This post is generously sponsored by noissue, whose goal is to make sustainable packaging easy, so you can get back to what’s most important: your business. As always, EcoCult only works with brands who we trust are making the world a better place.
Despite the fact that sustainable shopping has become much more accessible than it was a decade ago, and consumers are in fact buying more sustainably-marketed consumer goods, packaging is still a nightmare for both brands and shoppers. Why does it seem so impossible to find truly eco-friendly packaging options? Why does it seem like there is always more packaging than necessary involved in getting a product from A to B? Why are there such huge minimums? And does eco-friendly packaging have to be so ugly?
Problem #1: Excessive Packaging
Those of us who are conscious about the amount of waste we produce (as consumers and business owners alike) get frustrated when we order something from a responsible company or factory, only to find out it comes with an excessive amount of packaging. Is it necessary to have five different layers of paper and plastic in between the outside world and my products? Unfortunately, the answer is: maybe.
As the VP of sustainability, product, and business strategy at Mara Hoffman pointed out, if everything wasn’t shipped in some sort of protective material, there’s a really good chance that by the time it got to you, it wouldn’t be in the perfect condition that you’re expecting from a brand new item. Especially if you’re ordering from a larger brand, your product goes through so many sets of hands before it gets to you that it has to be packaged in something that is both water repellent and durable enough to keep the product intact amidst a lot of turbulent travel. Patagonia’s extensive case study experiment proves that this is a pretty difficult problem to solve, especially for larger brands that have more complex manufacturing processes.
Then there are the safety concerns. Food packaging presents an additional set of problems because they have to comply with FDA safety standards, which prohibit food to be packaged in recycled plastic. Of course, products like medical equipment, medications, and supplements have to meet strict packaging standards for hygienic and sterilization reasons. The Chicago Tylenol murders in 1982, for example, led to reforms of packaging for over-the-counter substances. Now, you will never find OTC medication in the U.S. that doesn’t have at least two to four layers of packaging around it. Of course, this is less of a problem when it comes to fashion, but still worth considering in the bigger picture of packaging.
Problem #2: Non-Biodegradable, Non-Recyclable Materials
Of course, because it has to be water and tear resistant, most of this packaging is plastic. Sure, some of it can be recycled, but most of it can’t. (And recycling should not be our first choice anyway—it still requires a lot of fossil fuels.) Take the dreadful polybag, for example. Pretty much everything you buy online—from electronics and apparel to home goods and food—comes wrapped in a thin, polyethylene, virgin plastic bag. They’re made out of the same material that plastic grocery shopping bags are, except they haven’t come under any public scrutiny so there aren’t any bans, taxes, or shame for using them. Sure, they are technically recyclable in some places, but they are so cheap and often contaminated that even if consumers actually put in the effort to take them to the provided bin at the grocery store (since you can’t put them in your curbside recycling), only a percentage of the bags actually get recycled into something new. (Keep reading for how noissue is solving our #polybagproblems.)
Problem #3: ‘Biodegradable Plastic’ Greenwashing
With increased awareness about how terrible single-use plastic is for our planet, ‘biodegradable plastic’ is popping up everywhere. These materials are plant-based alternatives that are meant to solve a lot of the problems that plastic does (water resistance, etc.), but are made from natural materials and supposedly biodegradable. The problem: it’s extremely hard to tell which of these ‘biodegradable plastic’ products are actually biodegradable, and which ones really aren’t.
Some of these types of bio-plastics simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces, causing microplastics or plastic-like bits that are perhaps more destructive and even harder to clean from our lands and waterways than whole plastic products. Others, primarily oxo-biodegradable products, rarely even break down at all. And others still can actually be composted, but it has to be at an industrial facility, not your backyard compost (meaning consumers are much less likely to actually get that good to the necessary location where it can be broken down properly).
What To Look for In Eco-Friendly Packaging
Despite these problems, however, there are sustainable packaging options out there. Whether you’re a brand looking to uplevel your sustainability efforts or a consumer who wants to be able to more easily identify a company’s eco-friendly packaging practices, here’s what to look for:
Paper Over Plastic: Again, sometimes plastic is still unavoidable, but when possible, paper is always better because it’s renewable and naturally biodegradable.
When Choosing Paper, Go for FSC Certified: The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies that any product that comes from a forest has been sourced in an environmentally-friendly, socially-responsible, and economically viable manner.
Safe, Non-Toxic Dyes: Packaging is most often bleached and dyed using chemicals that are harmful for not only the environment, but for those handling the product as well. Look for natural, nontoxic dyes like soy instead of traditional petroleum-based ink. It’s also much easier to recycle paper that’s been dyed with soy.
