At Ranpak, we have honed our expertise in sustainable packaging for decades. By focusing on the power of paper, we have created innovative solutions that help to replace single-use plastic within a broad range of packaging applications.
The world of environmentally friendly packaging is a big one, full of different options as well as qualities to balance based on packaging needs. Within this guide, you’ll learn about the factors that make packaging sustainable, what kinds of materials fit these criteria, the role that the circular economy plays in packaging, and more, with additional resources shared on these topics.
What is sustainable packaging?
Sustainable packaging typically refers to packaging that is made from materials that mitigate environmental impacts by being recyclable, biodegradable, and made from renewable materials.
Use the power of paper to soften the force of impact and protect your goods from common drop scenarios. Perfect for high-value, heavy, or delicate products.
Prevent minor surface abrasions and keep products safe in transit, all while providing a uniquely sustainable look perfect for unboxing.
Materially efficient paper can lock an item in place within a parcel while being easy for end customers to recycle at the curb.
Regulate in-the-box temperature in transit using a sustainable total solution. Paper liners combine with bio-based gel cool packs to meet your product’s needs.
Ideally sustainable packaging will have all of the qualities listed above. In some cases, packaging is referred to as sustainable when it only meets one or several of these criteria.
Which qualities make packaging material sustainable?
There is more than one way to judge sustainability, so the answers to this question will vary somewhat based on the criteria that are being weighed most heavily. A helpful tool for assessing the sustainability of packaging material is using the five R’s.
The 5 R’s of sustainable packaging
Renewable, Reduced, Reused, Recyclable, and Recycled. Within our considerations, we would also add a B, for biodegradability.
Renewables are materials that regrow, instead of depleting over time. This includes materials such as paper, mushroom-based packaging, wool, and materials harvested from grasses, bamboos, or agricultural byproducts. Corn and potatoes are common sources of fibers and sugars that are used to create packaging materials.
This does not include materials such as plastics made from fossil fuels, which are a finite resource formed over millions of years.
Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling materials:
Reduce, reuse, recycle describes the ideal order of operations when it comes to making packaging more sustainable. Using less packaging overall has the most positive impact on environmental sustainability.
By using packaging automation together with more sustainable packaging materials, significant material savings are possible.
Reusing packaging helps to reduce materials that end up within the waste stream. Common replacements from disposable to reusable packaging include using a refillable water bottle. A concept that many consumers are familiar with.
Finally, recycling recaptures value and helps keep materials out of landfills once the useful life of the packaging has expired. By reusing materials, the externalities associated with material harvesting can be mitigated and a linear economy model can be supplanted by a circular economy, where materials are used and reused instead of being used and then discarded.
Incorporating Recycled content:
Recycled content refers to the materials that are reclaimed during the recycling process that are ready to be used to make new products. There are two general kinds of recycled materials that are used within manufacturing. Post-industrial waste (PIW) and post-consumer waste (PCW).
Post-industrial waste refers to the material collected as a byproduct of industrial manufacturing. These are the scraps that are created from the use of virgin materials. The benefit of post-industrial waste is the uniformity and high starting quality of the materials, which is close to being virgin material.
Post-consumer waste is the recaptured material that consumers will put into their curbside recycling bins. This includes things like recycled PET water bottles, paper bags, aluminum cans, and cardboard boxes to name a few. The benefit of using post-consumer waste within products is the fact that this is a key to making truly circular products that can be reintegrated into a useful manufacturing lifecycle after they have served their purpose as packaging.
Biodegradable materials can break down over time in a natural environment thanks to the activity of microorganisms. It’s possible for some materials to biodegrade within specific conditions like those in industrial composting facilities, but not break down in nature.
It’s important to note that not all packaging made from renewable materials remain biodegradable. For example, creating plastic polymers out of agricultural products can potentially result in a polymer structure that is functionally like conventional plastic.
How does packaging fit into the circular economy?
The circular economy refers to an economy that seeks to replace linear models of consumption with cycles of use and reuse. Aligning packaging with the circular economy is critically important, as waste from packaging accounts for almost half of global plastic waste.
Packaging can be better aligned with the circular economy when it is made from renewable, recyclable materials, contributing to a longer useful life and the creation of new products from the materials that go into making it.
How can packaging help improve ESG?
ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) refers to areas where companies will measure their performance against a set of metrics, reporting their performance through disclosures. The ideal outcome of ESG reporting is to increase transparency around the impact of organizations, as well as document progress towards improvement.
ESG applies to packaging companies through the concepts of material usage, recyclability, water consumption, and Greenhouse Gas emissions, as well as the business metrics related to Social and Governance.
Packaging can directly impact the environmental elements of an ESG strategy by helping to reduce the usage of non-circular materials.
Packaging automation is also capable of reducing the materials used within packaging and the GHG emissions that are generated through the shipping process thanks to volume and void reduction.
How switching to paper packaging can improve sustainability.
There are several reasons why making the switch to paper packaging can help to improve sustainability.
High recycling rates with developed infrastructure in many countries. Paper is a material that commonly recycled and can be picked up from the curb. Since the disposal process is commonly understood and easy for consumers, that leads to a strong recovery rate relative to materials such as plastic films and bubbles, which often require specialized facilities to recycle and cannot be recycled along with rigid plastics. These films must be separated from other types of plastic, or they risk causing machine jams.
Paper is made from renewable organic material. Organizations including the FSC® provide guidelines and certifications for the responsible harvesting of forest products including wood pulp for use in papermaking.
Paper is able to biodegrade within a natural environment. This means that paper will break down within weeks to months even if it does enter a landfill or is not recovered, ending up outside of the waste stream.
What are the differences between paper and plastic packaging?
Not all plastics are the same, so it’s hard to directly compare each kind with paper. Paper and plastic can also be made from 100% virgin materials or incorporate post-industrial or post-consumer recycled waste material.
Comparing paper and plastic is most effective when solutions are compared that perform the same functions. Paper solutions can be directly compared with plastic solutions across many secondary packaging applications, including:
That said, there are significant differences in the proportion of paper recycled compared with plastics, in particular non-rigid plastics that are commonly used in films and plastic air pillows.
When paper and plastic are recycled, paper can typically be recycled into new products seven times before the fibers within the material are no longer strong enough. This is in contrast to plastics, where even high quality materials can typically only be recycled up to two or three times at the most.
The majority of plastics used in packaging are derived from fossil-fuels, which are not a sustainable resource. Paper is able to be indefinitely harvested provided that responsible forestry practices are observed, and can also be made using alternative fibers including those from grass, bamboo, hemp and even old clothes.
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