Eco-friendly Packaging

The Complete Guide to Sustainable Packaging

9 mins

Climate change and consumer demand is continuing to push sustainable packaging high up on the agenda.

A recent survey showed that 94% of respondents see sustainability as a key component of their company’s packaging decisions. Not only that, but 66% had switched to more sustainable packaging than what they had previously used.

Due to the importance of sustainability, our team at Swiftpak have decided to create this complete guide to give clarity into the ins and outs of sustainability. Here, we delve into topics such as:

Carbon Neutral vs Net Zero

We will kick this guide off with ‘Carbon Neutral vs Net zero’ as we have found that there is some confusion between the two terms and how they differ.

According to targets set by Paris Climate Agreement, there are only 29 years remaining to reach global net-zero emissions, so it’s important to know the differences between Carbon Neutral and Net Zero.

What does it mean to be carbon neutral?

Carbon Neutral means the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) being emitted is equal to the amount of carbon being absorbed from the atmosphere. In order for a company to be Carbon Neutral, the company must first reduce their carbon emissions as much as they can, they then would invest in carbon offsets to balance out the remaining amount of carbon emitted by their operations. When all carbon emissions produced by the company are equal to the number of emissions being reduced through their carbon offsets, the company is then considered to be Carbon Neutral. When it comes to packaging that would mean knowing the carbon emissions of the packaging and then compensating via carbon offsetting.

What does it mean to be Net Zero?

As for Net Zero, while the concept is similar to that of Carbon Neutral, the difference is that it goes beyond just carbon dioxide emissions and focusses on all greenhouse gas emissions. Net Zero refers to when all greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere are equivalent to the greenhouse gases being removed from the atmosphere on a global scale. Carbon neutral targets includes compensating for emissions released, whereas net zero is setting a target to completely negate the amount of greenhouse gases produced. In packaging a small step to reduce carbon emissions, could be to opt for lighter and more compact packaging, so more packaging fits on a truck meaning less carbon emissions.

While some companies may try to eliminate all sources of greenhouse gases from their operations (which is known as Absolute Zero and requires no offsets), the majority of companies are unlikely to be able to achieve such a target.

Biodegradable vs Compostable packaging

When it comes to recycling, biodegradable and compostable are two words that you’ll hear come up. Whilst they are both types of sustainable packaging, they are often confused, used incorrectly, or misleadingly. In order to ensure you are making environmentally friendly choices, it’s important to understand what biodegradable and compostable means and the differences between them.

What is Biodegradable packaging?

‘Biodegradable’ refers to any material that can be broken down by microorganisms (such as bacteria and fungi) and is a naturally occurring process. It’s basically just nature taking its course and breaking down the materials to their component parts.

What is compostable packaging?

The term ‘compostable’ means it can be turned into compost if placed in the right environment. Compostable products do not always biodegrade naturally in a landfill and have to be placed in the right conditions that are often only found in industrial compost facilities. This is because compostable products can take much longer to break down in a landfill.

To sum up, the main difference between compostable and biodegradable is that compostable products have a specific requirement in order to break down, whereas biodegradable products will break down naturally. You can read more about the differences between biodegradable, compostable and recyclable within our previous article.

Paper vs Plastic packaging

With the new Plastic Tax that came into force this year, many companies have been switching to paper packaging instead of plastic packaging. However, despite the well-known benefits of paper, it’s important to recognise that plastic may not be the enemy it’s often made out to be. Both paper and plastic have their pros and cons, and in this section we will be exploring just that.

Switching from plastic packaging to paper packaging can have its benefits but also comes with challenges too. Plastic has been the preferred packaging material for so many years for a reason. Some of the benefits include: it provides a wide range of barrier properties that protect the product, its lightweight, its production and transport has a relatively low carbon footprint compared to heavier materials, plus it’s durable, comes in a variety of colours and has countless forms. Of course, the main issue with plastic is that it can be very difficult to recycle, requires fossil fuels to produce and can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfill, which in turn creates microplastics in the environment.

