Yes, Eco Friendly Packaging Can Be High Quality
E-commerce companies looking to adopt green business practices will often look for ways to improve the sustainability of their packaging. But this process can lead to questions or hesitations. One common question we get is: Since your packaging is eco friendly, does that mean it is low quality and won't meet my needs?
The short answer...NO! Eco friendly packaging can be very high quality and is almost sure to meet your ecommerce packaging needs.
But it is definitely helpful to understand this question in detail when you're making decisions.
When we talk about “environmentally friendly packaging” at EcoEnclose, we are typically referring to packaging that is made from as much recycled content as possible, and in particular, with as much post-consumer waste as possible.
Bottom line? The fibers of recycled content are shorter and thinner than virgin counterparts. So, if you are flying to moon and need your materials to hold up against a multitude of known and unknown threats, virgin materials may be in order. For the day-to-day handling of ecommerce shipping, our recycled packaging holds up beautifully. We have worked hard to design and manufacture our recycled packaging to more than meet the functionality and quality needs of ecommerce businesses. In fact, this issue is core to "why we exist." Recycling only works if there are companies looking to buy recycled paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, etc. We see packaging as an industry that is uniquely suited to use as much recycled content as humanly possible - helping to make recycling economically viable overall, and ensuring that as few virgin materials as possible are being extracted for "use once and then discard" scenarios like packaging.
Curious to better understand how recycling impacts the strength of different materials and the other factors such as structural design and thickness that impact packaging quality? If so, read on to geek out on the science of it all.
And, if you're considering making the switch to recycled packaging, order free samples from us to test any of our products and confirm that they meet your requirements. And, if you have any questions on what all of this means for your business, contact us! [email protected]
Corrugated Shipping Boxes
Corrugated shipping boxes start at a paper mill where trees are pulped into virgin kraft rolls. These rolls of kraft paper are transported to a corrugated plant, where layers of the paper are crimped and glued (using a 300 foot machine called a corrugator) to form corrugated cardboard, which is then cut, printed, folded, and glued to make boxes.
We now live in a world where 65-70% of cardboard boxes are made with at least some recycled content. Recycled corrugated is made the same way as virgin cardboard, but instead of just trees, their feedstock includes - at least in part - bales of recycled paper and cardboard shipped in from municipal sorting facilities.
When it goes through the repulping and recycling process, two main things happen to paper. First, its fibers become shorter (lengthwise). Second, resoaked paper goes through a process called hornification where the fibers actually collapse slightly (become skinnier). All of this means that recycled paper has shorter, weaker fibers than virgin counterparts.
Paper is typically recycled 6-7 times. Early on in this lifecycle, when paper still retains much of its original structure, it can be recycled into cardboard, cartons and office paper. Over time, as fibers become weaker and shorter, it is recycled into paper towels, toilet paper and newspaper.
Thus, paper and corrugated is only recycled into eco friendly packaging when it has not yet experienced significant degradation and retains much of the same quality as its virgin counterparts.
The cardboard packaging industry has set universal standards to measure the strength of corrugated. Strength of corrugated sheets is most frequently measured by its ECT, or Edge Crush Test. ECT tells you how much weight a sheet of corrugated can withstand when it is standing up (on its edge). For example, a 32ECT corrugated sheet, the most common type, means the sheet can withstand 32 pounds of pressure stacked on the edge of the board (if the sheet is standing up).
This strength rating is driven by a number of different factors - flutes, weight, thickness of linerboard, and material used for linerboard, adhesive used to glue flutes to linerboard. Flutes are one of the most important components of ECT. Flutes are the s-shaped, wavy paper between the linerboard. The flute is what enables corrugated sheets to resist bending and allows the sheets and the boxes they are made from, to withstand pressure. Common flutes include B, C and E flute, and each has an industry standard width and flexibility profile associated. For example, if a 32ECT corrugated is made with E flute, can withstand as much stacking weight as a 32 ECT C flute, but would be thinner and sleeker, and would have more flutes or “waves” per inch.
