An Eco-Friendly Packaging and Shipping Guide For Product-Based Businesses

Eco-friendly packaging of green cell foam and cardboard box.
Photo by Green Cell Foam

As individuals and businesses, we play a significant role in the overall environmental impact of the products we buy, sell, and consume. One of the easiest ways to mitigate the negative effects of consumerism is to consider how products are packaged and shipped. What materials do they use? How are these materials manufactured, and how can they be disposed of responsibly? 

Can you make a positive impact by choosing eco-friendly packaging materials and sustainable shipping options?  

“As consumers become more environmentally conscious, they are preferring products that have a lower environmental impact, including packaging.” (Research Dive) The rise in demand for sustainable packaging and shipping solutions is here, and it’s time for small businesses, corporations, and even solopreneurs to answer the call!

But switching over to eco-friendly packaging is no small feat. At the very least, it involves logistics, sourcing, and cost analysis. To help you make the best (and hopefully, most environmentally friendly decision), this post will help you understand:

  • The disadvantages and benefits of eco-friendly packaging and sustainable shipping methods (as a business and as a customer)
  • Eco-friendly packaging and shipping options that can help you make an impact 
  • The costs of choosing sustainable packaging and shipping options, and 
  • How to align your packaging and shipping solutions with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The Disadvantages of Eco-Friendly Packaging

Photo by Antoine GIRET on Unsplash

Unsustainable shipping and packaging contribute to negative environmental effects, including deforestation and unnecessary additions to the evergrowing landfill. According to the EPA, paper products are the most common items found in landfills, with paper accounting for 25% of landfill waste and 33% of overall municipal waste.

Even if you choose to use or purchase from brands that use eco-friendly packaging and shipping methods, not all packaging materials can be responsibly disposed of. Depending on your location, recycling infrastructure, and waste management practices, disposing of these materials in an environmentally responsible way might not be as straightforward as you think. 

The Benefits of Eco-Friendly Packaging

Two cardboard boxes caring 4 bottles of Plaine Products.
Photo by Plaine Products

While no shipping method is entirely carbon-neutral or 100% green, implementing eco-friendly packaging and shipping practices can help minimize environmental impact by:

  1. Minimizing waste generation by promoting recyclability and decreasing landfill waste
  2. Conserving and efficiently using resources to preserve biodiversity, protect ecosystems, and mitigate the negative impacts of resource depletion
  3. Improving recycling rates by making it easier for facilities to identify and process materials and for customers to know how and what to recycle
  4. Building brand reputation by demonstrating your commitment to sustainability and responsible business practices

How To Make An Impact With Eco-Friendly Packaging & Shipping Options

With this knowledge and understanding, you can make informed decisions on the brands you invest in (for customers) and the other materials you use for packaging and shipping your products (for businesses). Because sustainable options are out there, and they are constantly evolving! 

So whether you’re running a product-based business or purchasing products online, collectively, we can initiate a shift towards more green product packaging and shipping models. By purchasing and using substantially fewer paper products or choosing sustainably harvested materials, we can positively impact this planet.

Let’s dive into what this can look like.

Carbon Neutral Shipping

Screenshot of an EcoCart Carbon Neutral Order.
Photo by EcoCart

If you create carbon, you need to take it away. That’s the idea behind being carbon neutral. Businesses can offset greenhouse gases by calculating and tracking their shipping methods. Consumers can individually offset purchases or buy from companies that offset them. 

Offsets can include investing in environmental projects or initiatives that reduce or remove an equivalent amount from the atmosphere to achieve net-zero emissions. Shipping and the manufacturing of packaging materials, whether they are sustainable or unsustainable, generate emissions. So a carbon-neutral approach is an option for practically any business or consumer.

Planting trees through One Tree Planted or removing carbon through Climeworks are great carbon offset options. 

While carbon-neutral shipping isn’t a perfect solution, it can serve as an interim measure while businesses work towards long-term sustainability goals within their packaging and shipping methods. 

