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Eco friendly packaging alternatives to plastic

We are all very familiar with images of swirling plastic islands floating in the middle of the oceans. In many instances, plastic is actually the best option. But what are the Eco friendly packaging alternatives to plastic?

Each year it is estimated that 80 billion plastic bottles are produced, 80% of which end up in landfill sites globally. It takes on average 800 years for a plastic bottle to decompose.

The word plastic has become intrinsically linked with disposable. You could argue that the main challenge is changing consumer habits rather than eradicating plastic packaging completely. 

Firstly, let’s put one point straight, plastic is widely recyclable and often best and safest option for food packaging design. Therefore the issue is often not the plastic itself but how people dispose of it. 

Additionally, millennials are pushing brands to be much more responsible with their approach towards environmental concerns. New market places are being created that push social responsibility and zero waste in an attempt to change shoppers habits.

So what are the alternatives and what is the best strategy to adopt moving forwards?

Sustainability – what is it?

There is currently a lot of buzz around the term sustainable packaging. Sustainable packaging refers to the use of packaging materials that have a minimal environmental impact and carbon footprint.  

This reduction can happen in a number of ways. Firstly, by using 100% recycled or raw materials in manufacture and minimising the production process. Also by extending its life cycle and usability.

In order to be considered sustainable, packaging needs to meet eight specific criteria. As detailed by the sustainable packaging coalition. These are:

  • Is beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its lifecycle.
  • Meets market criteria for performance and cost.
  • Sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy.
  • Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials.
  • Manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices.
  • Made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle.
  • Physically designed to optimize materials and energy.
  • Effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed-loop cycles.

Below are a list of strategies and packaging design innovations you can adopt to become more eco-friendly with your packaging.

1. Reduce the amount of packaging.

The first and most obvious strategy is to reduce the overall amount packaging that you use on a product. This could mean moving from six sided cartons to pillow packs. Using smaller boxes or bags not only helps reduce the amount packaging materials. This can also can help reduce your distribution costs and ensure that you’re not shipping ‘dead space’ and filling shelves space more efficiently. Consumers always respond negatively to packs that are substantially bigger than the product inside. Reducing the amount of packaging can positively effect the perception of your brand.

2. Plant based packaging.

Simply put, these are are made out of organic materials. From fungi and seaweed to corn and even food waste.

Choosing the correct material will ultimately depend on what you’re planning to pack. Bio plastics such as those from companies like Good Natured, are often better for items such as food that need protecting from contamination and increasing shelflife. More robust examples could utilise packaging made from much more durable plant materials such as mushrooms.

Polylactic acid (PLA), also known as Bioplastic is a biodegradable polyester derived from renewable plant materials such as corn starch. Bioplastics big advantage is that has a carbon footprint up to 75% less than traditional packaging materials and is now commercially composted. The trade off is that it can be prohibitively expensive on smaller runs.

Mushroom Packaging consists of 100 percent biodegradable and renewable plant based material that can be recycled both in and by nature.

Saltwater Brewery in America have developed a material for their six-pack rings which is not only biodegradable and compostable, but also completely edible! The rings are made from barley and wheat remnants which are a by-product of the brewing process which will actually benefit the sea life if they find their way into the ocean.

3. Recycled materials in packaging.

Aluminum cans are one of the most recyclable materials. Turning recycled aluminum cans into brand spanking new cans uses on average 95% less energy than making new ones from scratch. It has been estimated that the energy saved by recycling one single aluminum can is equivalent to what is needed to run a television for 3 hours.

Brands such as Rightwater have gone plastic-free using 100% recyclable aluminum cans. These are also free from BPA to make them suitable for consumers concerned about possible plastic contaminants in their water.

The most widely recycled plastic globally is Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Recycling PET preserves circa two-thirds of the energy usually required to make new plastic bottle which successfully lowers greenhouse gas emissions. PET plastic is an inert material. This means that it resistant to attack by microorganisms so reducing the risk of ground water contamination. As mentioned previously though, the issue is that much of this plastic ends up in the oceans.

Some brands such as Method, successfully use this ocean reclaimed plastic rather than create plastic bottles from scratch. Sports brands such as Adidas are successfully adopting this process in the soles of their trainers.