So, from the perspective of ECT strength, recycled cardboard and virgin cardboard (as well as standard cardboard, which is typically made with ~30% recycled content) will be the same if they are all 32ECT C.
While ECT is the most commonly accepted way to measure the strength of corrugated sheets today, the Mullen Test is how cardboard strength have been measured for the majority of the last century. Also referred to as the “burst test,” this measures how much pressure a corrugated sheet can withstand when laying flat, suspended in the air (i.e. if the flat panels of a box are punctured). The Mullen Test is measured in PSI and the most common strength is 200lbs/sq inch.
The fundamental difference between the two tests is that under the Mullen Test there is a minimum weight requirement for the liner of corrugated. That is, the Mullen Test requires that the base papers used to make corrugated linerboard weigh at least a certain minimum number of pounds per given unit of area. The ECT has eliminated this requirement, allowing the use of fewer and lighter weight materials while still providing high performance. So, when you are comparing two identically sized cartons with similar strengths, one being Mullen Test rated and one being ECT rated, the ECT rated carton will weigh less and use less materials and (typically) the panels of the Mullen Test rated carton will be able to withstand more pressure before it punctures.
Because ECT strength is suitable for the vast majority of shipping boxes and allows for lighted, more environmentally friendly use of material, it is the rating system we use at EcoEnclose. It is also the primary rating system used by UPS - which has delivered millions…and millions and millions of packages just like yours. Not only are they experts, they are also the folks who will determine whether or not to honor claims on damaged packages. UPS provides information to help you compare ECT and Mullen / Burst Test strength, and choose the best ECT box strength based on your product dimensions and weight. You can review these guidelines here.
The strength and quality of a 100% recycled box like the ones we provide is driven in large part by how its corrugated was manufactured. EcoEnclose is proud to source its 100% recycled corrugated from US-based Pratt Industries, the sixth largest manufacturer of corrugated in the world. Unlike many manufacturers, Pratt owns their entire supply chain, with four paper mills in the US where recycled paper (old corrugated cardboard and paper waste) is pulped and converted into corrugated sheets. It is highly effective at sorting out contamination, and has invested in cutting edge equipment to manufacture strong and thin corrugated from recycled material. As such, Pratt’s corrugated sheets have been shown to successfully hold up to their designated strength test and to puncturing in ways that people may not find with other, less transparent and known manufacturers.
Strength rating is not all there is to a box though!
Choosing the right style, size, and void fill can be absolutely critical. For example, a tab-locking style has reinforced edges, when the corrugated is folded into the box. This makes a TL stronger than an equivalent RSC box. All things being equal (ECT and flutes), a smaller box is stronger than a larger box, because a higher ratio of surface are is dedicated to the edges and corners. Finally, minimizing air within a box, and using the right type of void fill helps minimize crushing and any damage to box contents.
EcoEnclose provides only custom shipping boxes, cut to your size and style specifications. Please contact us ( [email protected]) or review our Guide to Shipping Boxes if you would like support finding the right box type for your needs.
Some critics of recycled content talk about structural issues recycled boxes can face, as well as challenges with adhesives.
As the recycled content of a box goes up, it could face structural issues if it sits for a long period of time in extremely humid environments. This could be an issue for corrugated that is being used for wholesale storage in some regions. For example, if a cardboard box is being used to store goods in warehouse in Costa Rica for many months, using 100% recycled content may pose a challenge. However, this is very rarely an issue for e-commerce packaging, which is generally stored inside and then shipped and transferred in climate controlled vehicles and warehouses. Even in the most humid environments, e-commerce boxes do not sit in non-climate controlled storage or on porches long enough for the moisture to cause damage.
