Do you keep a soda bottle in your backpack even after it’s empty because you’re waiting to find a recycling bin? Do you gather dead batteries in a bag until you can get them to a proper eco-waste center? Do you carefully unwrap presents with the hope of reusing that same paper on a future gift?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re a person who cares about the environment and minimizing waste. If that’s you and you’re an ecommerce business owner, keep reading for eco-friendly packaging options your company could invest in this year to save money and help preserve the planet. And if you answered no to these questions and are an ecommerce business owner, definitely keep reading because profits and planet preservation can go hand in hand!
What is Eco-Friendly Packaging?
The exact definition of eco-friendly is fluid because technically anything that causes less harm to the environment, when compared to an alternative, could be described as eco-friendly. Example: a bicycle is more eco-friendly than a sedan, but a sedan is more eco-friendly than a Hummer. In terms of eco-friendly packaging or eco-friendly shipping materials, the rule of thumb is that this includes any packing materials or dunnage that are designed to:
- Biodegrade and be easily recycled
- Prevent pollution to the environment
- Avoid harm to humans and wildlife
- Be used for other purposes
- Not take as long to decompose as other materials
- Support a circular economy
***Note that eco-friendly packaging and eco-friendly shipping can also refer to consolidating ecommerce orders into fewer shipments, utilizing lower carbon-emitting transportation methods, or even minimizing the amount of transportation needed to get ecommerce orders to customers.
Why Does Eco-friendly Packaging and Eco-friendly Shipping Matter?
Okay, there are two ways we could write this part of our eco-friendly ecommerce blog:
1.) Doom and gloom you with facts and figures like how in 2018 the US produced 291.4 million tons of trash, and 1/3 of that was packaging material. You don’t even want to know what the numbers were for 2020-2022.
2.) Tell you that there are a TON of people actively working to make a more eco-friendly, environmentally sustained world, and there are a TON of ways ecommerce businesses can get a piece of that action.
At ShipMonk, we are more glass half full, so we’re going to focus on the second option. Because anybody can tell you what the problems are; they’re simple. Non eco-friendly packaging and shipping materials end up in landfills (releasing toxic gasses like methane and ammonia) or in the ocean. In both cases you have ecosystems getting damaged and the health of humans and wildlife getting negatively impacted.
We, as a 3PL dedicated to helping our ecommerce clients thrive and grow, wish the same for our world, and as such aren’t going to focus on hammering the problems home; we’re going to focus on giving you ideas for how to help fix those problems. We’ll give you 15 IDEAS, in fact, for amazing eco-friendly packaging options!
Eco-Friendly Packaging and Shipping Materials
Packaging and shipping materials are a vital part of every ecommerce order, especially considering how many packages need to travel great distances. Items in an ecommerce order don’t just need to be packed, after all; they need to be packed well because if an item—regardless of fragility or weight—is not properly packaged, it could get damaged in shipping and that is costly for you in terms of replacements and reshipping, and generates negative customer experience with your brand.
Don’t worry though, there’s no need to choose between being eco-friendly and ensuring your ecommerce orders make it safely to your customers. Today there are a massive number of innovative packaging and shipping material alternatives that would make your average tree-hugger offer you an embrace.
1. Corrugated Packaging – Many ecommerce business owners are using corrugated packaging to support eco-friendly shipping practices. Better for the environment than plastic bubble wrap, this type of dunnage is made from up-cycled corrugated cardboard. Up-cycled meaning material that has already been used in some way and has now been given a second life, in this case to act as a dunnage for fragile items. Minor cuts are made into this special paper to produce a cushioning effect that protects ecommerce orders against shocks just as bubble wrap would. Per corrugated.org, corrugated materials can be reused/reconverted 7 – 10 times to make new packaging materials. In addition, “more corrugated packaging is recovered for recycling than any other packaging material.”
2. Biodegradable Packing Peanuts – Styrofoam is extremely bad for the environment. Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Washington, D.C. have all banned its use. And with good reason. Styrofoam packing peanuts (also known as EPS – expanded polystyrene foam) are not economically recyclable or biodegradable. Hence the need for an eco-friendly packing option that can still offer ecommerce orders shock cushioning and prevent product movement within packages. Good news — biodegradable air packing peanuts are now on the market. They work just like styrofoam packing peanuts, but can be broken down and are less expensive. Talk about a win-win!
3. Air Pillows Made from Recycled Material – These inflatable pillows of fun are a great eco-friendly and cost-saving alternative to bubble wrap and styrofoam. They are basically just small bags that have been inflated, thus reducing the amount of plastic, and material in general, needed to produce packaging material. As they come in assorted sizes, air pillows can fill all sorts of gaps in boxes, cushioning items of all kinds in ecommerce orders. Added bonus: air pillows can be recycled and reused. They are also biodegradable. Not all horses run the same though. So if you are going to use air pillows for your ecommerce business, look for those that are made from 100% recycled materials and that emphasize biodegradability.