Plastic Free Shipping

Eco-friendly packaging with cardboard box and kraft tape.
Photo by Packhelp on Unsplash

Reduce plastic waste and minimize the environmental impact of plastic packaging using materials other than plastic! Plastic-free packaging options are constantly being developed, so choosing sustainable materials for shipping boxes, bags, filler materials, and cushioning is easier than ever! 

Alternatives to plastic packaging (that are still eco-friendly) include:

  • Paper! Recycled paper products, cardboard, or used paper (like newspapers) are great ways to eliminate the need for plastic
  • Fillers like biodegradable packing peanuts, air pillows made from recyclable materials, or compostable packaging materials. 
  • Tape made from paper or water-activated tape is easily recyclable and reduces the amount of plastic waste. 
  • Seaweed, mushrooms, and cellulose packaging are becoming more available biodegradable and renewable options for shipping. 
  • Reuse packaging and encourage customers to return packaging for reuse so you can keep them in circulation for future shipments. 

Recycled Materials & Recycling Programs

100% Recycled Mailers
Photo by noissue

Choose packaging and shipping materials made from recycled materials or that can be easily recycled! The idea behind recycling is to divert waste from landfills, conserve finite resources, and reduce the environmental impact of waste disposal –which is a significant global issue. 

According to a 2018 EPA report, the US has recycled and composted 32% of its overall waste. As conscious businesses and consumers, we can improve that rate substantially by encouraging more recycling participation. 

Look for packaging options made from post-consumer recycled materials, such as paper, cardboard, glass, metal, cardboard, or plastic. Or check the Recycled Content Certification, which verifies the percentage of recycled content in packaging materials.

As a conscious consumer, knowing the recycling guidelines in your local area is important. Depending on your location, recycling infrastructure, and waste management practices, disposing of these materials in an environmentally responsible way might be more complex than you think. Businesses should also consider using widely recyclable materials. 

Know what recycling programs your region has available. Recycling programs are designed to collect, process, and transform waste materials like paper, plastic, glass, metal, or electronics into raw materials or new products entirely. 

In the US, UK, Australia, and Europe, there are several recycling programs (depending on location), including:

  • Curbside recycling programs
  • Drop-off recycling centers
  • Multi-material recycling facilities
  • E-waste recycling
  • Bottle deposit and redemption programs
  • Product-specific recycling programs
  • Community or municipal recycling initiatives
  • Extended producer responsibility programs

Check with your local waste management authorities or recycling organizations to know what programs are available in your area. Being familiar with recycling symbols can help you label your products correctly (businesses) and sort, prepare and recycle effectively (customers).

Learn more about recycling symbols in countries like the US, UK/EU, and Australia

Compostable Processes & Compostable Packaging Materials

“Composting is currently the most environmentally beneficial way to handle organic waste today and is among the cornerstones of a more circular economy.” (RTS) Compostable materials in packaging and shipping are an easy way to make your products (or purchases) more environmentally friendly! 

Compostable packaging materials are typically made from organic matter, such as plant fibers, starches, or bioplastics derived from renewable resources. When subjected to the right conditions (either through home composting or commercial composting), they can be broken down into natural elements like water, carbon dioxide, and organic matter –contributing to the circular economy and promoting sustainable waste management. 

If you’re wondering about the difference between commercial and home composting, we’ve got you covered.

Commercial Compostable Process

Photo by World Centric

To make sure products break down within a specific timeframe, there are certification standards for the compostability of products allowed in commercial composting facilities. 

For example, biodegradable plastics can only be broken down using commercial composting methods. Commercial compostable facilities require specific conditions, including controlled environments (temperature, moisture, and aeration), to decompose organic waste into compost efficiently. 

Commercial compostable packaging and shipping materials are a great environmentally friendly option for businesses that want to divert organic waste from landfills, reduce greenhouse gases, and produce compost that supports sustainable agriculture. The key is ensuring these materials end up in the correct facilities rather than home compost bins or trash.

