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 packaging, you might just consider, “Is it recyclable after I use it?”

That’s one piece of the puzzle. But there are others to consider, like:

  • 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 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.

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 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.


Polyethylene Plastic Bags and Film

Much of the plastic 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.

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 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. 


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. 

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. 


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. 

To learn more about any of the products discussed above, check out our full list of solutions

See All Packaging Options