Are we getting mixed messages when it comes to product packaging?
On one hand, we’ve got the emergence of ‘zero waste’ shopping. On the other, the ‘unboxing’ trend that began on social media remains as popular as ever.
So, what is the best packaging? Is it no packaging at all? Or is sustainable packaging good enough?
Read on to find out our thoughts on this topic…
Best packaging = zero packaging?
So-called ‘zero waste’ shopping is on the rise. The movement allows shoppers to take their own containers to be refilled with unpackaged wholefoods and store cupboard essentials purchased in bulk by a retailer, therefore completely removing the need for last-mile product packaging.
Once solely the preserve of small independent stores, this growing trend is entering mainstream supermarkets, with the likes of Waitrose and Tesco trialling refill and reusable packaging schemes in stores as part of efforts to reduce packaging use.
With governments around the world legislating to ban single-use plastics and achieve net zero, it is no surprise that businesses are under greater pressure to reduce the environmental impact of their product and transit packaging. Rethinking supply and demand models for the zero waste economy – where possible – is the most effective way to do that.
On the other hand, however, the ‘unboxing’ trend that began on social media remains as popular as ever. Product packaging – or, more specifically, the process of removing it – is firmly embedded as part of the customer experience. If you do it well, you can improve your brand image – which will ultimately lead to more sales, right?
Packaging: an industry in change
For years, businesses and consumers were led to believe that if packaging was recyclable, it was ok to use.
Then came increased general knowledge about the effect on the Earth’s climate of emissions produced from recycling processes, as well as the energy and water intensity of manufacturing and processing virgin raw materials for use in product packaging.
Consumers (and therefore the brands that were looking to sell to them) began to look for products packaged in a more sustainable manner, whether in packaging made from recycled materials or using biodegradable materials that could be composted after use or that they knew would break down quickly in landfill.
None of this stopped some brands, which continue to use non-recyclable, non-biodegradable product packaging made from virgin raw materials, including many single-use plastics.
Children’s toys are among the worst offenders, with supermarket food close behind.
Sustainable packaging: the case for change
The environmental case for making a change is clear. Plastics production has increased dramatically over the past 50 years and is expected to double again by 2040.
The industry relies on finite resources of oil and gas for around 90% of its output – even more so for plastic packaging, with so few plastics being recycled into packaging – and many of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process are toxic to the environment.
Estimates suggest only 9% of the plastic waste the world has ever produced has been recycled. The majority is sent to landfill, and a large proportion escapes collection systems entirely and leaks into the environment.
Most plastics do not biodegrade. Instead, they slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics. Studies suggest plastic bags and the like can take thousands of years to decompose, contaminating soil and water, killing wildlife, and destroying ecosystems.
It has been estimated that plastic packaging accounts for about half of the plastic waste in the world. It comprises more than 60% of the waste collected in international coastal clean-up operations and yet still, each year, at least eight-million tonnes of plastics leaks into the ocean – the equivalent of dumping a refuse truck full every minute.
If our current consumption patterns and waste management practices continue, by 2050 ecologists estimate there will around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment. Without significant action, scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than there are fish.
With all this in mind, it seems zero waste shoppers are right – ideally, the best packaging to have is indeed no packaging at all.
But zero packaging is not always possible to achieve and, even if can be done at the consumer level, packaging will doubtless continue to be required elsewhere in the supply chain for that item, to protect the product during transportation and distribution .
And what about those delicate, high value or hygiene-critical products, where last-mile packaging is essential to safeguard the integrity and usability of the product?
When sustainable packaging is the best packaging
In these instances, businesses should be guided by the principles of sustainable product packaging. If packaging cannot be designed out of the equation, then its impact on people and planet must be reduced as much as possible, and mitigated for wherever it cannot be eliminated entirely.
Find out more: Read our guide to sustainable packaging.
Efforts to do so may be guided by the hierarchy of sustainability:
- Refuse – Can you refuse to use packaging altogether?
- Rethink – Can you reimagine your product packaging entirely, starting again from the beginning with the aim of creating as little environmental impact as possible?
- Reduce – Can the amount of packaging be reduced in order to reduce its impact?
- Reuse – Can you introduce a reuse scheme for product packaging to prolong its useful life and reduce waste?
- Repurpose – Can you come up with a new purpose for your packaging that your customers will use, and encourage them to take advantage of it?
- Recycle – Can your packaging be returned and recycled into new packaging, or something else of use?
- Recover – Can you recover any materials or energy out of your packaging waste, such as electricity, heat, fuel or compost?
At PALLITE® Group, all our sustainable packaging products are designed to make as little impact as possible on people and planet. We use just two materials to make them: recycled paper and biodegradable PVA glue. The innovative honeycomb design at their core allows them to provide maximum strength and protection from as little material as possible, they can be re-used multiple times, and they are 100% recyclable at the end of their useful lives.
To find out more about our range of sustainable packaging products, including pallets, pallet boxes, layer pads, custom protective inserts and void fill, get in touch.