Check out this site to learn more about compost facilities and access in North America. 

Home Compostable Process

Photo by Grounded Packaging

Opt for sustainable packaging solutions that use biodegradable or backyard compostable compounds. Home composts rely on a natural process, such as microbial decomposition, to break down these organic compound materials.

Eco-friendly packaging and shipping materials that avoid petroleum and are made from organic and biodegradable materials (like plant-based fibers, wood pulp, and compostable bioplastics derived from renewable resources) are home compostable. They can break down into non-toxic organic matter and don’t rely on industrial composting. 

Like commercial composting, home composting reduces landfill waste, promotes the recycling of organic material, and produces nutrient-rich compost that supports garden and plant growth!

Arguably, packaging and shipping materials suitable for home composting is a more convenient way for customers to responsibly dispose of these materials within the comfort of their home (or backyard). 

Check for “compostable” or “certified compostable” certifications from reputable organizations like the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) or the European Norm (EN) 13432 standard to ensure that packaging meets specific criteria for compostability. These materials can be composted in industrial composting facilities or home compost bins if they meet these standards.

Biobased Packaging Material

Photo by Ecovative Design

If you want to add a little more nature into your green packaging and shipping methods, consider going biobased! 

Biobased packaging materials like bioplastics are often derived from renewable plant fibers (like cornstarch, sugarcane, seaweed, and mushrooms), agricultural byproducts, or bio-based polymers, which are resources that can be quickly replenished, making them a more sustainable alternative. Their production also requires less energy and generates fewer greenhouse gases. 

Biobased materials are designed to biodegrade or compost more easily than traditional plastics, reducing their environmental impact. However, not all biobased materials are automatically biodegradable or compostable. 

Biobased materials can reduce the environmental impact of packaging, but proper waste management practices are still necessary to achieve full sustainability potential. When considering biobased packaging materials, verify their sustainability claims, certifications, and specific end-of-life options. Also, consider the sourcing and production of these biobased fibers (i.e., corn and sugar), which often involve environmentally unfriendly practices.

Look for the “Biobased Product” label provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or certifications from BPI.

Degradable Packaging Material

Degradable packaging is undoubtedly a more “eco-friendly” option, but it might not be the best environmental solution out there. 

Biodegradable packaging materials naturally break down into smaller pieces over time through natural processes like photodegradation (exposure to sunlight), biodegradation (breakdown by microorganisms), or by using chemical additives. 

While the materials do degrade, it’s important to note that they do not necessarily break down into harmless natural elements (as with Biobased materials). The term “degradable” is broad and can include materials that simply break down into smaller fragments. Meaning they often leave behind microplastics and chemical residues that harm ecosystems and wildlife. 

Understanding what degradable packing material is being used is critical if you want to make informed decisions about sustainable packaging. Materials like biodegradable or compostable plant-based plastics (PLA), biodegradable bubble wrap, and molded pulp packaging made from recycled paper fall under this category.

How much does eco-friendly packaging cost?

Photo by EcoEnclose

The global green packaging industry was valued at over $253.8 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $561.6 billion by 2031 (Research Dive). Sustainable packaging is becoming popular for two reasons, 1) it’s cost-effectiveness and 2) supporting businesses to meet their sustainability goals. 

Regarding cost-effectiveness, reusable packaging allows businesses to purchase less packaging overall, and governmental recycling subsidies (depending on your country) can reduce the costs of recycled shipping materials. 

However, the nature of raw materials used in many eco-friendly packaging can negatively affect the cost, too. For example, biodegradable packaging solutions made from fruits and vegetables are susceptible to natural disasters, and bioplastics are less structurally sound than their plastic counterparts, making for flimsier packaging that could damage the product, thus inducing additional costs. 

The fluctuating costs of these materials (or the result of using them) can make it difficult for businesses to remain competitive in pricing. It can also put off customers when businesses attempt to mitigate these costs by increasing their prices.

