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Insights: Articles & Resources by Oliver Inc.


What Goes Into Sustainable Packaging Design?

Sustainable packaging takes a circular economy approach to design that prioritizes recyclability, reusability, and compostability when selecting packaging materials, and utilizes life cycle assessments.

    4 minute read

Nearly every industry is talking about how green their products are today, but how sustainable is your packaging? 

It’s an important question. With an abundance of so-called “greenwashing” within the market, consumers are becoming better and better at identifying and supporting brands that are legitimately making meaningful change. 

Fortunately, there are several things you can do with packaging design to ensure your business is genuinely sustainable and wields a real, positive ecological impact. 

Let’s dig in.

Packaging in the Circular Economy

The mantra “reduce, reuse, and recycle” gets close to the heart of circular packaging, but there’s a bit more that goes into this environmentally conscious approach to securing and protecting your products during storage and shipment. 

Circular packaging is about using renewable resources, adopting regenerative practices, and eliminating waste. With more traditional packaging approaches—sometimes referred to as part of the “linear economy”—it’s common to employ single-use plastics and generate a lot of landfill waste. Alternatively, circular packaging aims to find new uses or reuses for materials in a regenerative cycle that minimizes negative ecological impacts. 

While the linear economy can be described as “take, make, and waste,” the circular economy is defined by reusability, recyclability, and compostability. 

This means that truly sustainable packaging can be upcycled and used again for other purposes, recycled to minimize unnecessary extraction of natural resources, or derived from organic materials that can be composted after use (regenerating soil within ecosystems). 

By digging into circular packaging, your company not only minimizes its environmental impact, but amplifies your brand among the growing number of eco-friendly consumers eager to purchase from value-aligned retailers and businesses. 

Selecting the Right Materials

Whether for folding cartons or other secondary packaging, a wide variety of materials fall under the categories of recyclable, reusable, or compostable. 

For example, bagasse (a sugarcane byproduct) and casein (a protein derived from milk) are both compostable after use. So are cotton- and hemp-based packaging materials, depending on which type of paper filler is combined with them.

Naturally, paper-based folding cartons and packaging materials are generally recyclable, but not all paperboard is created equal. To be sustainable, be certain your materials are sourced from responsibly managed timber as certified by the nonprofits Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Don’t overlook post-consumer recycled paperboard, as well. When designed for recyclability, paper-based packaging can be used and reused several times. In fact, other sustainable packaging materials have even higher recyclability, including hemp, which can usually be recycled up to eight times. 

Sustainable Packaging Production

Sustainable packaging design isn’t just about reducing material waste, but minimizing carbon emissions. This involves switching to renewable energy sources when possible, including what powers your operations and that of third-party partners. Analyze every aspect of your supply chain to determine where you can reduce carbon emissions and opt for more green power alternatives.

The most straightforward way to lower greenhouse gas emissions is by localizing your supply chain. When goods, as well as packaging materials, have shorter distances to travel, your ecological impact diminishes. Consider working with a domestic printing and packaging partner as you envision a more sustainable packaging production model.

Disposal of Sustainable Packaging 

Many consumers are unsure what to do with packaging when looking to discard it. And they won’t likely know it’s sustainably manufactured unless you tell them. Be certain to educate consumers on how to properly dispose of packaging and let them in on the steps you’re taking to be more sustainable.

Share your sustainability story.

It’s imperative you include messaging on your packaging to help. For instance, your folding carton might say “this box is made from sustainably sourced timber” or “this paper is compostable.” 

In addition to informing consumers about green practices, it’s an opportunity to strengthen brand affinity. An increasing number of consumers are concerned with environmental practices. In fact, according to a 2020 report from global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 60-70% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. 

Do everything you can to make environmentally conscious disposal of packaging easier for consumers. That includes not only selecting the most green materials, but being intentional about the ways you educate consumers on sustainability. 

They’ll thank you for it with repeat purchases. 

Life Cycle Assessment of Your Packaging

Related to the analysis of your supply chain is a life cycle assessment of your packaging. This process includes evaluating ecological impacts, from raw material extraction and production to shipping and disposal after use. In circular economy terms, the goal is to close the loop, making as many shifts away from the linear economy as possible. 

Developed by the International Organization for Standardization, the life cycle assessment breaks down into five categories: raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, usage and retail, and waste disposal/recycling/composting/reuse. 

While it can sometimes take several months to complete a life cycle assessment (there’s a lot of data involved), it’s well worth the investment if your business is serious about its environmental responsibilities and wants to reinforce its reputation as a sustainable brand. 

By embracing the circular economy, you can become a leader in sustainable packaging design, garnering the loyalty of consumers equally eager to reduce their ecological impacts. It helps to be on the front end of a trend rather than trying to play catch-up with everybody else. 

Oliver is a manufacturer that specializes in sustainable packaging with industry-pioneering clients in health and beauty, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, cannabis, and consumer goods. Contact us today to learn more about how you can implement sustainable packaging design.

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