Innovators in Eco-Friendly Packaging and Shipping Supplies

Six Steps to Plastic-Free Packaging

Six Steps to Plastic-Free Packaging

by Sarah Quirk  • Published February 28, 2024
Going plastic-free can feel complicated. We’re here to make it a success for you and your brand.
This resource outlines our six step process to make each plastic-free transition a success. Read it and use it. Or better yet, contact us, and we’ll do it for you.
We look forward to partnering with you on your transition from plastic to paper packaging.
- Your EcoAllies at EcoEnclose
the process of transitioning from plastic to paper packaging
Prefer to watch and listen? Check out our video from EcoEnclose CEO Saloni Doshi.
Welcome to our six-step process to plastic-free packaging.
As you progress through each step, you'll be guided by the Interactive Toolkit: Transitioning from Plastic to Paper, which takes you through the major considerations of this process.
Create your brand-specific version by downloading the toolkit as an Excel document or making a copy of it in Google Sheets.
Do It Yourself

Explore Our Toolkit


Six Steps to Plastic-Free Packaging

STEP 1: Confirm Your Brand is Ready to Transition


Decide if plastic-free or plastic reduction is the right investment journey, and confidently begin.

EcoEnclose Insights

We have worked with many brands that have started down this path only to end up with 100% recycled plastic packaging instead or develop a dual strategy that includes recycled plastic and recycled paper-based packaging.
Assessing how this sustainability initiative will impact your business may lead you to determine it’s not the right choice for you. This is a time and resource-intensive endeavor: decide whether it’s the best fit for you before you begin.

Relevancy & Why It Matters

While paper packaging is increasingly popular and applicable, there are better options for some use cases or companies, and it is not necessarily the most objectively sustainable option in all situations.

Critical Questions & Action Items

  • Do your sustainability goals hinge on carbon footprint, specifically for Scope 3 and packaging? Paper packaging has a higher carbon footprint than plastic. Is there wiggle room for this within your sustainability goals?

  • Is there a budget for the higher cost of paper packaging?

  • Do you have, or are you willing to pay your 3PL for, the additional storage space needed for paper?

  • Are you prepared for the time this transition may take? Depending on the complexity of a business, transition periods can be six months, two years, or longer.

What Does Switching to Paper Entail?

Consider the following points to assess the pros, cons, and costs of replacing plastic with paper. Engage stakeholders across your business to get clarity and alignment on these topics. Depending on your assessments of these points, you may consider a combination of paths forward, including:
  • 100% recycled plastic
  • A combination of recycled plastic and recycled paper
  • 100% plastic-free
EcoEnclose helps you to choose packaging options and materials that further your sustainability goals and align with internal needs.

Dive Deeper

Recognize the sustainability tradeoffs:

  • Paper packaging will almost always have a (often significantly) higher carbon footprint than a plastic alternative, so the transition will increase your packaging's carbon footprint.

  • Paper packaging, when made of recycled content, wins on circularity.

  • Additionally, paper packaging does not contribute to ocean plastic pollution.

Prepare for higher costs:

  • Paper is generally more expensive to buy, ship, and store than plastic alternatives. Brands who are most successful in making the transition recognize and budget for this cost increase before embarking on this process.

Understand functional implications:

  • Plastic is extremely durable in transit, but paper packaging can damage more easily while in transit if not optimized for your product and tested well.

  • Paper packaging does not provide full weatherproofing, though paper mailers and corrugated shipping boxes offer high weather protection. Brands often cite concerns around a paper mailer's lack of water resistance; however, we have found our customers have collectively transitioned millions of mailers from plastic to paper without any significant water damage rates.

  • Paper packaging, specifically packaging with adhesive strips like mailers and bags, can have a shorter shelf-life than plastic packaging.

Understand operational implications:

  • Paper packaging has more volume and takes up more space than plastic alternatives, requiring more storage space.

  • Fulfillment teams and finished goods factories/production partners must be trained to fulfill and ship with paper packaging successfully. Expect this to take time, practice, and potentially a higher labor cost.

  • Consider your standard ordering cadence and lead times and compare them to paper. Depending on the required storage space, you may need to order more frequently at lower volumes.

Given this, ask yourself if eliminating plastic is the right step for your business. Will this strategy meet your sustainability vision and goals? Is it set up to be successful within various departments and with multiple stakeholders?

