Packaging for meaningful sustainability — asking the right questions

  • June 09, 2021
A world globe on a stack of paper recyclables

Are you looking to make your packaging system compatible with a better world? There are foundational approaches that'll guide your journey and help make your products and their protection less taxing on the world around us. It starts with asking the right questions and keeping an open mind while seeking answers.

A sustainable design process begins with one essential idea: Less is more. The best packaging achieves all your goals with the most efficient use of resources possible. It’s not just about the package itself. It’s how the system works within the scope of the entire supply chain and fulfills all its roles, including containment, protection, marketing and customer experience. All while minimizing its environmental impact and that of the whole supply chain.

It all comes down to a straightforward question: Does that serve a necessary purpose? But even a simple question can have many permutations. And the process of a holistic package optimization project requires many versions of this simple question.

Can we design this piece of the packaging system with less material while still accomplishing all its functions? Suppose single-unit packaging features an interior box to fully insulate delicate contents from the sides of the outer box. Can you substitute this interior box with an insert — perhaps a molded pulp tray — that performs the same function at a lower weight?

Can we swap heavy cushioning and insulating materials for lighter ones? Items like ready-to-assemble (RTA) furniture often require multiple pieces of form-fitting dunnage to keep items from shifting in transit. Materials like corrugated board and molded pulp would seem to be the go-to green materials for these instances. However, would lighter weight but equally protective (and recyclable) foam be a greener, fuel-saving choice?

Can we reduce plastic content by exchanging plastic clamshell display packaging for paperboard? Small, decorative light bulbs are a great example of this. While standard LED and CFL bulbs typically sell in easy-to-open corrugated packages, smaller, specialty light bulbs often come in all-plastic or corrugated packaging with plastic product windows. This last option effectively reduces plastic content, but you can find a further reduction by forgoing plastic altogether with all-paperboard packaging with high-quality photo images.

These are a few examples of how you can approach the less-is-more question. Once you pursue those immediate material improvements, you can take a broader view of a product’s journey through the supply chain. It helps you better understand how the optimization of sourcing, freight and associated logistics can further reduce its environmental impact.

What about in-bound materials that get delivered to the manufacturing plant — do all those packaging components need to be there? A hard look at this end of the supply chain can yield a substantial reduction in your ecological footprint. For example, a custom-engineered reusable packaging system can expedite shipment at the source and speed delivery to the production line while drastically reducing material waste.

Can we minimize CO2 emissions by logistically sourcing each component closer to the manufacturing process? Shortening the distance between your component suppliers and manufacturing is probably one of the most straightforward wins when reducing your carbon footprint. Despite the complexities involved in finding appropriate suppliers in the right geographies, this one is well worth pursuing.

Can we make our packaging with renewable energy? Are we challenging and qualifying our suppliers on the eco-friendliness of their manufacturing processes? This factor can work together with sourcing from closer suppliers. An environmentally responsible, net-zero-emitting supplier that’s further away than a less eco-conscious one may be the best choice once you take total production-to-delivery CO2 emissions into account. An even better solution? Challenge all your suppliers to up their environmental game.

Once we’ve used the in-bound packaging, what happens with the waste it creates? Can it be reused for a circular system or turned back into a future resource? Try as we might, it’s impossible to remove all inbound packaging, so it’s important to put a plan in place that recycles, reuses or repurposes all inbound material in some way.

For instance, you can repurpose packing foam from incoming parts to pack outgoing components and reverse, reprint and use misprinted cartons. Reclaimed plastic waste can be repurposed as “regrind” and either mixed with resin or added to the molding stream on its own. These are all innovative ways to take what once would have been mere trash and return it to practical use. You save material, energy and money — all at the same time.

When creating a packaging system that lessens overall environmental impact, it’s essential to dive in deep and ask critical questions. Determine the details of design, materials, sourcing and end-of-life. How those decisions impact the overall alignment to creating a sustainable package and product?

— By Kate Barry

Subscribe to our blog


Related Blog Posts