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5 Ways to Innovatively Drive Packaging Sustainability

Sustainability in packaging is a must - for the environment and for the survival of today’s companies. And though it may seem daunting, there are several changes you can make in materials + processes to invest in a greener future and enhanced experience for your customers.

The Problem with Packaging

Many companies look to product development to improve sustainability, but much of the environmental impact they create actually comes from their packaging and distribution practices.

In 2022, FedEx alone delivered an average of 6.21 million packages a day – and that’s only one shipping company in one country. The environmental impact of one package is extensive: the materials used, how / where it was disposed of, the fuel needed to deliver the package, and the emissions released in its production are just a few.

Why Sustainability Matters for Companies

According to the EPA, packaging materials accounted for 82.2 million tons of solid waste in 2018. And in that short time, consumers’ opinions about eco-friendly packaging have grown even stronger; in a recent study, 73% of respondents shared that they’d change their purchasing habits based on the sustainability practices of the brand or product.

Sustainability was long considered a perk that customers could go without – but that’s not remotely the case today. Customer behaviors have shifted to prioritize sustainability, especially among Gen Z and Millennials – the latter of which is the largest group in the population. 66% of consumers will spend more for a sustainable brand, and compared to other groups, Millennials are twice as likely to change their habits to reduce the environmental impact of their consumption.

Additionally, from an internal perspective, wasteful packaging and processes create unnecessary costs and waste that add up.

Packaging is often your customers’ first impression of your brand. Check out our recent blog, “Innovation in Alcohol Packaging: 10 Brands That Got It Right” for packaging inspiration.

5 Ways to Level Up your Sustainable Packaging Strategies

Sustainable packaging can be achieved through both the materials used and the processes implemented by the organization – all the way from ideation to the moment it hits the customer’s doorstep.

1. Materials

When most companies think of sustainability initiatives, they begin with the physical product they’re delivering – and what it’s wrapped in. Examining the environmental impact of packaging materials is a tangible measure to improve the eco-friendliness of a company’s operations. There are several sustainable packaging alternatives on the market with new options developed every day, but below are a few of the more common and available selections companies can opt for.

Corrugated Cardboard

In 2018, corrugated cardboard was the most utilized category of paper / plastic packaging with 33.3 million tons generated – and of that, 96.5% of corrugated cardboard was recycled. Though it’s a highly versatile and popular material, its recyclability makes corrugated cardboard a stellar alternative when searching for eco-friendly packaging.

A corrugated cardboard packaging design can be used across industries and for a variety of products, from food items to electronics to clothing and more. Additionally, it’s an ideal medium for customization – brands can easily leave their mark on this eco-friendly packaging solution with designs that are digitally or screen printed. Storing and discarding corrugated cardboard is simple due to its lightweight, foldable, thin build, making it less of a burden on suppliers and customers alike.

Compostable Packaging

When it comes to eco-friendly packaging, composting is one of the most environmentally beneficial alternatives: Composting rather than sending waste to a landfill can reduce up to 50% of carbon-dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. Compostable packaging is an eco-friendly packaging solution that breaks down naturally over time, meaning it doesn’t need to be recycled or left in a landfill at all. It’s constructed from organic matter and can be made from paper, cardboard, or bioplastics. When organic matter ends up in a landfill, it emits the greenhouse gas methane as it breaks down; but when it’s composted instead, the material sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and traps it in the soil, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Besides the direct impact it has on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration, compost has several other indirect benefits to the environment such as improved soil health.

Recycled Packaging

Not all products can be shipped in cardboard or other sensitive packaging materials that can be easily worn down. In the case that a company needs to ship goods in plastic or another fortified packaging, there are plenty of available options for post-consumer packaging that’s already been recycled. Producing one ton of plastic for packaging requires extensive amounts of energy, oil, and landfill space for disposal (where it takes hundreds of years to decompose). But by recycling and reusing packaging that’s already been used for another purpose, companies are effectively saving all of the resources that would go into creating new packaging and keeping plastic out of landfills.

2. Optimal Substrates

Beyond solely using sustainable materials, optimizing the use of those materials is a key contributor to the end product’s environmental impact. Choosing optimal substrates (the material on which the design is printed) can lead to less waste in the creation and disposal of the print media. Printing on non-optimal substrates can lead to a poorer quality of the end product and the failure of the printers or machinery, using excessive amounts of energy and other resources. Taking important factors like the following into consideration can guide printers toward the optimal substrates for their project:

  • Size
  • Gloss of ink
  • Use case
  • Requirements of press
  • Expectations of the finished product

3. Tracking Sustainability Data

Companies can bring meaningful, lasting change to their sustainability practices by tracking sustainability data. Maintaining a record of the past performance of print projects can help organizations determine what’s been successful in reducing their environmental footprint and what hasn’t. A few components to keep track of are:

  • The construction / deconstruction of materials – Were they disposed of in a landfill, recycled, or reused?
  • The greenhouse gas emissions from their production – Did the materials used lead to a higher output of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon or methane?
  • The use of energy – How much electricity or other energy sources went into the creation of the materials?
  • The lifespan of materials – How long did the packaging last before it had to be destroyed or replaced?