STEP 2: Establish Decision-Making Criteria


Clarify how you will decide on your plastic-free options, who will be involved, and what success looks like.

EcoEnclose Insights

As you search for plastic-free packaging materials, solutions, and ideologies, you will be met with many options. To keep yourself from getting hung up or confused in a paradox of choice, determine what a successful transition means for your brand.
We’ve found that when brands embark on this process without clear requirements for sustainability, costing, internal operations, and customer feedback, they are paralyzed or impulsive when making decisions.

Relevancy & Why It Matters

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Before starting the brunt of the work of your Plastic-to-Paper initiative, work with your internal team and external supply chain stakeholders to understand what gates will need to be met, which requirements are deal-breakers, and who needs to sign off on a solution before it’s adopted and implemented company-wide. This way, you might learn about barriers, challenges, or opportunities ahead of time instead of facing them during the process.

Critical Questions & Action Items

  • Determine, then rank, your success criteria and the specific requirements that will need to be met.

  • Survey your internal and external teams to understand which departments and individual stakeholders will be involved in this transition - in small or large ways.

  • Understand who must sign off on final product solutions and decisions to adopt and implement them.

Establishing Decision-Making Criteria

Do you have a target price in mind? How will the switch to paper impact your storage and warehousing situation?

Are your finished goods factory partners open to using these materials, and if so, what are the labor cost implications?

What is the transition plan? What are acceptable damage rates? How will your branding and custom-printed packaging be adjusted to work with paper?

These are just some of the questions that, ideally, your packaging provider will ask you when quoting and exploring a move to paper packaging with you. If these questions give you pause, that is okay!

Use our tool - Prioritize Your Decision-Making Criteria - to consider the most common implications of how paper packaging affects a business, then rank them based on your operation. Also complete a Stakeholder Engagement Matrix to better understand who will be critical to this transition, who requires sign-off, and who may just need a heads-up.

Specific questions may include:

  • What environmental impact do you seek to achieve, and how will you measure it?

  • What is your desired impact on customer experience and brand loyalty, and how will you measure it?

  • What impact might plastic-free packaging have on your damage rates, and what level do you need to stay underneath?

This question of damage rates is fundamental. We recommend examining your current (pre-plastic-free packaging) damage rates. Keep your Customer Service team listening for damage issues during this transition. Measure damage-issue feedback against previous damage rates and ensure no significant increase.

Once complete, these tools guide you around where to begin and how to know if a solution will work for your entire team.

Our Sustainable Packaging Framework

At EcoEnclose, we use our Sustainable Packaging Framework to make product innovation and development decisions. Our framework is a hierarchy of our sustainability criteria - which are most important to us and our mission and which are less or irrelevant. Having an existing framework helps us answer difficult sustainability questions when they undoubtedly arise.
Read it, steal it.

STEP 3: Choose Non-Plastic Solutions


Audit your packaging and determine where you use plastic. Then, use your decision-making framework to choose the optimal paper alternatives for each category you’ll pilot and test.

EcoEnclose Insights

After you’ve created a picture of success that you and your team can work towards, it’s time to sample and test. Auditing the current plastic footprint in your packaging is a great way to understand the baseline to improve from and the most pragmatic components to tackle first - instead of what you or your customers may feel should be tackled first.
We’ve worked with many brands who are not fully aware of the environmental impacts inherent to paper, namely, carbon footprint, risk of deforestation, water footprint, and habitat/biodiversity risks. Utilize the most circular materials possible, namely recycled content and PCW, in your packaging - to prevent you from unintentionally pulling from threatened forest fiber in an attempt to reduce plastic pollution.

Relevancy & Why It Matters

What isn’t measured isn’t managed.
Auditing your supply chain for plastic packaging sounds arduous but is often relatively straightforward. Most D2C brands find their plastic footprint mostly in their product (primary) packaging and shipping (secondary) packaging. Conducting a basic estimation of your plastic footprint will give you insight into where the most plastic is and which applications of paper alternatives will have the most significant impact.

Critical Questions & Action Items

  • Audit your packaging - where does plastic show up? Where is the majority of the plastic footprint in your supply chain?