It is also true that basic adhesives don’t stick quite as well to environmentally friendly boxes made with mostly recycled content. This does not pose an issue for most of the box styles we provide, such as tab-locking and literature mailers, as these boxes fold into their shape, and only require a single, small strip of tape to provide a final seal. Most people have had no problems using pressure-sensitive tape (like masking tape, with sticky backing) and have enjoyed using our cello tape, which is made with renewable materials, for this purpose.
RSC boxes are ones that are assembled with tape, and then taped shut. We typically recommend that RSC boxes made with 100% recycled content (and frankly, even those that are made with only virgin content!) be constructed with water activated tape (WAT) rather than pressure sensitive. WAT provides the strongest hold with the least amount of material, and in fact, is the solution we’d recommend for this scenario regardless of how much recycled content is in an RSC box.
Recycled Poly Mailers
Poly mailers are made from LDPE #4 plastic. The majority of poly mailers on the market are made from virgin plastic, though some options are made with some post-industrial and post-consumer content. EcoEnclose's 100% recycled poly mailers (available in both Ivory and Gray) are made with a combination of post-industrial and post-consumer plastic.
When plastic is recycled, it is sorted into its different molecular types (i.e. plastic bags are different from detergent bottles). The difference types of plastic are chipped and cleaned, and then melted into pellets to be put back into the manufacturing process.
Like paper, bales of recycled plastic have contaminates (including different types of plastics that accidentally get sorted into the mix, food residue, ink, etc). And like paper, plastic fibers shorten with each iteration of recycling.
Unlike the world of corrugated, in which UPS can provide you with the recommended ECT box rating you need based on the weight and dimensions of your product, there are no such industry guidelines or thresholds for poly mailers.
Manufactures of poly mailers and plastic bags do, however, have a set of specific tests they run their products through to assess strength and quality. Specifically, these tests measure how flexible plastic punctures, tears and stretches.
In case you want to really get into the weeds of how plastic strength is tested, here is more detail. There are two tests to measure puncture strength. With the dart test, darts of varying weights are dropped onto film and with the Spencer test, the plastic material is clamped to a specially designed machine and a pendulum with a probe on the end swings and punctures the material. The Elmendorf Tear Strength is performed using a knife-tipped pendulum. The average force is calculated from the pendulum energy lost while tearing the test specimen, and plastic is tested in both the machine direction (MD) or transverse direction (TD). The test for tensile strength (how plastic stretches) is performed by clamping plastic into a machine and stretching the ends out the specimen breaks.
So what does this all mean? Universally accepted tests for flexible plastic exist. Because plastic fibers shorten in the current recycling process, comparing two otherwise identical poly mailers would show that the one with virgin content would have more favorable ratings than the recycled version across the above rating dimensions. However, reputable, committed manufacturers require that any poly mailer they create - regardless of recycled content - meet their required rating levels. EcoEnclose worked tirelessly with our supply chain partners (over the course of several years and many iterations) to achieve 100% recycled poly mailers that are strong, high quality and exceed agreed upon puncture, tear and strength ratings for the ecommerce industry. We stand behind the quality of our mailers both because we use them every day to ship out our own orders, and - perhaps more importantly - because of our track record. We've shipped out millions of recycled poly mailers in the past two years, and have had only one incidence reported to us of a poly mailer not holding up.
Outside of recycled content, other important qualities to look for in a poly mailer include thickness and usability features.
Our poly mailers are 2.5 mil thick. This is thick and sturdy for items commonly shipped in poly mailers such as t-shirts, hats and bathing suits. Some imported mailers that are focused solely on being the lowest cost are thinner, at 2 to 2.25 mil, and the difference really shows. There are also thicker, heavy-duty options (typically 3 mil) on the market and these can work well for anyone specifically seeking extra durability and protection.
