By Cory Levins
We all know how important it is to reduce our impact on the environment. Many businesses are now improvising with new ways of designing and producing their products, attempting to lessen their carbon and environmental footprint. The concept of “cradle-to-cradle” — taking responsibility for a product’s impact from the sourcing of the materials to its ultimate disposal — is becoming increasingly popular.
One of the biggest culprits when it comes to an industry’s impact is packaging materials and accessories. The cradle-to-cradle concept needs to take into account the shipping of a product from the producer, through the retailer, and on to the consumer — a process which often involves significant quantities of packaging materials.
This has led to a wave of innovative new eco-friendly alternatives to traditional packaging materials. From recyclable plastics to biodegradable containers, there is seemingly no end to the options available to the environmentally conscious business.
1. Biodegradable packaging peanuts
New York has recently reinstated a ban on Styrofoam, the light, airy material used for takeaway cartons and loose-fill packaging. It follows a string of other U.S. cities in banning the material, otherwise known as EPS (expanded polystyrene foam). EPS is neither biodegradable nor is it economically recyclable, often finding its way into waterways where it can have adverse effects on marine life.
Styrofoam has been a standard in loose-fill packaging for fragile or otherwise sensitive items, helping to prevent movement and cushion against shocks. For businesses looking for the closest thing to this packaging classic, biodegradable air peanuts are now available to replace them. These work in the same way as their Styrofoam brethren, but do not linger for eternity polluting the environment.
2. Corrugated bubble wrap
We are all familiar with bubble wrap packaging, that favorite of kids which helps to protect fragile items during shipping. It is not the eco-friendliest material, however, being made of plastic, and a number of alternatives to it are being developed.
One of these is a wrap made of up-cycled corrugated cardboard. Rather than disposing or recycling post-consumer cardboard waste, it gets the chance of an additional life as a cushioning material.
Small cuts are made in it to produce a concertina-type effect that protects against shocks just as bubble wrap does. The only downside is that you don’t get the satisfaction of popping the bubbles afterward!
3. Air pillows made of recycled materials
Inflatable air pillows are another great eco-alternative to Styrofoam or bubble wrap. Available in a variety of sizes, they are ideal for filling voids in boxes or providing cushioning around packed items.
They are small bags which can be inflated, and therefore, when used as packaging, consist primarily of air. This cuts down on the amount of plastic used in their production and means they can be shipped with minimal packaging when compared to other cushioning materials.
What’s more, they can be re-used, recycled, and are even biodegradable. Make sure to purchase air pillows made of 100% recycled materials and that emphasize their biodegradability.
4. Cornstarch packaging
Cornstarch is an organic material that has made in-roads into the eco-friendly packaging industry. Derived from the corn or maize plant, it has plastic-like properties, which can be used in many contexts which have traditionally relied upon plastics. From bottles to molded forms and loose-fill packaging, cornstarch packaging adds many additional uses to this very American crop.
While a more environmentally sustainable alternative to petroleum-based packaging, cornstarch is not without its problems. As it is derived from the grains of corn, it effectively competes with the human and animal food supply, possibly raising the price of one of our dietary staples.
5. Mushroom packaging
Another eco-friendly packaging alternative that can be used to support smaller items is, believe it or not, made from mushrooms. It uses cleaned and ground agricultural waste, which is then fused together by a matrix of mushroom roots, otherwise known as mycelium.
The agricultural waste is exactly that — waste — and therefore could not be used as a food source for humans or animals. It consequently avoids the possible controversy linked to cornstarch packaging.
The raw material can then be molded into whichever shape is desired, dried, and used as packaging. Not only does this material avoid petroleum and food sources for its raw material, but it also biodegrades at an incredible rate. Mushroom packaging can be composted at home, breaking down into non-toxic organic matter.
6. Seaweed packaging
From corn to mushrooms to seaweed, the gelatinous substance agar, which is found in a variety of seaweeds and algae, is already used in several applications. This is the case especially in the food industry, where it can be utilized as a thickener or a vegetarian alternative to gelatin.
But now a team of designers has won a design award for prototyping its use as a packaging material. Being made from a plentiful and sustainable raw material, seaweed packaging could be the next big thing in eco-friendly packaging alternatives.
7. Recycled cardboard and paper
Of course, all these filler materials need to be housed in something, and cardboard boxes are the industry standard. While cardboard and paper are organic materials, if they are sourced unsustainably, their use can have a drastic impact on the environment.
Luckily, paper and cardboard are some of the most recyclable materials available. To ensure your packaging is as eco-friendly as possible, try to source post-consumer or post-industrial recycled paper and cardboard. Alternatively, materials marked as FSC-certified will be sourced from sustainably managed forests and could be an even better choice in certain circumstances.
8. Eco-friendly plastic and recycled plastics
There is no getting around it; some shipping needs require a sturdy and reliable material that isn’t going to break and can support heavy loads. While many of the alternatives based upon organic raw materials can be great for cushioning or filler, there are still times when only plastic will do.
There is no need to cut back on your eco-credentials in these cases, however, as many plastic shipping materials and tools are now available made from 100% recycled plastic. From drums, spill trays, and spill control pallets, you can choose eco-friendly shipping materials for all your shipping needs.
The changing tide of packaging.
With cities throughout the U.S. and around the world banning specific materials derived from fossil fuels, it seems the tide is beginning to turn on plastics. With so many eco-friendly alternatives on the market at competitive prices, more businesses are recognizing the opportunities in making the switch. Eco-friendly is becoming mainstream, and smart business owners throughout the country are making the change today to ensure they are ahead of the game tomorrow.
About the Author
Cory Levins serves as the Director of Business Development for Air Sea Containers. Cory oversees the development and implementation of ASC’s internal and external marketing program, driving revenue and profits from the Miami, Florida headquarters.
Before joining Air Sea Containers, Cory Levins was the Director of Business Development for Marketing and Real Estate Lending Companies.
Cory enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, sports, and the ocean.