  • For each plastic application, explore what options best meet your decision criteria. There are a handful of common specs that accompany paper packaging, especially when it comes to paper mailers, including paperboard thickness; construction, recycled content, responsible paper sourcing, sizing, and side or bottom gussets. Other specs are important for other packaging solutions, such as pallet wrap and inner poly bags, such as transparency and stretchability.

  • Sample a variety of packaging options that align with your success criteria, and then conduct appropriate ship tests to learn how they perform in transit and with customers.


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Audit Your Plastic Footprint

To transition plastic packaging out of your supply chain, first, you must understand where it is. Use our plastic audit tool to estimate the volume of plastic in your supply chain currently, and use the results to inform which plastic components may be the best to tackle first.
Some brands choose easier, low-hanging fruit to switch first, and others start with components that take up most of the plastic footprint.

All Paper Isn’t Equal

Prioritize Recycled Content
Avoid Uncertified Virgin Paper
Removing and reducing plastic from your supply chain helps brands reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, maximize the curbside recyclability of their packaging, and minimize their negative impact on litter and plastic pollution.
Choosing paper over plastic also has implications for other areas of sustainability: carbon footprint, forest and critical habitat protection, and biodiversity.
These resources cover the sustainability implications to prepare and plan for during your material switch and how to make this important transition consciously.
What is the most important choice you can make when using paper packaging? Utilizing high levels of recycled content, specifically post-consumer waste (PCW) content. If recycled content is infeasible, choose FSC® or PEFC-certified solutions (and avoid fraudulent certification claims).
Learn more about the hierarchy of sustainable paper inputs with Canopy’s Paper Steps.

Use Caution with Biodegradable & Dissolvable Plastics

After extensive research into materials, infrastructure, and pending/future legislation, EcoEnclose has determined which bio-based inputs align with our standard for regenerative materials. Learn which materials have passed our rigorous analysis and why we’ve been deliberately cautious of bioplastics.

We instead encourage our brands to design their product and shipping packaging for circularity instead of biodegradability.

We recommend using paper instead of bio-based or biodegradable plastics. See below for the top reasons, and view our resources to dive deeper.

  • Recycling is more circular than composting and is the preferred end-of-life for most packaging.

  • Composting exists to be an ecological net-positive waste stream for organic waste.

  • Certified compostable packaging often doesn’t compost in real-life settings.

  • Compostability is not a cure for marine plastic pollution.

  • Compostability and recyclability are solely about end-of-life, not lifecycle.

Choose the Right Paperboard Thickness

Most paper mailers are made with paperboard, a thicker material falling between standard copy paper and cardboard. Paperboard varies in thickness and measures in points (pt). You should choose your mailers based on the paperboard thickness needed to protect your products. EcoEnclose offers a wide variety of paper mailers.

Most soft-goods shipments perform remarkably well in a standard 10 - 12pt paperboard mailer, but others (bulkier apparel) require a thicker paperboard to get the job done. Remember that the thicker the paperboard, the more paper used, and the higher the environmental impact. Balance this consideration against the mailers that work most successfully with your products.

Size Your Paper Alternatives Correctly

And train your team to select the right sizes for the right shipments.

  • Work with your packaging provider to source samples of mailers in various sizes to see what works best for your products.

  • Paper mailers can hold around 75% of the volume of the same poly mailer due to a difference in flexibility. We recommend trying two sizes of paper mailer: the same size as your current poly mailer and one size larger.

  • When replacing large poly mailers, you may need to substitute for a box or corrugated mailer to maintain structure versus a thinner paperboard mailer, which works better for smaller shipments.

When Gussets Are Needed

Gussets give a few inches of depth to a standard mailer by adding a folded strip of paper on the sides or bottom, thus increasing the capacity inside a standard mailer. We offer gussets on several of our paper mailers and find them most effective when used for inherently bulkier shipments like a sweatshirt or which holds multiple pieces of apparel or soft goods - instead of standard, mostly flat shipments.

  • Every shipment may not require gussets. Use flat mailers whenever possible and gusseted mailers for shipments with multiple products or bulky apparel.

  • Gussets do not mean the shipment will be inherently safer in transit. When gusseted millers are under-packed, their corners and creases are potential places for stress to be absorbed and may impact the structure of the mailer.

  • Gussets typically increase the cost of a mailer.

