July 29, 2021

Top 10 Secrets to Designing Sustainable Packaging Revealed | Ep. 55

Top 10 Secrets to Designing Sustainable Packaging Revealed | Ep. 55

Everything you need to consider when thinking of deigning sustainable packaging. Materials, processes, questions, and what sustainability even means. Great way to get started.

What the hell is sustainable packaging anyway?
It's late, and I'm going to rant about everything I know and how to approach sustainable packaging design.

You're going to learn a few things in this one:

1) What questions to ask you supplier, manufacturer, and yourself before you embark on the road to sustainable packaging design.

2) Materials, we're going to have a heart to heart about materials. Paper, plastic, and alternatives what they are and how they work. Some we're just going to say no to.

3) Where to begin looking for sustainable solutions that impact your packaging's sustainable story. It's not where you would think, but it's where you'll make a difference. 


Leave a comment or review, would love to hear if you like this type of episode. If you do I may just do more of them.


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So I thought I would record this episode which is the main conversation I find myself having with so many brands on a daily basis.


What the hell is sustainable packaging? And, how do we become more sustainable?


Brands don’t ask those questions in that order though. 


Actually they ask how they can be more sustainable first, then they share all of the materials they’ve researched or heard of somewhere, and once I explain how any of these materials impact their supply chain, manufacturing, the recycling stream, consumer experience, or essentially anything that make me out to be the Debbie downer of the group.


Then, and only then. Do brands ask “What they hell is sustainable packaging”


So today I am going to break it down for you, like I break it down for my clients.


But before we do that you need to define what sustainability means to you or to your brand. Just like the CEO of Tiffany & Co. may hate robin’s egg blue, the brand is robin’s egg blue. Doesn’t matter what he thinks. So what does sustainability mean for your brand? Is it reuse, reduce, recycling, carbon targets, or all of the above, you need to begin identifying what is important to your brand. 


Otherwise, an outside agency will tell you what it is and align it to what they are personally strong in. Not what’s best for you.


So, how do I break sustainability down for clients? Here’s how I lay it out:


1) Sustainability isn’t an action or a reaction. It’s actually an inaction. 

What mean by that is, the most sustainable packaging is no packaging. Because there is no waste, there is no resulting material, it doesn’t impact the natural world around us. 


This is what we should strive for. The no bullshit reality here is that your product is probably causing enough impact so you can do without packaging.


Of course if you’re packaging food then, yes packaging is critical to avoid spoilage.



2)  It’s also important to consider the sustainability of your business. In order to that, every solution needs to consider the viability of your business. There’s no point in doubling your packaging spend to use the next buzzword material if that cuts your margin to unprofitable levels. Your business can’t be sustainable and maintain everyone employed if you land on packaging that isn’t within your budgets.


We’ll need to bring in the finance team once we’re done to make sure everything allows for continued growth.


3) An LCA at this stage of the process is probably a good idea, though LCAs don’t account for every scenario most do a good job of painting a clear picture of your carbon footprint. 


4) Even though the most sustainable packaging is no packaging, that’s not a reality for most brands. In fact there’s literally tons of packaging required before that product gets into the hands of the client. 


I take each brand through the lifecyel of their product. From manufacturing to display on shelf, or distribution center. 


Let’s look at all of the packaging required to make your product, where is it coming from, what happens to it after it’s used? Can we use a better material for that packaging so we can reuse it for the next leg of transport? How is it being recycled? Is it being recycled?


Then how is that product being transported to the fulfillment location? Where is that fulfillment location? Why?

Because it’s more sustainable to produce your packaging close to your product so that the packaging can be delivered to your product manufacturer to fulfill at once in their facility if they have the equipment. Sometimes it even makes sense to buy the equipment to do this, it can be that much of a cost savings to do that.


5) Now let’s focus on the packaging. But before we do that, let’s look at a pallet. Yeah the wooden pallet that holds your product’s master cartons in a container, unless you’re sophisticated enough to receive slip sheeted floor loaded containers that can be removed with a push/pull forklift.


Let’s break this down a bit:

Pallets are made to fit containers, maximizing their floor space and making it easy to remove and warehouse.