As for paper, while it can be widely recycled and is renewable, it has its limitations as it lacks the barrier protection needed for products such as liquids, creams, and some oxygen sensitive goods. Without the addition of coatings like wax, lamination or other plastic materials, paper-based packaging can struggle to hold liquid products, it’s fairly fragile and can be difficult to mould into the shapes plastics can.

As an example, while it’s believed that paper bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they are made from a renewable resource, can biodegrade, and are recyclable, scientific research has shown that plastic bags can outperform paper bags environmentally on manufacturing, on reuse, and on solid waste volume. Paper products take substantial amounts of energy to make, making paper and cardboard the third largest industry use of energy on the planet! So, when looking at this, in comparison to cardboard, it can be argued plastic is lighter, more durable, and needs less energy in the manufacturing process.

Not only that, but 42% of the world’s wood harvest is used for paper manufacturing, and while some wood is sourced from sustainably managed forests, most are not and this drives deforestation, destroys habitats, and leads to increased carbon emissions.

Similarly, while paper has a high recycling rate and is better to dispose of than plastic, a lot of paper can still end up in landfill and takes up more space than plastic. Paper makes up around a quarter of landfills and releases methane as it degrades which contributes to global warming.

So, is plastic or paper more sustainable for packaging?

While plastics are often painted as the enemy, their role in enhancing efficiencies is often over-looked. According to McKinsey & Company, plastics can have an important role in decreasing food spoilage, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions as they have a lower GHG footprint. 

Did you also know that carbon footprint of recycling paper is actually larger than plastic as well? This just goes to show how the “paper-based packaging being better than plastic” notion is not as straightforward as you’d think. In terms of a more sustainable packaging solution, the answer to plastic vs paper is open for debate. 

Here are some surprising but eye-opening facts about paper and plastic that will help form your opinion on the matter:

  • The manufacturing process of paper contributes to 80% more greenhouse gases and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic.
  • Both paper and plastic require petroleum to produce, but the production of paper consumes four times as much energy to manufacture than plastic. That’s 2% of the world’s overall carbon footprint. This is not including the energy consumed during transportation of heavy paper pallets compared to the lighter weight of plastic.
  • The water footprint of both paper and plastic is significant. It takes at least twice as much water to produce a plastic water bottle as the amount of water contained in the bottle itself. Paper is not much better either, requiring 2-13 litres of water to create just one piece of A4 paper.
  • One of the biggest misconceptions is that paper breaks down quicker in landfill when under ideal conditions. This is because landfill conditions will rarely ever be ideal. Paper buried under piles of waste with no exposure to light, air or oxygen means that it will break down at the same rate as plastic.

Recycled vs Recyclable packaging

The difference between recycling and recycled content is a question that is frequently asked by customers. So, in this section we will be clarifying the difference between recycled content and recyclable products.

  • Recycled content: a package made of recycled material. Recycled material can come from two sources: post-industrial, or post-consumer. Post-consumer recycled material being everything we throw into a recycling bin such as plastic bottles or aluminium cans, that are then collected by local recycling programs and shipped to recycling facilities. Post-industrial is the waste generated from the original manufacturing process that is used again in the same material.
  • Recyclability: products that can be remanufactured into new products after they have been used. They do not necessarily contain recycled materials and can only benefit the environment if people recycle them.

To put it simply, recycled content means a package is made from content that has already been recycled. But recyclability means how likely the material we recycle will properly be sorted and converted into a new item.

It’s important to remember that just because a product is derived from recycled materials does not mean it is recyclable. For example, recycled plastics tend to result in more water consumption and recycled fiber can cause greater greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, to determine the best option for your business, always evaluate the costs and advantages of every decision and try to align them with your business’s sustainability goals.

Sustainable packaging from Swiftpak

As a Certified B-Corporation, at Swiftpak we care about the environment and reducing our environmental impact as much as possible whilst also helping our customers do the same. Swiftpak has a variety of solutions to help customers reach their sustainability targets. Our aim is to help our customers make informed decisions to support their efforts to create a better tomorrow.

With our expertise and 45 years of experience, we have guided a huge variety of businesses in different industries on their best options in eco-friendly and sustainable packaging. Feel free to contact our friendly team today who will be more than happy to help you.