to support a local small business – and likely save a lot on shipping costs too.
I hope this post gives you a clearer idea of all the options you have available to choose sustainable packaging that suits your business and budget best. Start with what you have now – the most sustainable option is to use up all the packaging you currently have stocked, then move on to something more sustainable when you need restocking.
If you are moving to a greener alternative for your product packaging, I’d love to hear about it, so tag me on Instagram @kindandivy.studio to celebrate together!