Is Plastic-Free Packaging Right for Your Business?
Traditional plastic is everywhere. It is made of petroleum or, in the case of bioplastic, resource-intensive agricultural products, which can have unsafe health consequences, and it typically sticks around (basically) forever unless it is burned in a waste-to-energy facility. Marine plastic pollution is one of the most concerning environmental issues facing Mother Nature today. It is undeniable that decades of single-use plastic (and poor waste management practices) have added up to dire consequences for our planet.
Does this mean that you should go plastic-free? Would this have a net positive impact on the planet?
Unfortunately, we can’t answer that question for you. But here, we pose valuable questions for you (and anyone else at your company) to consider when making this decision, so you can be sure you're establishing the right big, hairy, audacious packaging goals for your brand.
Why are you considering going plastic-free?
Or, more importantly, how deeply have you thought through the issue? Do you have a strong sense of your rationale? And, is your rationale accurate and defensible?
Is your decision driven by marine plastic pollution?
Plastic pollution in our oceans is one of the most pressing and appalling issues of our day.
If this is the driving force behind your switch, take the time to understand the issues of marine pollution so you can (1) ensure that going plastic-free is the right move and (2) that the materials you move to are truly advantageous.
Based on current research into this issue, ecommerce packaging being delivered to countries with established waste management practices is not a contributor to marine plastic pollution (whereas other packaging such as plastic grocery bags, straws, drinking cups and lids, and food wrappers are a major contributor). Additionally, you may find that two steps companies can take to increase their positive contributions to this issue are:
- Avoid overseas manufacturing in countries that are the greatest contributors to marine plastic pollution, or audit factories to ensure they have strong waste management practices in place.
- Find ways to source recycled plastic, especially post-consumer waste (including marine plastic waste wherever possible). By acting as a demand champion for recycled plastic, you incentivize companies and countries to invest in improved waste management, recycling and technological advancements in manufacturing with reclaimed plastic.
Just looking for the best overall solution for the environment?
Great! If that is the case, we encourage you to develop your company’s sustainability philosophy before settling on "plastic-free packaging." What goals are you going to set company-wide to help you make a positive impact? Why is this important, you ask? Because plastic is not necessarily "anti-" eco-friendly (and being anti-plastic is also not the same as being sustainable).
You can, in fact, have a great sustainability plan that includes recycled and recyclable plastic. How? Recycled plastic has some important advantages over other materials. First, it is recyclable and allows the recycling process to actually work, as it creates an end market for all of the plastic that is in use today (turning recycled plastic into a resource, which gives communities and waste management providers an incentive to ensure it doesn’t end up in the ocean and instead ends being reclaimed and reused). Additionally, recycled plastic uses less resources to ship and store than most non-plastic counterparts. From a carbon footprint perspective, recycled plastic is typically superior to fiber-based alternatives. Finally, plastic has functional benefits as it is waterproof, flexible, difficult to tear and rip, and its lightweight. This means as a shipping solution, it could lead to more and more packages arriving safely and undamaged.
Are you trying to use only renewable materials across your company?
If that is the case, it may make more sense to think about your strategy as a “renewable packaging strategy” to better guide your decisions going forward.
Are you responding to customer requests for going plastic-free?
Conscious consumers are sensitive to single use packaging; single use plastic in particular. If this is the case, great! It is inspiring to see any instance of consumers driving industry change like this. That said, even if it is a market and customer driven decision for your company, it is important that the packaging solutions you switch to are well thought out and truly more beneficial to the planet, to avoid any surface level changes that may feel like “green washing.”
Have you considered other sustainability philosophies?
If you think through the above question and realize you aren’t sure if “plastic-free” is the best decision for you, we recommend checking out our guide to Sustainability and Your Company. It may help you develop a more specific and personally relevant sustainability philosophy and framework for your business. Some examples of sustainability philosophies beyond “plastic-free.”
Zero waste: Divert as much of your business’s waste (and the waste your business creates for your customers) from the landfill as possible - ideally with 0% of waste going to the landfill. In this philosophy, it is typically preferred that as much non-food waste gets recycled as possible (versus composted). Food and other agricultural products should be composted.
Recycled content and up-cycling: Some of the most progressive businesses out there are ones creating product out of waste. If that is you, you may set a broad philosophy of using reclaimed materials wherever possible across your organization - from furniture and office supplies to electronics to packaging.
Carbon footprint and life cycle analysis: Global warming is happening because we are releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an alarming rate as we cut down trees, burn fuel, and degrade our soils. Minimizing one's carbon footprint is therefore the most important action a business or person can take to help reverse this trend. If you establish a sustainability framework of minimizing your carbon footprint, it would lead you to think through different options, and assess end to end carbon footprint, when making decisions.
Are you prepared for the cost, storage and operational complexities you may encounter?
If you decide that going plastic-free is right for your business, then we believe you can, and will, ultimately achieve this goal and find plastic-free alternatives that work in your operations. Though, you may have to make adjustments to your operations and appropriately protect and present your products for delivery. But, with this third and important question, it is helpful to think through what issues you might face.
Perhaps you currently use waterproof packaging. Do you really need the water protection element? If so, does it need to be a perfect barrier, or could you add enough fiber-based protection to ensure that any outside water doesn’t affect your product? Depending on your answer, you may face immense challenges going plastic-free that you should be aware of in advance. Remember that “bioplastic” - plastic that is either plant based, biodegradable and/or compostable - is not the same as plastic-free.
Do you have space limitations and/or cost restrictions? Many plastic-free solutions will take up significantly more storage space than poly-based counterparts. Additionally, they are more expensive and pricier to ship. Be sure to budget accordingly for this transition.
Do you source from overseas factories? If so, it may be important for each item to be packaged separately, and factories typically individually package items in poly bags. Alternatively, if you sell to fulfillment centers or retailers, you may currently be required to individually wrap your goods in poly bags.
If either of these is your situation, there are fiber-based alternatives out there; however, the process may be time intensive and you may face difficult decisions about moving to new vendors. Think through these questions not to get discouraged, but to give you a better sense of the task at hand, so you can establish this goal with confidence.
Still wondering if going plastic-free is the right move for your business? We're happy to help you work through your company's needs and help you find the optimal solution.