Depending on your business model, it’s hard to determine the exact cost of choosing a more eco-friendly packaging and shipping route. 

If you’re a small business or brand that prefers more streamlined aesthetics, buying biodegradable bubble wrap, biodegradable packing peanuts, recycled paper products, organic fabrics, or compostable materials can cut into your revenue. 

However, customers who value sustainability will pay more for environmentally friendly packaging and shipping options that align with their values. So, you could balance out the costs by increasing the shipping price. 

If you want to be thrifty, using newspapers, old magazines, and fabrics from around your house can technically be free! 

Basically, there’s no straight answer to the cost of choosing a more sustainable option. But with new innovations and increasing demand for green business practices, we might see eco-friendly packaging and shipping become normalized and, potentially, the more cost-effective option out there! 

How To Align Your Product Eco-Friendly Packaging Practices With Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Photo by United Nations

If you’re a product-based business that wants to take your environmental sustainability one step further, consider designing and adopting eco-friendly packaging and shipping methods in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Below are a handful of the most aligned SDGs and how you can incorporate each SDG within your business model.  

SDG #7: Affordable and Clean Energy

  • Reduce reliance on fossil fuels by incorporating renewable energy sources like solar or wind power into packaging production processes, shipping facilities, and distribution centers
  • Opt for sustainable last-mile delivery options like bike couriers or electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions in densely populated areas

SDG Goal #9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure:

  • Support innovation in sustainable packaging solutions, such as biodegradable materials or alternative packaging technologies
  • Collaborate with research institutions or industry partners to develop and implement sustainable packaging practices
  • Partner with shipping carriers that prioritize sustainability and offer eco-friendly shipping options (some may have programs for carbon-neutral shipping or use alternative fuel vehicles)
  •  Identify areas where improvements can be made to minimize energy usage and emissions by implementing tracking systems and data analytics to monitor and optimize shipping operations

SDG Goal #12: Responsible Consumption and Production

  • Use minimalistic packaging designs and lightweight materials to reduce waste
  • Minimize resource consumption by optimizing packaging size and weight 
  • Use recycled or biodegradable materials in packaging production.
  • Promote reusable or refillable packaging options with your team, customers, and partners

SDG Goal #13: Climate Action

  • Choose packaging materials with a lower carbon footprint, such as those made from renewable resources or recycled content
  • Optimize packaging design to reduce transportation-related emissions by minimizing space and weight
  • Consolidate shipments when possible
  • Plan and optimize the most efficient shipping routes to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions

SDG Goal #14: Life Below Water

  • Avoid using packaging materials that can harm marine ecosystems, such as single-use plastics
  • Utilize packaging materials that are biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable to reduce the risk of marine pollution

SDG Goal #15: Life on Land

  • Opt for packaging materials sourced from responsibly managed forests or agricultural practices
  • Use biodegradable or compostable packaging materials to minimize environmental impact on land ecosystems

SDG #17: Partnerships for the Goals

  • Collaborate with suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders to promote sustainable packaging practices and exchange knowledge and best practices
  • Engage in partnerships or initiatives focused on sustainable packaging and the SDGs.

When you align your eco-friendly packaging and shipping practices with specific SDGs, you can contribute to the global efforts of achieving sustainable development while reducing the environmental impact of your packaging operations. It sounds like a win in our books!

If you want to learn more about SDGs, here is an in-depth guide you can read and save for reference!

How To Move Forward With Eco-Friendly Packaging and Shipping

To make packaging and shipping more sustainable and eco-friendly, everyone must acknowledge that we all have a part in reducing the negative impact. Understanding what packing and shipping materials are made of and how they compost (or don’t) can help you make informed decisions on what materials you use for packaging and shipping your products or what to look for in companies you purchase products from!

Did you find this blog helpful? If so, check out the Tidal Pages Directory, where you can filter vendors based on their sustainable packaging and shipping methods!

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