Usability features include design of the peal and seal, reusability and inclusion of a tear strip. For example, EcoEnclose mailers are self-sealing and the tear away strips are static free (so you don’t end up with a bunch of strips clinging to your shirts). Additionally, the tear strip and seal does not go all the way to the end of the mailer. This small thing makes it so much easier for you to lift the adhesive backing off (without having to dig your nail in to find it!). They have tear strips, so customers can easily open their bags without having to rip the bag open with their hands. Our 100% recycled poly mailers also have a dual peel-and-seal so customers can use their same packaging for returns, or can reuse their mailers for any other shipping needs they might have.
100% Recycled Paper-Based Mailers (Kraft, Rigid and Padded Mailers)
EcoEnclose offers 100% recycled paper-based mailers, with at least 90% post-consumer content.
As described above, recycled paper fibers are shorter and thinner than virgin counterparts. However, again, when paper is recycled into packaging, it is typically early in its overall lifecycle. As such, it has not degraded much and remains high quality.
Again, our eco friendly packaging that is made from 100% recycled content has been designed in ways that maintain high quality despite the fact that its base material has some diminished strength. We have ensured these mailers are the right thickness and stiffness to meet your functional needs, while not adding excess material that would contribute to higher costs and unnecessary resource usage.
We also stock four different versions of these recycled paper mailers to ensure you can find one that has the sturdiness, strength and protection you need.
Even our thinnest paper mailer - our kraft mailer – has been designed to be thick and substantial, even when compared to virgin, conventional counterparts.
We offer two rigid mailers, of which our extra rigid mailer is extremely strong to resist bending and puncturing. In fact these mailers are so strong that they cannot be manufactured with a self-seal option (self-sealing adhesive cannot be made tacky enough to seal these thick, strong flaps together) and it therefore requires tape to fully seal. Our self-sealing rigid mailer is designed to be sturdy but still thin enough for build-in adhesive to work.
And finally, when cushioning is needed, our padded mailers are thick, protecting, resist bending, and self-seal. Our padded mailers are the only product we have for which paper that is in a later stage in its life cycle has an important use. The outer layer of these padded mailers is made with recycled paper earlier in its life cycle, but the cushioning is made largely from old newspaper. It’s a perfect blended solution that ensures high quality in that outer, protecting layer, but provides a unique new life for newspapers for which recycling is not always viable.
Flap & Seals
Apparel companies (ecommerce or not) with a global supply chain and/or who store their finished goods in a warehouse for long periods of time before they go out in an order often require clear bags in their supply chain. These bags can be critical in separating and protecting goods from manufacturer to in-country warehouse or distributor. They protect products from dust, dirt and wrinkles, while goods are being stored in a warehouse.
A small set of ecommerce apparel businesses use flap & seals as “liners” or protection within an outer mailer or shipping container. In this scenarios, these clear bags are not critical for the shipping process, but can provide excellent presentation for the recipient, keep items from getting damaged or dirty in storage or fulfillment operations, or just add that extra layer of protection (and mental comfort for a business owner) while an item is in transit.
Our flap & seals are made with 100% post-industrial plastic. From a pure durability and strength perspective, these bags are essentially the same quality as a conventional counterpart. However, a main difference is that bags are not as perfectly see-through as virgin plastic alternatives.
With each iteration of recycling, plastic gets a bit more cloudy and opaque. This is one of the main reasons we have not been able to manufacture a flap & seal with any degree of post-consumer plastic. This addition would give bags a tint of grey that would make it a challenging solution for most of the companies we work with.
Our flap & seal bags made with 100% post-industrial are completely clear. But they do have a hint of cloudiness. For some companies a perfectly clear protecting bag with absolutely zero cloudiness might be essential to the customer experience. In these instances, a virgin plastic bag may be critical (and for a small set of companies, a cello based bag might work well). In other cases a less perfectly clear bag works just as well and in fact, for some more earth-focused companies, it could even be a positive as this provides a less sterile experience for the recipient.
If you are looking to adopt eco friendly packaging but still have some concerns about quality, please order samples so you can see and touch them, and test them out. If you have feedback or specific questions on our packaging quality, please reach out! [email protected]