Standard pallet dimensions are 48x40 and can range from 5 - 6.5” in height

Yes there are pallets made of a bunch of materials but I’m not a pallet guy so you’ll have to sort that one out with your importer.


Why does this matters for sustainability?

Because if your master carton when stacked on a pallet hangs over your pallet or doesn’t take up the full space, you aren’t maximizing your space. 

The more air you have in a container the more that container costs to move. You’re paying to ship air instead of your product. 

Means you are having to ship 2 containers instead of one which not only costs more, also doubles your carbon footprint.


So this is why we need to look at the pallet before we design your packaging.


6) Master cartons - how many product per master carton? How many cartons per master carton? There isn’t a standard answer here, but you need to use numbers that work within your supply chain and within the dimensions of a pallet.



7) Now that we’ve determined these sizes we’ve created a nice set of parameters for our product packaging. 

This is a no bullshit way to discover the dimensions of your product packaging. Yes the product will dictate a lot of this, but size matters. 

So it’s best to start from the outside and work our way in, then we can make any adjustments from there. 


Work with a packaging engineer to develop the most efficient packaging dimensions and protective design for your product.


8) so what are you going to make this packaging out of?


Paper to plastic? Is plastic evil? No.

Is paper the right solution always? No.


I can’t give you the right answers here because every pack has it’s own requirements and trade offs you’ll need. But what I can can share is what I’ve learned about different materials out there. I’ll also give you a few paper brands to check outlet them know you heard it here. Maybe they’ll advertise on the podcast, who knows.


1) Paper:

There are lots of papers out there with lots of certifications.

PCW, this means that the paper uses post consumer waste in the manufacturing of the paper.

The reason you want to use this is that you create a pull or demand for recycled paper by buying it. The more recycled paper is used the more the recycling centers are incentivized to recycle it. 


If you’re using PCW paper, aim for 40% or higher content. Anything less and you’re not making a huge difference.


When you go to PCW papers, your paper isn’t going to be super bright white. There is no guarantee as to what color the paper was going in so that affects the color of the paper. It may be duller or grayer, but it will still look good, you just have to adjust your expectations.



The Forest Stewardship Council, this is paper that comes from sustainable forests. 

You can buy FSC paper, but to actually print that it is FSC paper you have to pay a premium. 

What you get with the certification is the chain of custody, you can track back to where this came from.


Who is managing these forests? What does a sustainable forest look like? I don’t know. But I’m finding out.


Do you get more impact from using PWC than FSC, maybe.


Is FSC the next Dolphin Safe logo? Watch Seaspiracy, I don’t know. yet.


Hemp Paper

I learned that hemp has really short fibers therefore it requires a lot of virgin paper to add strength to the paper. Why do you care? Because you are maxing out at 15-20 % hemp content in a sheet. So you’re not getting a lot of value there. Hemp is also not processed in the US at the scale needed so if you’re buying a US sheet then your hemp is coming from Europe. There goes your carbon footprint.


Make sure you ask where your hemp is coming from. It’s not cheap and we’re focused on sustainability.


Cotton rag:

Paper has been made of cotton for ever. literally. So there are a lot of cotton papers out there that use recycled fabrics. There are some that use denim, white shirts, all sorts of stuff. This is typically industrial waste not post consumer waste. If it didn’t become paper they would recycle it and make new fiber out of it or landfill it. Ask where the material comes from.


Other papers:

There are a ton of other papers out there made of straw, barley, seaweed, palms, too many to mention. Check them all out and ask them all where they source their materials. Find out how much of that fiber makes it into the paper and what is the highest content they can add to it before the paper fails. 


The trick to sustainability is finding if there is a demand for the material your packaging is made of. The way to do this is to call recycling centers in the regions your product sells. If you have a local product call the 3-5 MRFs that collect recyclables in your area.


Ask them if they recycle that material, whatever the material is. take a picture of it and send it to them. If they say no, then don’t choose that material no matter what claims or studies it has.


Also make sure that whatever paper you choose you do not apply a film lamination to your packaging. This is no longer recyclable!

Yes there is such thing as recyclable film lamination - but it is only industrially recyclable and that is before it has paper attached to it. So the company that makes it can recycle it.