4. Recycled Cardboard and Other Materials – Cardboard boxes are the industry standard for shipping all things, not just ecommerce orders. They are certainly a better option than plastic, being completely biodegradable and able to be recycled about a half dozen times. Still, just because a product is biodegradable doesn’t mean we can take its use for granted. The process of biodegradation releases methane into the atmosphere, so the breakdown of cardboard in a landfill over time does unleash a solid carbon footprint. Add to that, cardboard fibers come from trees, and we all know deforestation is a bad thing.
So, to play the eco-friendly shipping game the best you can, ecommerce business owners should try to source post-industrial or post-consumer recycled paper and cardboard for their shipping materials. There are recycled plastics that can be used for your ecommerce order mailers just as there is recycled cardboard for your boxes. Reconsidering the type of adhesives on these packaging materials can promote their recyclable potential as well. For example, mailers that have more than one adhesive strip can be used more than once.
Overall, using recycled materials in your boxes, mailers, and so forth helps conserve natural resources, reduce waste in landfills, and prevent pollution by lowering the need for machinery that collects raw materials. Another recommendation: look for materials that are FSC-certified to make sure your packaging supports sustainably managed forests.
*** An FSC certification means products come from “responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits. The FSC Principles and Criteria provide a foundation for all forest management standards globally, including the FSC US National Standard (v1.0) that guides forest management certification in the U.S.”
5. Kraft Paper – We all know cardboard and paper come from trees, specifically the wood pulp of trees. The good news is that unlike regular paper, kraft paper can be produced from the wood pulp of many kinds of trees, like resinous pine, which can take the hit because they aren’t typically used to create paper products. Furthermore, almost all chemicals that go into the production of kraft paper can be reused, hence kraft paper has a much more sustainable manufacturing process than other packaging and shipping materials. There are various companies specializing in kraft paper packaging. To highlight one, noissue kraft mailers are 100% FSC-certified and come in a range of sizes. Ecommerce business owners can even customize their packaging with unique branding and style options.
6. Compostable Packaging Material – When we say that a material is compostable, we mean it has the ability to naturally decompose back into the earth; and in an ideal situation it does so without leaving any toxic residue behind. If we’re getting technical, to be considered compostable material needs to be able to break down within 180 days in a home composting situation and within 90 days in a commercial composting facility. As such, compostable packaging materials typically come from plant-based materials and/or bio-poly mailers. We’ll delve more into specific types of compostable packing options coming up next.
7. Green Cell Foam – This bio-based foam material is made from corn grown in the US. This packaging and shipping material alternative functions just like foam, so brands with fragile or small items can rest assured their ecommerce orders are properly cushioned. However, unlike harmful foams, green cell foam is easily disposed of. It can be dissolved in water or composted at home or at an industrial facility that specializes in composting.
8. Cornstarch Packaging Material – This organic material comes from the corn or maize plant. Yup, corn isn’t just a delightful food to have at a summer BBQ; it’s an eco-friendly ecommerce alternative. Corn starch has plastic-like properties that make it an amenable alternative to conventional plastic, molded forms, and loose-film packaging. Just know that if you’re going to enlist the use of cornstarch packaging, don’t make it your sole source of eco-friendly packaging material. Since cornstarch is derived from corn grains, utilizing it a lot can impact human and animal life that rely on corn heavily for their food ecosystems.
Other biodegradable packaging materials that are more eco-friendly than plastic, but can impact food chains, include sugarcane and wheat, even bamboo. No worries. There are many more effective eco-friendly options related to foods and plants to explore that are less ecosystem-impacting.
9. Mushroom Packaging Material – Mushrooms aren’t just great on pizzas and on the side of steaks; today they are being developed for packaging materials. Mushroom packaging is formed through a process that cleans and grounds agricultural waste or feedstock, which cannot be used by humans or animals. The material is bound together by mycelium (i.e. fungus-type mushroom root structure), then molded into the desired packaging material shape. The final product just needs to dry and BAM! it’s ready to go. Because, as mentioned, mushroom packaging is made from unwanted feedstock that would go to waste anyway, it does not have the same caveats as cornstarch packaging. Just know that for now it is primarily used as a packing option for smaller items.
In summary, on the eco-friendly side, mushroom packaging is petroleum-free, naturally degrades at an amazing rate, breaks down into non-toxic organic matter, and protects the planet. And, on the ecommerce business side, mushroom packaging is durable, lightweight, and can safely ship in ecommerce orders featuring small or light items to your customers’ doors.
10. Seaweed Packaging Material – This green (pun intended) solution for your packaging needs is produced using agar, which is a gelatinous substance found in different algae and seaweed plants. This eco-friendly option is the new kid on the block, but could very well be the next big thing in the biodegradable packing game. The packaging material is manufactured by extracting the agar from algae and seaweed then dehydrating it. This forms a soft cushioning material; however if you freeze the product it becomes stiff and film-like, which can then be compressed.
