It’s Earth Day 2020, and sentiment for keeping the earth healthy seems to be at an all-time high these past few years, unrelated to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic damaging the health of its population.
Throughout the last decade, interest in sustainability has steadily grown, and is now an influential value for consumers when dealing with brands and businesses. But, while ecofriendly interest is growing, so is e-commerce, where excess in packaging has become notorious.
Who isn’t familiar with getting a package in the mail and having to sift through endless packaging in a giant box just to find a tiny tube of lipstick? But, luckily, there are a lot of companies listening to these complaints and leaning into the demand for sustainability and looking at alternative forms of packaging.
Here are some of the top unique sustainable products used in packaging, in no particular order.
Starch-Based Packing Peanuts
Styrofoam and packing peanuts are some of the biggest offenders of pollution in the entire world. The material is light and inexpensive and provides a slight cushion to keep shipments safe while traveling. So of course, it became the go-to for companies to use in packaging.
But, Styrofoam is not biodegradable and lives on in landfills for millions of years, often ending up in our oceans and waterways. The process of manufacturing Styrofoam is also damaging to the planet, emitting a variety of greenhouse gasses into the air, contributing to climate change.
Because of this, many logistics companies are turning to biodegradable packing peanuts, as they remain lightweight and still easily fill packaging void. This version of the peanut can be made with starch or other biodegradable and non-toxic materials in a less harmful way of manufacturing. But, the most unique part is that it dissolves when wet and is not harmful to animals if accidentally ingested.
Companies like Storopack even create versions with bright colors and unique shapes to brighten up their customers’ packaging. Not only is the starch-based peanut biodegradable and dissolvable, but it also taps into the growing unboxing trend, where consumers are looking for a pleasant experience when opening packages.
Aquatic Plastic Alternatives
Scientists and innovators are finding natural material to use as a substitute for plastic and Styrofoam in the most unlikely of places.
Margarita Talep, a designer from Chile, developed an algae-based formula to replace single-use plastics in packaging. It works well with dry material and resembles thin plastic, but can be sensitive to liquid.
Similarly, Algotek, created by a group of University of Oregon alumni, creates another plastic replacement made from algae and offers customizable degradation period for partners. This means depending upon the need, the plastic-substitute can dissolve instantly upon contact with water or have a more durable life span. Algotek plastic can also range in thickness and ability to stretch. The company is also working on injection molding, most recently with single-use ice cream tasting spoons, according to its website.
Plastic alternatives are not just coming from algae. Another startup, CuanTec, is working on plastic wrap made from shells from leftover seafood production. The natural-based shrink wrap bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor and already offers microbial properties to help with seafood packaging.
CuanTec says that two quarters of the shellfish langoustine ends up in landfills, producing harmful gases and noxious smells. Instead, the company takes the waste from the shellfish and pulls out a sugar named chitin found in excess in these types of animals. From there, it is manufactured into a plastic replacement.
Brands are learning to get creative with their ways of packaging because that is what consumers want. With the unboxing trend growing and e-commerce taking the personal experience out of shopping, consumers are still looking for excitement. Many companies are solving both the sustainability problem in tandem with exciting consumers.
These aspects are virtually always seen in consumer-facing packages and not in the back end of the supply chain. Many brands are looking to recyclable cardboard instead of single-use plastics that can be turned into something fun or useful afterwards.
For instance, Packhelp worked with H&M to create bags that can be turned into hangers, allowing customers to have a way to bring their products home and store them when they’re there. Packhelp also worked with Monday’s Child on a shipping solution that transforms into a dollhouse after removing the product from the box.
Subscription service FabFitFun is known for colorful cardboard boxes of which the company urges its subscribers to re-use.
Most consumers are now familiar with the ban on plastic straws, with many restaurants switching to paper-based straws to cut down on single-use plastic. But, the No. 1 complaint with the switch is that these straws quickly fall apart, making this next unique form of packaging quite the head scratcher.
Paper bottles are becoming a reality throughout the supply chain, holding anything from cosmetics to Coca-Cola soda. Sweden’s BillerudKorsnäs worked with Coca-Cola on a paper bottle made out of a pulp recipe that can withstand high pressure.
L’Oreal’s Seed Phytonutrients similarly brand packages all of its products in sustainable packaging, including the paper bottle created by Ecologic. The bottle producer uses molded fiber technology to create sturdy paper bottle shells with minimal plastic inner liner made of 60% less plastic. The paper bottles can be used to hold a variety of liquids such as pet and home care products, any beverages including alcohol, self care products and also powders.
The Drinkable Bag
Plastic bags are another well-known enemy of the sea and one of the most common items seen in pollution. As apparel continues to grow in online consumption, interest in flexible bags often made of Polyethylene has also increased. To solve this problem, companies have invested in alternative forms of plastic for thin bags, like CuanTec’s wrap.
Avani makes bags out of cassava starch that can be used in compost piles or dissolved like the packing peanuts. The bag can be placed in warm water to dissolve immediately, which makes it so safe you can even drink it. Avani founder Kevin Kumala proved this by drinking the bag himself in an online video.
Whether it is a cardboard box that doubles as a dollhouse or a faux-plastic bag that you can drink, sustainable solutions in packaging are popping up interesting ways for both the back-end supply chain and consumer facing options. These companies along with the participation from consumers can help make a difference in the health of our planet more than just one day a year.