Some municipalities accept this material and they incinerate it or down cycle it as mixed material to be used in industrial applications like pavement, cement, drywall, roofing tiles and a bunch of other stuff that take it out of the cycle for good.




All paper is technically compostable. Our bodies are compostables but we’re not burying grandma in the garden. I hope.


If you’re expecting to sell only one of your products to each family once a year then home compostable could make sense. But if you are expecting them to buy your product more frequently then no.


How much room do you have in your yard to compost your packaging? Do you have a yard? Would you be able to compost that packaging once a month knowing it takes longer than that to compost packaging? If not, then don’t assume your consumer magically have acres in fantasy land to compost your packaging. They don’t, and they don’t have time. Shit most don’t even care.



Paper companies you should know:

James Cropper they have a killer paper that’s made from recycled coffee cups, it’s beautiful. I’ve used it myself on a packaging project I had the IDPdirect factory manufacture - the most sustainable solution for ecommerce. Google it.


GF Smith: these guys have some amazingly beautiful paper made from straw and other fibers that look incredible. They also do paper out of recycled coffee cups.


Fedrigoni: They have some beautiful papers made of 100% post consumer waste that are the brightest whites I’ve seen. 


ESKA: They make rigid boards made out of denim waste and also have some great PCW solutions. What’s great about their boards is the low humidity content so it will warp less in global environments. 


Mohawk paper: These guys are super innovative they just launched a series of sustainable papers using hemp, t-shirts, and denim. Not to mention all of their other papers which are cool. 



French Paper:Named after their founder Jerry French these guys make their paper using hydroelectric power and have a lot of cool paper solutions with high PCW content.


Ecological Fiber:  The name says it all. Check them out.



So moving on to plastics…

I’m not a plastics expert, but Ive worked with a lot of plastics, and most importantly I’ve spoken to a lot of MRFs. The one fact that stands out regarding plastics is the less than 9% recycling rate of plastics. This doesn’t account for all of the plastics in proctors that isn’t recycled either so that number is much smaller.


Since there are so many variations of plastic I’m going to keep this section simple.


1) Plastic in many instances is more sustainable than paper. There I said it. It’s the truth we all hate to admit.

But the issue is the recycling rates of plastic vs paper is where plastic falls apart.


2) so use plastics that are meant for recycling. Not the type of recycling we may have in the next 10 years but the recycling system we have today available in the regions your product is sold.


3) use high content PCR plastics. Again the more recycled material you use the more incentive there is to recycle more material. 


4) Don’t combine plastics, focus on mono material packaging. No paper plastic horror stories, no aluminum and plastics together, focus on mono material.


5) compostable - just say no. Again, consumers don’t live in a fantasy land where they can compost all of their packaging. PLUS the truth is most compostable packaging required industrial composting which isn’t widely available, and many don’t even want your packaging. So just say no.

This gives the consumer the wrong idea, they think that compostable packaging means they can throw it on the ground and it disappears. Or that if it goes to landfill it will degrade. 

Nothing degrades in a landfill the way you think it does.


Also if this ends up in the recycling stream it degrades the output material.


6) bio plastics, growing food crops for plastic? Doesn’t sound right does it? Just say no. They say it recycles like regular plastic. If it recycles like regular plastic PET, LDPE, HDPE, whatever, then just use PET, LDPE, HDPE there’s a already a system in place to manage that material and we’re doing a terrible job at it. Don’t add more confusion to a losing proposition.



7) Colored PET inserts, yes your brand color is purple. But nobody will want a purple insert in their waste stream, because everyone wants clear or natural colored PCR. This way they can color it any color they want, then create more colored material nobody wants. 

Design for recycling. Keep it clear or natural colored.


Then there is reusable

So many brands want to ditch their paper bags for fabric totes. Then they realize that fabric totes are expensive so they settle for a cheaper fabric called NWPP. NWPP is a non woven polypropylene this material lasts forever. Not literally but pretty close. It is a plastic that could be recycled if it wasn’t turned into a fabric. 


This is where people get confused. PP is recyclable. Think of your yogurt container that’s PP. That can be recycled. 