11. Cellulose Packaging Material – When referring to cellulose packaging material we are talking about materials made from natural sources like wood, cotton, and hemp, all of which are compostable and biodegradable unlike plastic. As a bonus, cellulose packaging material is moisture resistant, so in addition to being way more environmentally friendly than many alternatives, this packaging material is a preferred choice for food brands.
12. Glassine Packaging Material – Glassine is a type of packaging material produced from wood pulp; ergo it is recyclable and biodegradable. It is also a unique packaging material because it is a smooth and glassy paper product. So if you want an eco-friendly, transparent paper packing option for your ecommerce orders (that is also pH neutral and acid-free), glassine is for you.
13. Biodegradable Plastics and Recycled Plastics – Plastic has consistently been the villain of this blog without a doubt. Unfortunately, sometimes plastic is a “necessary evil” because it may be the only solution for your ecommerce business’s specific needs. If that’s the case, there is still a route you can take to be able to hang with eco-friendly folk. We’re talking about 100% recycled and/or biodegradable plastic.
In terms of utilizing recycled plastic, this reduces the demand for raw material extraction, which reduces pollution. Just keep in mind that plastic can only be recycled about 2 – 3 times before it can’t be reused and goes to the trash graveyard. Biodegradable plastics (bioplastics) are a much greener option. Okay, let’s get super scientific!
Bioplastics cover a sub-set known as “microbial polyesters” or PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates). These are polyesters synthesized and stored by bacteria and archaea classification. Once the microorganisms are cultured in nutrient-limited amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus (alongside excess carbon to metabolize the bacteria /archaea) they create the biodegradable polyester chains we are after. Yay for biodegradability! The issue is the carbon that is harnessed in the production process.
Even so, these microorganisms have been genetically modified to create a more efficient process, which has allowed bigger companies like Nestle, Pepsico, and Bacardi to introduce PHA plastic into their supply chains. Why not explore how eco-friendliness can be incorporated into your ecommerce business through PHA plastic and recycled plastics today.
14. Organic Ecological Textiles – This eco-friendly packaging material option provides extra value to your ecommerce customers while reducing waste across the supply chain. How? Well, organic ecological textiles are multi-use, sturdy materials that are also biodegradable. Examples of such durable materials and their uses include:
- Hemp, which can be made into tape to keep products together
- Linen that can be used to make anti-scratch wraps and bags that protect products
- Organic cotton, which can serve as an effective cushioning material within boxes
There are, of course, many other textiles (tapioca, palm leaves, poplin, etc.) and many more uses. The point is these all take WAY less time to decompose than plastic bags. Think several weeks vs. several thousand years. And the organic ecological textiles on the market don’t negatively impact food chains like plastics do once they degrade into microplastics.
15. Edible Films – No really. It might seem far-fetched to imagine buying a snack bar and being able to eat the wrapping your chocolate-peanut butter product came in, but as the Doctor from Doctor Who once said, “Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination.”
Edible films are currently being manufactured as a sustainable packaging option for food products. This type of packaging material can be created from a variety of natural products, but chitosan (a sugar made from the chitin shells of crustaceans) is the most effective and widely used. Thus, chitosan is one of the most plentiful biopolymers, following behind cellulose.
The takeaway: though edible films are on the newer side of eco-friendly packaging avenues to explore, they are out there. And as this line of products develops, the amount of food packaging waste out there will decrease. So if you have an ecommerce business in the food industry, consider checking out edible film as a means to protect and package your food items for shipment in the future; it’s a million times better for the environment than plastic, and your customers will get a bonus treat with their orders.
Buying into Eco-Friendly Ecommerce Packaging
From corrugated paper to corn, from new strains of plastic to edible packaging, there are an abundance of eco-friendly options out there for ecommerce businesses of all sizes and types to work with. So why not check out the options? Many traditional packaging and shipping material alternatives are affordable, so profit margins don’t have to be an issue. You can reduce your carbon footprint and protect the planet so your thriving company can still be selling goods on a thriving planet hundreds of years from now.
Add to that, there are plenty of customers willing to pay a premium for sustainability. A study in 2020 noted that 74% of consumers would be fine paying more for sustainable packaging with their purchases because guess what . . . people care! So explore all the eco-friendly possibilities, consider how they can be incorporated into your pricing structure and marketing, and help make 2023 an even better year for the environment. While you do that, ShipMonk will help you make 2023 an even better year for your ecommerce business.
Contact our ecommerce fulfillment experts now to get started. Visit the Green Business Bureau for tools that “enable businesses to understand, prioritize, implement and certify green initiatives and sustainable business practices.” And check out our ecommerce blog for more tips for improving, growing and scaling your ecommerce business!