Is Plastic-Free Packaging Right for Your Business?
Traditional plastic is everywhere. It is typically 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 You Should Go Plastic-Free?
EcoEnclose has developed a long-term vision for sustainable packaging focused on circularity and regenerative inputs. Our more detailed sustainable packaging framework is rooted in circularity - maximizing recycled content, building towards true and endless recycling, and encouraging reuse. Our framework has pushed us to offer a range of paper and plastic solutions, with a commitment to constantly improving and innovating across both materials.
While recycled plastic and recycled paper solutions both align align well with EcoEnclose's framework, we recognize that there are very compelling reasons for certain brands to go plastic-free. We also believe strongly that "plastic-free" is not a strategy in itself. Sustainable packaging cannot simply be the elimination of one material, but instead requires careful consideration of the materials that are being used to replace plastic.
If you're considering committing to plastic-free packaging, read on to learn about:
- When plastic-free is particularly right for a brand.
- How to develop a thoughtful plastic-free packaging strategy
- EcoEnclose's suite of plastic-free packaging options
- Questions to consider when exploring plastic-free options.
- PrAna's Responsible Packaging Movement (for apparel brands in particular)
When Is Plastic-Free the Right Strategy for a Brand?
Minimizing or eliminating plastic from your packaging can be a particularly powerful strategy for brands that:
- Focus on eliminating plastic and plastic-pollution across their entire business, including how they develop their products.
- Have an invested and patient leadership team, with the willingness to do the research and testing to find truly sustainable non-plastic alternatives. Hint: Going plastic-free is not sustainable alone. It is critical to replace plastic with truly eco-friendly substitutes.
- Can absorb the potentially higher costs and operational complexities of plastic-free alternatives
- Serves a customer base that is particularly against single-use plastic
- Roots its sustainability vision in minimizing waste, litter and/or ocean pollution (with a comparatively lower focus on lowering carbon emissions). Note that recycled plastic typically has a lower carbon footprint than the materials brads will replace plastic with.
- Has communication channels that allow for thoughtful messaging about packaging decisions
If the above describes you and your company, there is a great chance that phasing out plastic from your packaging (and doing so sustainably) makes a lot of ecological and business sense.
If the above doesn't describe you and your business, hope is not lost! You can still build a packaging strategy that is eco-friendly and extremely thoughtful. Consider:
- Replacing any virgin plastic with 100% recycled plastic alternatives, with a focus on post-consumer waste in particular
- Maximizing the rate at which your customers actually recycle their plastic packaging through creative messaging, education and incentives
- Phasing out plastic elements that have a reasonable likelihood of becoming litter.
Eco-Friendly Plastic-Free Packaging Alternatives
Plastic-free is not, in itself, a sustainable packaging strategy. If you are eliminating plastic, you need to replace plastic with sustainable and functional alternatives.
Specifically, you'll want to replace plastic with eco-friendly natural fibers (such as paper) instead. Note that "Bio-plastic" (including compostable plastics) is not "Plastic-free."
It is critical to choose your natural fiber packaging thoughtfully. In fact, brands can go plastic-free without considering the source of their natural fiber alternatives, and then unintentionally create even more environmental damage.
For example, a lot of paper is sourced from Endangered and High Conservation Value Forest fiber, and we'd argue that depleting these irreplaceable natural resources to create mailers (even if the resulting packaging is naturally biodegradable and won't end up as litter), is worse for the planet than utilizing 100% recycled plastic inputs instead.
According to Canopy, the hierarchy of sources of natural fibers include the following (in order of most to least preferred):
- Post-consumer waste
- Post-industrial waste
- Agricultural Residue Fibers
- FSC® certified and free of Endangered and High Conservation Value Forest fiber
Controlled wood and endangered and high conservation value forests are a big no no! Canopy also defines cleaner bleaching production technologies that should be considered when sourcing fibers.
If you are an apparel brand, check out the Responsible Packaging Movement, a community developed by prAna in which members collaborate to set and achieve sustainable, plastic-free packaging goals.
Still Not Sure? Consider These Strategic Questions
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 (try our recyclable paper shopping bags instead!), straws, drinking cups and lids, and food wrappers - which are often used and disposed of on the go, 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.
And if you are focused on renewable materials, seek ones that benefit the planet as they are produced and avoid ones that are highly degrading to the planet, like corn (PLA).
Through this lens, you may consider setting a long-term goal of establishing a "regenerative packaging strategy", one whose inputs are carbon fixing, soil regenerative, and generally net positive for the planet.
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.