A Guide to Choosing Sustainable Packaging That Actually Works

A Guide to Choosing Sustainable Packaging That Actually Works

“Sustainability” is a hot word these days. But when it comes to your packaging and logistics, do you know how it applies? 

There’s a lot to think about with this topic, so I wanted to break down some of the biggest areas you might want to consider as you move toward sustainable packaging supplies and processes.

What Does Sustainability Mean, Anyway? 

When you think of sustainable or eco-friendly packaging, you might just consider, “Is it recyclable after I use it?”

Consider sustainability on both ends of the supply chain. Upstream, consider how the packaging was sourced and what it was made from. Downstream, consider what you or the consumer will do with the packaging once it’s used. Ask yourself:

  • Can this piece of packaging be reused?
  • Is it durable enough to ship without damage to the product? 
  • Is it produced with recycled or reclaimed materials? 
  • Does it fit the product correctly without extra waste or space needed to ship? 

The biggest takeaway I want you to have is that it doesn’t make sense to look for more sustainable packaging materials just for the sake of it. You need to make sure it also works for your product. You’re going to spend more money in the end and waste more resources if a product needs to be re-shipped or re-made because the packaging wasn’t useful.

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How Sustainable Are Different Packaging Products? 

Now that you’re thinking about sustainability in the context of your product and needs, let’s talk about some different packaging options. I’ve ranked them in order from options that are typically less sustainable to more sustainable below.

Foam Packaging

Foam often gets the side-eye when it comes to sustainability. It can be expensive to recycle industrially, plus there are usually no curbside recycling programs available for foam. 

However, there is some good news. All foams can be recycled, and many stores and local governments have take-back programs for foams. And lastly, there are now polyethylene foams available that are made from recycled material. 

Before you shun foam altogether, remember that it does have some unique cushioning properties that other packaging can’t replace. And if your packaging is designed well, you may not have to use as much foam. 

When a product needs to be shipped a second time because of damage, the carbon footprint increases. You’re doubling the impact of the manufacturing, packaging, and shipping process. Keep in mind, all of this is adding expenses that you can't recoup, and you will now have an unhappy customer. So...it may have been best to just use foam.

 

foam

Polyethylene Plastic Bags and Film

Much of the plastic packaging we use at M-Line is made of recycled material, and most can be recycled post-use.

If you need a dust cover or industrial-grade plastic bag, it can be made from 100% recycled content. However, if you need a specialty bag or sheet for a critical application, recycled content cannot be used. Making a plastic bag is like baking a cake. The ingredients must be measured and controlled to get the recipe right.

Around the world, both consumers and regulating industries are looking for greater accountability in plastic production. And today’s consumers want to know where their plastic came from and what’s in it. 

If that’s important to your customer base and a differentiator for your company, emphasize your commitment to sustainability. You can read more about what experts are expecting in the field with reports like “The New Plastics Economy.”

Plastic packaging being produced in factory

Corrugated Cardboard 

Corrugated cardboard boxes and inserts rank pretty high on the sustainability scale. They’re usually easy to recycle, are often made with recycled paper, and can be reused for other purposes.

At M-Line, we recycle all of our scrap corrugated material, and most of our vendors do the same. One thing about corrugated, though, is that it can’t be recycled forever. After any paper product is recycled multiple times, its structure and properties change so it can no longer be recycled into new boxes.

More “premium” cardboard, which is easy to print on and design, is often made of new material. Where appearance isn’t as much of a concern, recycled corrugated is often used.

 

corrugated

Wood Crates and Pallets

Wood can be a great option for your packaging if it suits your products. Wood is durable, reusable, can be recycled, and can come from sustainably planted trees. 

A recent study found that wood products - specifically pallets - can actually be more sustainable than similar plastic products. 

This can still depend on certain factors, like if the wood was harvested from a sustainable source and how it was treated for pests. Heat-treating wood, for example, is usually better for the environment than spraying the pallet with chemicals. 

However, keep in mind that the cost of crates and pallets can fluctuate as availability and prices for raw materials change.

Stack of wooden pallets in warehouse

Reusable Plastic Cases

I’ve saved this item for last because, although it’s made of plastic, a good reusable case can last virtually forever.

At M-Line, we use SKB™ hardshell cases that are designed to last, literally, a lifetime. That means you’re only purchasing one or a few cases over many years instead of hundreds or thousands of less durable pieces of packaging. 

SKB cases are often used by the military for carrying sensitive gear or by professional musicians who need to transport thousand-dollar guitars and equipment. 

Most cases require a custom foam insert. However, since the case itself will last a long time, so will the foam.

reuseables

Which Product Works Best For You?

In the end, choosing the right sustainable packaging product isn’t just a one-and-done decision. You’ll want to consider a variety of methods and solutions for one that fits your needs. 

Picking a comprehensive packaging solution on your own can be confusing. You’ll need to determine effectiveness, cost, logistics, and a host of other factors. Let us make the process easier with a packaging audit. We can help you understand what you need - and make it easier and more cost-effective to get it.

Request an Audit Today

 

This blog was originally published in 2020. It was updated for style and content in August 2021.