In the past, implementing eco-friendly initiatives in the business world was viewed as a progressive move conducted by forward-thinking businesses. Today, however, engaging in sustainable practices is no longer an option. It’s a necessity.
Not only is the demand for sustainable packaging at an all-time high, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact they have on the environment. Simply put, consumers prefer to do business with brands that prioritise sustainability. Read on as we explore whether these four common packaging materials are as sustainable as they claim to be.
1. Biodegradable plastics
Traditional, single-use plastics can take centuries to decompose, leading to significant environmental damage. Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, break down naturally over time. These plastics can be made from a variety of materials, including plant-based sources or potato starch.
Biodegradable plastics are a great option for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint and offer a more eco-friendly option for their customers. As they break down, they release fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and leave behind fewer harmful chemicals that can pollute the environment. Biodegradable plastics can be used in a variety of products, such as packaging for food and other industries, as well as disposable cutlery and shopping bags.
But let’s take a closer look into the benefits of biodegradable plastic and its potential downfalls.
- Reduced carbon footprint: Biodegradable plastics help in reducing the carbon footprint compared to traditional plastics. During the degradation process, they release fewer greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. This contributes to mitigating climate change and lowering overall emissions.
- Environmental safety: When biodegradable plastics break down, they leave behind fewer harmful chemicals that can pollute the environment. Traditional plastics, on the other hand, can release toxic substances during degradation or when they enter ecosystems as litter. Biodegradable plastics can also help to reduce the risk of soil and water contamination, protecting wildlife and preserving natural habitats.
- Versatility: Biodegradable plastics offer a wide range of applications and can be used in various products. They can be formulated to meet different requirements, making them suitable for food packaging, disposable cutlery, shopping bags, agricultural films, and more. Their versatility allows for the use of sustainable materials in diverse industries, contributing to a greener and more sustainable economy.
- Limited availability: Currently, the range of biodegradable plastics available on the market is relatively limited compared to traditional plastics. This limitation arises from the challenges in developing cost-effective and high-performing biodegradable materials. However, ongoing research and technological advancements are continuously expanding the options and improving the performance of biodegradable plastics. It’s expected that with further development, more diverse and functional biodegradable alternatives will become available in the future.
- Proper disposal: Biodegradable plastics require specific disposal methods to ensure efficient degradation. While they break down more readily than traditional plastics, they still require certain conditions, such as exposure to oxygen, moisture, and appropriate temperature to degrade properly. If biodegradable plastics are not disposed of correctly, such as being sent to landfill or mixed with non-biodegradable waste, their ability to break down efficiently can be hindered. This poses a challenge in regions where proper waste management infrastructure and education about biodegradable plastics may be lacking. Adequate waste management systems and consumer awareness are essential to maximize the environmental benefits of biodegradable plastics and minimise any potential drawbacks.
2. Recycled or upcycled plastics
Recycled or upcycled plastics refer to materials that are made from recycled plastic waste. Rather than being discarded and ending up in a landfill or the ocean, plastic waste is collected and processed into new products.
Let’s explore how sustainable recycled and upcycled plastics really are.
- Plastic waste reduction: Utilising recycled or upcycled plastics helps in reducing the amount of plastic waste in the environment. By diverting plastic waste from landfills and incineration, recycled plastics contribute to mitigating the harmful effects of plastic pollution. This helps protect ecosystems, wildlife, and human health.
- Resource conservation: Recycling plastic conserves energy and resources that would otherwise be used to produce new plastic products. The recycling process involves melting down plastic waste and reforming it into new products, reducing the need for virgin plastic production. This results in reduced reliance on fossil fuels, decreased extraction of raw materials, and lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production.
- Enhanced efficiency: The use of recycled plastics, such as sustainable stretch-wrap solutions containing recycled content like MWrap, can minimise waste and increase overall productivity for businesses. By utilising recycled materials, companies can align their operations with sustainability goals, reduce waste generation, and improve efficiency in packaging and logistics processes.
- Quality limitations: Recycled plastics may have lower quality compared to virgin plastics. The recycling process can result in a loss of certain properties or introduce impurities, making recycled plastics less suitable for applications that require specific characteristics such as strength, durability, or clarity. However, advancements in recycling technologies and sorting processes are constantly improving the quality of recycled plastics, making them more versatile and applicable to a broader range of products. In doubt, ask your supplier how it compares to a non-recycled version in terms of performance. For example, Swiftpak’s MWrap performs the same with or without the recycled content.