Tracking sustainability data can guide organizations toward more efficient processes that produce less waste and often require lower costs. Additionally, they will have concrete data to show to customers that prioritize eco-friendly packaging and initiatives.

4. Optimize Processes

Eco-friendly packaging is critical to a company’s sustainability strategy – but what about every other component of the shipping / packaging process?

Organizations looking to reduce the environmental impact in the distribution of their products should look beyond packaging. Here are a few areas to explore when looking to improve packaging sustainability:

  • Shipping sizes: By shipping more packages in one trip, companies can reduce the fleet needed to transport items and therefore reduce their fossil fuel emissions.
  • Packaging sizes: On the other hand, companies can also reduce the size of the packaging they use to create less waste in disposal. Opting for smaller box sizes doesn’t just mean less trash ending up in landfills – it also cuts down on shipping costs due to lower dimensional weight on the shipment overall.
  • Printing quantities: As they say, money doesn’t just grow on trees – but paper does, and reducing paper usage is a simple way to build sustainability into packaging solutions. When printing out packaging designs, fitting more content onto each sheet of paper quickly adds up and saves not only the environment but printing costs as well.

5. Third-Party Vendors

Many organizations may not have the time or resources to adequately prepare an eco-friendly packaging strategy, secure the materials necessary, or manage the processes that inform wise environmental decisions. Third-party printers can often handle the end-to-end processes that determine the sustainable packaging design from their creation to disposal with optimized processes. By partnering with a knowledgeable third party, companies can receive an expert’s knowledge when choosing materials, printing processes, disposal procedures, and more.

Read more on how your third-party printers can be at risk and how to secure them in our most recent blog, “Why Print Security Matters: Managing Third-Party Risk in Healthcare and Finance.”

Benefits of Sustainable Packaging

Beyond the positive environmental impact of eco-friendly packaging, there are several internal benefits to companies that embrace sustainability in packaging.

1. Consolidated Storage

Excessive packaging can often be tedious and inconvenient to store, leading to frustration for retailers and even greater waste as they run out of room to hold onto leftover materials. However, companies can avoid this by utilizing smaller, more lightweight packaging that takes up less space and folds up more easily. Eco-friendly packaging can create more space not just for new materials, but to store and potentially reuse old materials – further reducing companies’ environmental footprint.

2. Lower Shipping Costs

Eco-friendly packaging that’s lighter or smaller than traditional packaging solutions leads to lower weight on the scale once they’re shipped – meaning they cost significantly less to ship and distribute. With smaller packages, sellers can also fit more into one shipment than they would be able to otherwise, maximizing efficiency by shipping more of their product at a lower cost.

3. Less Time Spent on the Breakdown

Using sustainable packaging that can be recycled, decomposed, or reused lightens the burden on employees that must break down or dispose of the materials. Additionally, by keeping materials out of landfills, organizations avoid the fines and fees that are typically associated with environmentally harmful and hazardous disposal tactics.

4. Efficiency

By incorporating sustainable efforts into internal processes, companies can reduce costs and improve operating profits by 60%. Developing green packaging can reduce the amount of water / natural resources needed for each product created, and by adhering to more sustainable practices companies can reduce any environmental fees or fines. Additionally, a reduction in resources needed in production simply means the organization doesn’t need to buy as much paper, ink, fuel, or other resources as it typically would.

The positive impacts of eco-friendly packaging stretches far beyond the environmental benefits of employing greener strategies. Sustainability in packaging drives long-term success and growth for companies through improved customer relationships and optimized processes. Additionally, companies that prioritize their environmental impact through eco-friendly packaging are positioned for greater efficiency and cost savings in the long run.

Drummond is the marketing and technology provider that businesses turn to when they want to take their customers’ experience to the next level. With technology-powered, full-service printing and distribution capabilities, Drummond takes a modern approach to solving traditional problems, enabling businesses to be more effective, more efficient, and more precise at connecting with customers at every stage of their journey – from online, to in-home, to in-store.

Check out how Drummond can help you drive innovative and sustainable packaging + 

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Drummond helps brands take their customers’ experience to the next level by bridging the gap between digital and print, simplifying the process of taking an idea from concept to execution, and delivering the right solutions on time, every time. Our innovative, technology-powered, full-service printing and distribution capabilities enable greater precision and efficiency, while driving better outcomes for companies looking to connect and elevate the customer experience online, in-home, and in-store.