STEP 4: Pilot, Implement, & Manage


Pilot, test, troubleshoot, and iterate for this transition in steps. Set your fulfillment and operation teams up for success in the long-term.

EcoEnclose Insights

Sometimes, even the best initiatives can be stalled by poor preparation and change management.
Test, test, test. Testing is the best way to understand what packaging works best with your products, protects them, and performs well throughout the fulfillment process. Testing is arguably the most critical aspect of changing any major component of your packaging - and is the best way to understand how the plastic-free solutions you’ve chosen will perform at scale once plastic alternatives have been removed. Ensure you complete ship tests that will give you critical feedback on damage rates, customer feedback, and any changes to shipping rates that may affect your fulfillment and shipping cost at a larger level.
We’ve seen several brands that decide on paper solutions based on price and aesthetics alone, without testing them at factories or fulfillment. They purchase large volumes of new packaging to start their transition to paper and often run into issues when switching their systems simultaneously. This leads to operational issues, damaged packaging or products, and, in the worst case - an excess of packaging inventory that may not be usable. Upfront sampling and testing prevent this.
Moving slowly and steadily during this transition can help your team grow more confidence in this initiative and tends to set up teams for long-term success.

Relevancy & Why It Matters

Conducting tests with packaging solutions you’ve chosen (or are betting on) will help you understand where friction may occur at scale.

Critical Questions & Action Items

We recommend approaching Step 4 in phases. Ideally:
  1. Piloting and testing paper packaging for performance and damage concerns

  2. Onboarding sizes in phases, prioritizing smaller packaging sizes first

  3. Training your DC/fulfillment centers/factories to work with new materials successfully

  4. Troubleshooting issues and concerns

Our tools and checklists list the most common concerns, FAQs, and troubleshooting issues to prepare your team(s) for and ideal damage rates to measure your success against.

A Successful Transition

Successfully switching to paper packaging in your eCommerce and shipping typically entails the following major steps:

  • Piloting and testing paper packaging for performance and damage concerns

  • Onboarding sizes in phases

  • Training your DC/fulfillment centers/factories to work with new materials successfully

  • Troubleshooting issues and concerns

Conducting Ship Testing

Ship testing is the best way to assure performance once a new packaging product is introduced (or considered) for your products. Ship tests are a small set of sample shipments that utilize the new packaging, shipped to people who can give you good feedback on the packaging once it arrives. Many ship tests are sent to other company offices across the country, family, friends, and anyone who can provide detailed feedback or pictures of the packaging once delivered. Ship tests ensure new packaging fits your products well, protects them in shipment, and arrives in good condition.

We always recommend shipping tests before you transition fully to a new packaging solution - this can save you the headache of purchasing large volumes of packaging that will not work for you! Have a period of overlap during your transition and place survey prompts to draw customer feedback. We recommend pursuing feedback using printed QR codes on mailers or after-shipment check-in emails.

For enterprise accounts - those who ship 2,500+ orders per week - we recommend trying a staggered ship test, starting at 1,000 units & then moving up in volume over a few increments instead of starting with moving over your entire volume. If you choose to work with EcoEnclose on your enterprise-level plastic-free packaging strategy, we will help you execute these ship tests.

Use our tools to guide your assessment: How many ship tests are needed? And Damage rate calculator

What is Damage?

Most brands are comfortable with 2% damaged packaging rates but <0.5% product damage rates. It is normal for packaging to be somewhat roughed up through the shipping process, but product damage and loss rates should be quite low. If they are not - this indicates that the packaging needs to be improved, redesigned or troubleshooting on the packaging application should be completed.

  • Damaged packaging: Holes, rips and tears, small punctures, bursting at the seams, opening completely during transit. The industry standard for eCommerce is a 2% or less rate of damaged packaging.

  • Damaged product: The product itself is rendered unusable by the consumer, necessitating a return or replacement. Aim for a 0.5% or less rate of damaged product.

Transitioning Plastic Components Over Time

Do not transition every plastic packaging in your business in one month! Audit your business to identify where you incorporate single-use plastic and transition them one at a time. Even within a packaging category (such as mailers), transition your items one at a time.

For example, focus on your smaller mailers first, as smaller paper mailers tend to have a more 1:1 comparable performance to a poly mailer. Then, work your way up in mailer sizes over time.