- Limited recycling infrastructure: The availability and accessibility of recycling facilities may vary across regions, which can impact the feasibility and efficiency of plastic recycling. In some areas, the lack of sufficient recycling infrastructure or collection systems may hinder the proper sorting and processing of plastic waste. This can lead to lower recycling rates and a missed opportunity to maximise the potential of recycled plastics. Developing robust recycling systems and promoting investments in recycling infrastructure are crucial to overcoming these limitations and expanding the benefits of plastic recycling on a global scale.
3. Paper-based packaging
Paper-based packaging refers to materials that are made primarily from paper fibres. These materials can include cardboard boxes, kraft paper, and moulded pulp packaging.
Examples of commonly used paper-based packaging products include:
- Corrugated boxes - These are the most common type of paper-based packaging product and are widely used across all industries. Corrugated boxes are made from multiple layers of paper, which provides strength and durability for transporting goods.
- Honeycomb paper wrap – Also known as paper-based bubble wrap, Honeycomb paper wrap is a sustainable alternative to traditional plastic bubble wrap.
- Paper void fill - Used to fill empty spaces and cushion products during shipment, paper void fill comes in various forms. Sheets of recyclable paper can be crumpled to create sturdy cushioning, or thin strips of paper can be shredded down for lightweight protection.
So, how about the pros and cons of paper-based packaging?
- Biodegradability and recyclability: Paper-based packaging offers the advantage of being biodegradable and recyclable. It naturally breaks down over time when disposed of, reducing waste and the need for landfill space. Alternatively, paper-based packaging can be recycled into new paper products, extending its lifecycle, and reducing the demand for virgin materials. This promotes a circular economy and minimises the environmental impact associated with packaging waste.
- Renewable materials: Paper-based packaging can be made from sustainably harvested trees or agricultural waste fibres. By using renewable resources, such as responsibly managed forests or agricultural by-products, paper-based packaging supports sustainable forestry practices and reduces reliance on finite resources. This contributes to the conservation of biodiversity, soil health, and ecosystems while ensuring the availability of materials for future generations. Enquire with your supplier if your cardboard is FSC-certified.
- Resource-intensive production: The manufacturing process for paper-based packaging requires large amounts of water, energy, and chemicals. The pulping and papermaking processes involve water consumption and energy-intensive operations, including chemical treatments and drying. To mitigate these concerns, sustainable production practices, such as efficient water and energy management, use of renewable energy sources, and optimisation of chemical usage, are crucial in minimising the environmental impact of paper-based packaging.
- Deforestation concerns: The increased demand for paper-based packaging materials can contribute to deforestation and habitat loss if not sourced responsibly. Irresponsible logging practices can lead to ecosystem destruction, loss of biodiversity, and soil erosion. Fortunately, programs like Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification ensure that the majority of paper-based packaging materials come from responsibly managed forests, promote reforestation, and protect sensitive ecosystems. This helps balance the need between renewable materials and conserving the environment.
4. Mushroom packaging
Mushroom packaging, also known as mycelium packaging, is a type of biodegradable packaging that is made from the root-like structure of mushrooms called mycelium. It is a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to traditional packaging materials such as Styrofoam and other petroleum-based plastics.
Mushroom packaging is created by combining mycelium with agricultural waste such as corn husks, straw, or sawdust. The mixture is then poured into moulds to create packaging products such as protective packaging inserts, trays, and other packaging solutions.
The pros and cons for mushroom packaging, include:
- Biodegradability and compostability: Mushroom packaging is completely biodegradable and can be disposed of through home composting or industrial composting facilities. This packaging material breaks down naturally over time, returning to the soil as nutrient-rich compost. It reduces waste and minimizes the environmental impact compared to traditional packaging materials that can persist in the environment for years.
- Lightweight yet strong: Mushroom packaging offers a balance of strength and durability while remaining lightweight. The mycelium-based structure provides sufficient protection for products during shipping and handling, reducing the risk of damage. The lightweight nature of mushroom packaging also helps reduce transportation costs and energy consumption, making it an eco-friendly choice.
- Production scalability: Scaling up the production of mushroom packaging can be challenging. The production process relies on a consistent and reliable supply of agricultural waste materials, such as corn stalks or sawdust, as well as mycelium, the fungal network that binds the materials together. Sourcing an adequate and consistent supply of these materials on a large scale can be difficult, especially in regions with limited agricultural waste or specific climate requirements for mycelium cultivation. However, ongoing research and development in the use of mushroom technology aim to address these challenges and optimise production methods to enhance scalability.
Sustainable packaging solutions from Swiftpak
At Swiftpak, we source responsibly and are committed to helping maintain the health of our environment. We offer an extensive range of sustainable packaging products that are ideal for businesses looking to achieve environmental goals. With over 45 years of experience, we have guided a huge variety of businesses in different industries on sustainable packaging. Feel free to contact our friendly team today who will be more than happy to help you.