If it is a fabric it can’t. Technically it can, but it won’t get recycled. 


Why? Because this fabric will tangle up the separating equipment at a MRF so they won’t accept these. Nobody wants them, stop use them, unless you can collect them and recycle them in bulk for your consumers. 



When It comes to plastics, you have to understand what sustainability means to you and to your brand. Plastic can help reduce your carbon footprint in any instances but then it also has little chance of being recycled which then defeats the purpose of the sustainability conversation.




What if we design packaging that consumers love so much they’ll keep forever? What does forever look like? Will they hand your packaging down to their children and then on to their grandchildren? Or keep for a while before throwing away, regifting to be thrown away at a later date? Keepsake isn’t real. 


Instead, design packaging that is beautiful enough to keep but can be separated easily to be recycled properly. 


If your product won’t be getting handed down for generations, the packing won’t be either.




Every brand is looking to replace polybags.

There are paper bags out there claiming to be able to replace them, but from tests I’ve seen, they don’t. I mean it’s paper. 

The first questions is whether you need a poly bags in the first place and why. 

Many times the manufacturer of your product uses polybags to protect the product from dust, dirt, and various other external forces that can deteriorate the appearance of the product. Why?


Because you are paying them for a quality product, and they want to make sure it exchanges hands in that condition. This way your brand can’t ask for credit on the 5 items that had fingerprints, or had dust, or had moths.


This is why polybags are used. 


Then from there to the distribution warehouse, they’ll only accept items that are polybagged so they are not responsible for any damage to your product. If it is not polybagged then how can you guarantee that 6 of those items didn’t arrive with fingerprints?


Before you try to replace the polybag find out why it is there and then determine the best course of action. Note that flexible film like polybags or grocery bags are not accepted curbside in the US. So consumer would have to drive to their grocery store to drop it off.    Slim chance.


Poly Mailers

These are those plastic envelopes so many brands use to ship our soft goods like shirts and clothes. Some buy compostable poly mailers and brand them with compostable symbols and recycle symbols. But again, there isn’t much composting going on at the landfill. These may be certified compostable, because under specific environments they will compost but there isn’t a collection service for this, and how many of your consumers actually compost? Like truly compost the right way? 


If it is home compostable, you still have to compost properly. Not just bury it in your yard and forget about it. 

So, do your own research and make the right choice. Don’t get swayed by the research done by the supplier of the material, it’s their job to get you to buy it. 




Foil is one area that has many people confused. If you put a foil logo on a paper box you can’t recycle it - that’s not true. 

If you use a mylar foil paper to line a box it is not recyclable - that is true.


Don’t get hung up on the semantics of not recyclable or recyclable - you know what I mean. When I say not recyclable it means that it is not going to be accepted and separated to recycle it. Can it be recycled? Yes anything can be recycled depending on your definition of recycling. 


So with foil, there are thresholds. How much coverage is there? Less than 40%, yes it can be recycled. Over 40% it can be recycled but there’s a good chance it will be improperly sorted by the equipment. It may not register as paper. Want to be safe? Keep it under 40%.


Spot UV, silk screen,  - same thing. Keep it under 40% and you’re golden.



Tissue paper:

Why bring up tissue paper? Because so many brands use it as dunnage, space filler. We all remember opening grandma’s presents from Macy’s and the flimsy box would be full of tissue? We remember that noise it would make so loudly as we opened the boxes and pulled out an itchy sweater.


Tissue it’s been around for ages, and it’s completely pointless. 


Material that is that thin and made up of recycled pulp isn’t typically recycled again. There isn’t anything there, fibers are short, and it’s a waste of space. Don’t use it. 

If you need to use a space filler for ecommerce, use giami. A Kraft paper that is diet to expand and create a nice cushion inside your packaging. 

Don’t use those airbags, they’re full of hot air. You can’t recycle them so they’re just trash. To avoid being sued, I will say they can be recycled under specific instances - you won’t find yourself in one of those instances, so no.


Use a paper sheet over 150 GSM, use one that is 100% PCW, just fid something that can be easily recycled. Or design your packaging to not need so much filler between it and the packaging.


We’ll talk about Size in another episode if you enjoyed this one.