What is the ‘Right’ sustainable packaging for my business? A risk-based approach that works

Sustainability in packaging can be a complex business.

There is a lot of noise around what is the “right” approach. Everywhere you look there is competing, erroneous, and often self-serving information. As a business we get asked this all the time and as inconvenient as it is the answer is invariable, ‘it depends’.

It depends on quite a number of factors that are different from one business to another so we have built a risk-based framework to help inform that process. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet, but there is better and there is definitely a wrong way.

Broadly we encourage our customers to consider the below factors when deciding what strategy is best for their business.

5 factors
Can you design a more efficient system?

First and foremost we want to design efficient systems that work and don’t perpetuate the problem. The first step needs to be ‘is there a better way to approach this?’.

Designing for efficiency is by far the most important consideration. It is very difficult to reverse design decisions once they are embedded in a business, with processes and supply chains built around them. You can’t unscramble an omelet so the best thing is always to give yourself or your business the chance to design properly upfront.

Small things like reducing the thickness of material to decrease the amount of material used can have a significant impact. Another simple change can be moving to a single format or type of material, away from numerous types of material for single product.

At its more sophisticated end, we need to be rethinking how products and delivery systems work from the ground up. We can see this movement gathering pace in personal and home care industries with the rise of delivery and refill systems alongside new product formulations that allow for concentrated liquids and powders instead of endless bottles full of water. It doesn’t matter where you start but it’s important that you do. The volume of plastic ending up in landfills and the environment won’t magically end, we need to rethink the status quo.

What are your key motivations from a sustainability perspective?

There are a number of considerations and often businesses have a sustainability policy that can act as a guide here. Some of the important things to be mindful of include:

Carbon footprint, circularity, recyclability, bio-based content

If there is no framework in place currently the rest of this article should help inform the creation of one. Where possible that framework or strategy should be informed by real-world data but that can be hard to find unless you know what to look for.

How much 'stuff' are you putting into the world?

The total volume of items that you sell has a significant bearing on your overall impact and is super important as a consideration. The greater the volume the greater the potential impact, both positive and potentially negative.

The larger the scale the greater the potential carbon impact and importantly the greater the potential impact on raw materials and manufacturing. A lot of the time the businesses just focus on the end-of-life path (landfill, recycling, composting) but equal consideration should be given to what goes into the manufacturing process, with specific focus on replacing virgin plastic (oil) with bio-based and/or recycled materials. With end-of-life systems currently so challenging for most flexible packaging materials, the ‘upstream’ is equally important as a consideration.

Who is the end customer, where are they located and what access do they have to waste management systems?

This is perhaps one of the most important considerations. If you’re an e-commerce business selling clothing to customers in LA or Sydney your strategy and emphasis should be different from if you are a food business selling ice-creams to beachgoers in those same cities. The chance of those respective items of packaging ending up in the environment is markedly different.

In the scenario above we would likely suggest that the e-commerce business focus more on the use of recycled materials that have workable recycling streams (mechanical or organic) as they can have a really large impact on carbon emissions and on the development of ‘circular’ systems for recycling which are key to driving systemic change. The chance that the mailer bags end up in the environment is exceedingly slim.

However, for the business selling ice-creams on the beach the chance that the wrapper ends up in the ocean is a quantum higher. So here the scenario and risk profile are entirely different and we would suggest that the best course of action is to move into a material that will naturally degrade in the environment.

Is compostable packaging good for every product?

Again, this sounds simple but often times the nature of the product has a very clear bearing on what should and shouldn’t be used in packaging.

Compostable packaging is often held up as being the beacon of sustainability but if the product you’re selling has traces of oils, chemicals and colorings it is highly unlikely that traces of those products are going to make for healthy compost.

Food products that are going to contaminate packaging materials are a clear example where composting is by far the best alternative as contaminants such as food mean that a product will almost always be excluded from recycling streams. Again, if the product has a reasonable likelihood of being consumed on the run and potentially escaping collection, biodegradability is probably the single most important consideration.

There are obviously other unique considerations but this hopefully gives some practical frameworks to help base decisions on. Unfortunately it doesn’t give an answer, but that’s because ‘it depends’.

Grounded Packaging supplies custom sustainable packaging to suit all industry requirements