4. Compostable and biodegradable alternatives.

Compostable packaging is made out of materials that can be composted at home and commercially. Hence why they are often made from plant-based polymer that can break down in compost.

Depending on what the source material is, a commercial compost facility can break down this type of packaging in around 3 months. Domestic composting such as the type in your garden, achieves the same in a little longer at around 6 months.

Fazer and Sulapac to bring an eco-friendly chocolate that consists of handmade pralines from Fazer that are held within the wood chip derived, biodegradable box.

Snact is a snack brand on a mission, fighting food waste and plastic pollution. The packaging is made in conjunction with startup TIPA from surplus fruit and veg that would otherwise be thrown away.

It is just as durable and impermeable as ordinary plastic but it decomposes within just 180 days. This innovative packaging is available in 100% home compostable packaging which is the first of its kind in the UK.

5. Organic coatings.

Most paper or card packaged food products needs a plastic coating to separate the contents from the less durable outer. So whilst it may look compostable and eco friendly, the fact is, it often isn’t.

The UK-based ice cream brand, Northern Bloc, has launched tubs for its products that are recyclable and biodegradable. The tubs are treated with an organic coating instead of plastic to ensure the product stays contained. Additionally this allows the sealant to break down when the packaging is being recycled.

Normally separating the paper and coating is difficult at the recycling stage due to the by-product of the two ends up being too contaminated to reuse. However, the tub protected instead by a fully natural organic compound made from sugarcane which is fully reusable and therefore breaks down naturally.

The Sherwood Group’s Puracoat® has created a product for use in food barrier packaging. Hence, offering food manufacturers an eco friendly solution to conventional plastic, PE and other forms of barrier control. The growing problem is plastic waste as attributed to the development of this. The coating is:

  • Suitable for direct food contact
  • An eco friendly, water-based barrier control
  • Grease resistant to highest ‘Kit 12’ rating
  • Verified independently by Smithers Pira
  • Fully recyclable and biodegradable in line with BS EN 13432
  • Suitable for frozen conditions
  • Microwaveable and ovenable up to 220 C
  • Flexible application levels to meet end use requirements
  • Reduced turnaround time, improving speed to market
  • Used in conjunction with biodegradable window films for an optimum eco friendly solution

6. Refillable parent packaging.

The use of refillable containers operates on a simple principle. The store provides products in bulk, and customers bring their empty refillable containers and fill them with product. The cleaning and personal care sector widely adopts this practice.

Refillable containers reduces both transportation and manufacturing costs. The biggest challenge is acceptance by the public and having the availability of the source containers to fill in the first place.

7. Paper pulp bottles.

There has been lots of innovation in the area of paper pulp bottles. The huge cost of collection and recycling both plastic glass and in some cases aluminium has led to the need for a more compostable solution.

Carlsberg Group has been busy working on 2 new research prototypes. These are 100 per cent bio-based and fully recyclable and made from sustainably sourced wood fibres.

One of these bottles uses a thin, recycled PET polymer film barrier to separate the liquid from the pulp, and the second a 100 per cent bio-based PEF polymer film barrier.

Companies such as Paper Water Bottle for creating bottle structures with an eco-skeleton constructed from a combination of wheat straw, bamboo, husks, sugar cane, and/or bulrush. They are incorporating increasingly less barrier material with more sustainable content. The ultimate goal is 100% biodegradable layer.

8. Bagasse.

Bagasse is a made from dry pulpy fibrous material that remains after crushing sugarcane to extract the juice. It is very similar to polystyrene in that it can be easily moulded into packaging suitable for take-aways. The big advantage though is that, it’s 100% biodegradable and compostable, and as it is a by-product of sugarcane processing, it is much more sustainable to manufacture.

Bagasse takes around 4 months to fully decompose in the ground.

9. Palm leaves.

One of the biggest pet hates for consumers is plastic packaging on fruit and veg on supermarket shelves.

Holy Lama use palm leaves to create stunning packaging for their handmade soap range. The leaves are harvested from the natural waste and leaf fall of the plant and moulded into the delicate clam shapes to contain the soap. The end result is fully biodegradable.

Berlin startup Arekapak is developing packaging for the fresh food industry and beyond using the same palm leaf packaging technology.

They produce their products in cooperation with small producers in rural areas in southern India. This helps support local manufacturers and ensure the employment of workers from the surrounding villages.

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