Acid-Free Paper: Paper that has acid in it is what causes it to become yellow, brittle, fade, and overall deteriorate over time. Buying acid-free paper not only means it will last longer and can be reused more, but you also won’t have to worry about it deteriorating if you buy in bulk and store it in your workshop. It also means that if you’re packaging things like artwork or clothing, you won’t have to worry about acid seeping off the paper and onto your products.
Excess Materials: Don’t underestimate what’s already around you. Can you use leftover fabric scraps to wrap products? Can you reuse packaging that came from somewhere else?
Truly Compostable Synthetic Alternatives: Even though “biodegradable plastic” is not actually biodegradable, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few natural and actually biodegradable options out there. To replace non-recyclable styrofoam, you can use corn foam, which is biodegradable, backyard compostable, water dissolvable, and even edible. For breakable goods, there’s a really innovative packaging option called MycoComposite, made by Ecovative Design, which is made from mushrooms and is not only biodegradable but is also C2C Certified, flame and water resistant, and can be custom molded to fit your product.
There are several companies making polybag alternatives that are truly backyard compostable. TIPA makes a few types of bags which are verified to decompose in your home compost. Wave is a company that makes plastic alternative bags out of cassava starch, which are also backyard compostable. ComPlast makes dissolvable or backyard compostable polybags, trash bags, and pet waste bags which are also made out of cassava root, vegetable polymers, and natural resin. While it’s awesome that more companies exist that are making truly biodegradable plastic alternatives, we still have two problems. First, most of these companies have minimums that are basically impossible for small and medium sized businesses to meet. Second, sorry but… these bags are ugly!
Then there is noissue’s completely backyard compostable mailer, which is a polybag game changer. It’s waterproof, durable, write-able, stick-able, and printable, and it’s much stretchier than a standard polybag.
The mailers are made from a combination of PBAT (a compostable, bio-based polymer) and PLA (which is made up of plant materials like ﬁeld corn and wheat straw). They’re certiﬁed by all three industry certiﬁers: TUV Austria, BPI, and Dincerto, which means they meet American, European, International and Australian standards—including certiﬁcations for your domestic home compost. To gain these certiﬁcations, the product must break down within 90 days in commercial compost and 180 days in domestic compost conditions, including worm farm compost. After degradation, they must leave no harmful residues behind. Plus, these mailers have a shelf life of about nine months before they structurally begin to break down.
Accessible Minimums: Many small and medium sized businesses that want to switch to sustainable packaging simply can’t afford to purchase the minimum order amount. Even if they could fit it into the budget, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be able to get through an order that huge before the bags would start to break down. noissue’s minimums are ridiculously low compared to every other company out there: only 100 for their mailers and 250 for their tissue paper, stickers, and tape.
Beautiful and Brandable: As a small business or startup, your branding matters. Aesthetics matter. “Eco-friendly” does not mean your packaging has to look “crunchy” anymore. One of the things that sets noissue apart is that all of their products are completely customizable, so everything you send to your customers is perfectly on brand. You can check out some of the gorgeous packaging creations that other businesses have used here.
If you’re a sustainable small business owner, the team at noissue feels your pain when it comes to packaging options. That’s actually why they started the company in the first place. They were working on a previous endeavor, needed packaging for it, and couldn’t find what they were looking for.
So now, they make premium, customizable, and attainable packaging products for brands at any stage of business. They can make you branded tissue paper, mailers, stickers, and tape. noissue just launched their custom packing tape which is water-activated and available starting at just five rolls. It too is compostable, printed on FSC Certified paper, and uses a starch-based adhesive which activates when wet, preventing storage issues and avoiding the problem of wax/plastic coating on most custom packing tapes available on the market.
noissue’s pricing is super simple, and you can get a quote for exactly what you need (size, colors, quantities) in seconds. When stored out of sunlight in a cool, dry location, the paper, stickers, and tape last years. When exposed to sun and moisture, it still takes about nine months for them to start fading. They plant trees with every purchase, too. Their goal is to make each product ‘noissue,’ which means noissue for the environment, noissue to design, and noissue for small businesses to order.
Consumers, while it’s important to keep in mind all of the issues that brands face when it comes to sustainable packaging, we can continue to communicate with companies and let them know we want less plastic, more recycled, and more compostable packaging options. The next time you open up a box filled with plastic, send the brand a note and make sure there are options out there for sustainable packaging, like noissue and Ecovative Design (for larger, more fragile items) who are doing things right.