Building in Supply Chain Redundancy

Paper demand is at an all-time high as many companies transition from plastic to paper. We anticipate that supply chains will remain volatile as shocks ripple through the commodity markets and economy.

When you work with EcoEnclose for your paper packaging strategy, we will work with you to understand your requirements and build redundancy and slack into your paper packaging manufacturing. If you are not working with us, find other ways to build redundancy and excess capacity.

Training Fulfillment to Work With Paper

Build a training program for your fulfillment team, as adjusting to new material will require a learning curve for your team. Some key differences between paper and plastic include the following.

  • Handle paper packaging carefully, as the material is more rigid and delicate. Paper packaging can tear and puncture more easily than plastic counterparts. As such, your team members need to handle them more carefully.

  • Fill paper mailers to less capacity than poly mailers. If you typically stock a few sizes of poly mailers and ask your team to select sizes based on the dimensions of each shipment, you will want to train them to choose a slightly larger paper mailer than they would have had they been working with poly mailers.

  • Seal paper mailers with more pressure and time to ensure a strong adhesive bond to keep the package from opening during transit.

  • Paper requires more pressure applied to the sealing adhesive strip than plastic-based materials. Apply pressure for a few seconds longer to ensure the adhesive of the mailer has cured (this is especially true for recycled paper surfaces, which have shorter and fuzzier fibers than virgin paper). Missing this step can cause paper mailers to open during transit, leading to returns, damages, missing shipments, and products.

  • In addition to the added time and pressure needed to seal the mailer, expect to give equal attention to the adherence of the shipping label. Recycled paper fibers are shorter and more textured than virgin paper or plastic, and it may require a stronger adhesive or more pressure to get a firm stick on the shipping label. We offer a high tack direct thermal shipping label with a hot melt, industrial-strength adhesive. These are ideal for paper mailers with adherence issues with standard shipping labels.

Paper void fill and hangtags typically require more time than automated plastic alternatives. For example, many brands swap plastic void fill pillows with paper-based GreenWrap. While we love this switch, fulfilling with GreenWrap is more time-intensive than pillow machines. We can help you transition from an automated air pillow void fill to an automated paper pillow option when working at high volumes.

Shorter Inventory Turns for Packaging

Some brands will buy more than one year of their plastic packaging needs at a time to manage supply chain risks, reduce unit costs, or both. We recommend purchasing so that you are holding six months or less of your paper packaging needs at any one time because paper has a shorter shelf-life than plastic products, particularly in extreme temperatures or humidity.

STEP 5: Promote, Measure, & Assess


Promote your plastic-to-paper transition. Quantify the impact and ROI; determine what components work well, need improvement, or don’t work for you.

EcoEnclose Insights

This transition can have major operational implications and added costs, so plan to maximize this transition's ROI. Promote your paper packaging transition to communicate your sustainability commitments, follow through to customers, and garner more engagement and brand loyalty. Measure any potential downsides to ensure your paper transition isn’t detracting from the customer experience.

Relevancy & Why It Matters

Marketing and measuring the holistic impact of this transition will give you clear insight into the total ROI of this business choice.

Critical Questions & Action Items

Market and promote your use of plastic-free packaging or work to reduce your plastic footprint.

  • On your packaging itself, through creative designs and copy

  • Throughout your website checkout and order confirmation experience

  • Throughout your social media channels and digital marketing efforts

Measure and assess:

  • Were your baseline decision-making criteria, budget, and goals met?

  • Damage rates and performance of new packaging

  • Sustainability implications and positive impact

  • Customer feedback, engagement, and approval

Promote Your New Packaging

If possible, invest in custom branding that engages your customer more deeply in your plastic-to-paper journey and the ethos of your company. Many brands showcase their brand identity and build customer loyalty with bold on-package messaging that conveys:

  • The sustainability attributes of your packaging and any sustainable add-ons

  • The proper disposal instructions for the end-receiver

  • Your broader sustainability goals and transition to paper process

One of our favorite examples comes from Burton Snowboards [left], whose website showcases more information about their specific packaging goals.

If custom-branding is not an option for you, communicate through

  • Custom-printed recycled notecard or a We Care Card to each shipment

  • Messages printed on your packing slips

  • Digital marketing channels - social media, on your site, confirmation/shipping emails, etc.

Be sure to avoid greenwashing in these efforts.

  • Provide as much detail about the product and its production as possible.

  • Communicate attributes and disposal directions clearly and directly, highlighting features such as:

  • Product inputs: Recycled and post-consumer waste %

  • Specific end-of-life and disposal instructions

  • Accurate sustainability certifications where relevant

  • Avoid misleading, vague, and unclear messaging, such as: “Eco-friendly Packaging” or “Sustainable Packaging,” “Recyclable” (versus curbside recyclable), “Responsible” or “Responsibly-sourced,” and “Recycled” (versus 100% recycled)

Our guide to Marketing Your Sustainable Packaging includes language to use and avoid, EcoEnclose Sustainability Icons that can be used in any branded packaging design, and tips on how to communicate sustainability efforts best.

Work with EcoEnclose on your sustainable packaging. You can be confident that our Creative and Sustainability teams will ensure your artwork is clear, free of vague language, and aligned with the most up-to-date labeling regulations and requirements.

Measuring Your Progress and Success

You defined success in steps 1 and 2. Now, it’s time to assess your current state against those initial success criteria and requirements.

Strategic questions to help evaluate:

  1. Did you meet your baseline decision-making criteria and requirements? If yes, consider this process a success!

  2. What kind of sustainability impact and benefit came from this transition?

    • What is the carbon impact of your packaging?

    • What is the total environmental impact of your packaging? How does it compare to your previous packaging? (Measure this with our Packaging Sustainability Calculators)

    • How many pounds of single-use plastic did you remove and prevent?

    • What percentage of your packaging is now plastic-free?

    • How many pounds of recycled materials did you use in new packaging and thus create demand for?

  3. What impact did the transition have on your customer experience?

    • What damage rates did you see? Was there a noticeable increase or change? Did you see an increase (or decrease) in returns?

    • What feedback did customers share? Consider proactively seeking feedback by contacting customers or providing a link or QR code in shipments for them to share input.

    • Was there a bump in social media shares or repeat purchases?

You will undoubtedly learn a lot during this process - use this step to document your best practices, learnings, and ideas for future iterations and improvements.

STEP 6: Improve & Enhance Circularity


Identify areas for improvement in sustainability and circularity and which plastic packaging components you’ll tackle next.

EcoEnclose Insights

Removing plastic packaging from your supply chain is a marathon, not a sprint. Recognize that this is a long game and that the best solutions may change, evolve, and be invented in the years to come.
Aim to increase the circularity and recycled content - paper or plastic - wherever possible to ensure your packaging footprint is as minimal as possible.

Relevancy & Why It Matters

In terms of reducing environmental impact and increasing sustainability criteria, there will likely always be areas for improvement. Identifying opportunities is easiest from a place of curiosity and confidence, especially after a successful transition.

Critical Questions & Action Items


  • According to US Plastics Pact’s definition, what remaining plastic components are considered problematic or unnecessary? How might you approach them next?

  • Besides removing the plastic altogether, what plastic components are necessary and should be put on the back burner for future innovations to arrive or improved in other ways?

Sustainability and Circularity:

  • What sustainability goals already exist for your packaging, and where are the gaps between the current state and those goals?

  • What is the current overall recycled content percentage of your packaging?

  • Which packaging components can be made with recycled content and, eventually, with high post-consumer waste levels?

  • Is there potential for your packaging to utilize novel and regenerative materials to catalyze the adoption of the newest sustainability innovations? Specific examples include:

Improving Materials Circularity

Circular packaging is made from packaging and becomes packaging again: how close to this vision is your current packaging suite?

First is by using as much recycled content as possible in your packaging, specifically post-consumer waste - this supports and financially bolsters the recycling industry to recover materials continually.

Second is to design your packaging for recyclability in municipal recycling streams whenever possible. Recycling has come under a lot of fire recently, with myths circulating like “everything you recycle gets landfilled anyway.” In reality, a well-run recycler that has taken the time to educate its community about what should and shouldn’t be recycled can sort and sell 90% or more of what they receive to be remanufactured.

Recycling the material means it can be quickly turned into something useful in its next life, a strategy that offsets the need for more virgin input to enter the market. See our design tips and tricks, verified and created in collaboration with our recycling partner and national zero-waste leader Eco-Cycle.

Looking for Guidance?

Let us help you navigate plastic-free packaging for your business.