How to Make Your Packaging Sustainable
As the Natural Beauty movement has grown, so has interest and demand for sustainable packaging. In the last few years, there has been pressure from environmentally-conscious consumers for brands to incorporate sustainability into their brand story and packaging design. In fact, in a recent survey, more than half of participants said they wanted to buy more sustainable products. Shoppers and retailers are demanding eco-friendly options, asking for components to be recyclable at the very least. Being able to tout an environmentally conscious line is officially a positive in the market, but it is inevitable to come to terms with how it affects costs and logistics. Sustainability may affect budget, compatibility of formulas, or design aesthetic when weighing the pros and cons. Choosing to go sustainable requires careful thought and execution to decide what is best for both the planet and your brand. Luckily, there are plenty of options. Below is a roundup of the options and the implications we are seeing across the market.
Yes, a plain stock plastic bottle or jar is recyclable — but not forever. Looking at the other types of everyday recyclable materials, both glass and aluminum can be infinitely recycled without loss of quality. Also without the worry of “can I actually recycle this or not,” glass and aluminum can always be put into the recycling bin, unlike many forms of plastic. Granted, this is only if the package is recycled by the consumer in the first place. Unfortunately, bits of broken glass are going to float around forever if in a landfill.
Like most options in packaging, there are pros and cons to choosing a recyclable plastic, glass, or aluminum. From shipping weights to product compatibility, it is important to consider all sides when deciding if this packaging is a right fit.
Innovations from vendors such as Lumson and Quadpak are eliminating these problems. Known for being the primary vendor for Tata Harper’s all-glass primary packaging, Lumson manufactures the world’s only airless glass pump. These create an option for brands in need of the formula protection that airless pumps provide but want to shy away from plastic. Quadpak’s “Eco-Warrior” bottle is 13% lighter than a regular glass bottle, which reduces the carbon footprint in transportation of glass while keeping a solid, resistant component. Manufactured with a screw neck, the bottle is compatible with different eco-friendly cap choices, including a biodegradable cork cap that the company also manufactures from sustainably managed forests.
Paper is also a viable recyclable packaging option. Proctor and Gamble released a limited-edition cardboard tube package this past spring for their aluminum-free Secret and Old Spice deodorant. While this was only limited edition, it is being used as a test so that the company can fully transition to this packaging. In a press release, the P&G Associate Director of Global Sustainability explained, “If we convert just 10 percent of our current deodorant packages to recycled paper or another recyclable material, it could eliminate up to 1.5 million pounds of plastic waste annually.” A permanent change from this massive company could set a standard for brands everywhere.
While paper is a no-brainer substitute for plastic mailers or pouches, this is typically a route that once could only be used for solid materials or secondary packaging. However, thanks to sustainability innovator Eco-logic, liquid products can now be packaged in paper. Eco-logic has developed a 100% recycled paper Eco Bottle, equipped with a low-volume plastic “bladder” enclosed inside. The production of the innovative bottle has resulted in 350 tons of plastic diverted from landfills and oceans. Although this solution still requires plastic, the inner liner uses 60% less plastic than a regular bottle and is still recyclable in certain facilities. The Eco Bottle has been implemented by brands such as Seed and Seventh Generation.
Refillable packaging is a great way to create customer loyalty, encourage repeat purchases, and eliminate single-use packaging. With all these “pros,” comes with a considerable downside for some brands that do not have the resources for: this option requires a hefty amount of logistics in order to make it work for both the brand and its customers. Whether it is the ability to offer refills in bulk at a retail storefront or being able to sell refills separately, the opportunity to refill has to be convenient and logical for the people doing it. With an increased demand for the option to refill, many companies have figured it out.
Cleancult, a home cleaning brand with a focus on zero-waste, uses paper “milk-carton” refills for their soaps and all-purpose cleansers. Cleancult creates a high-quality plastic/glass refillable component that is so pretty, customers don’t mind leaving them out on their counters. By cutting down packaging costs with their recyclable paper-packaged refills, Cleancult was able to invest in their “starter pack” and create long-lasting, beautiful pumps and bottles.
Method, known for their “powerful, planet-friendly” cleaning products, features a range of refills for nearly every SKU in their expanding line. A majority of refills come in a thin, pourable Flexi-pack pouch. Flexi-packs are a great alternative to large plastic-bottled refills by using significantly less plastic and reducing carbon emissions with transportation/warehouse storage.
New to the scene in mid 2019, Terracycle launched Loop, a refill subscription service. Indie brands and mass market brands alike can partner with Loop to create a sustainable component that consumers order and send back through the postal service (in a reusable insulated bag, of course). From Tide to Ren Skincare, most of the packaging comes in glass or aluminum, ensuring a more sustainable refill. Loop is a great service for brands that do not have the sources for their own independent refill service.
Post-consumer resin (PCR) packaging is an easy option for brands that consumers can feel good about. Generally, the carbon footprint of manufacturing recycled plastic is 60% lower than virgin PET plastic, including all the energy used for collecting. These lightweight plastic alternatives work with many formulations and come in nearly every type of component. Choosing the percentage of PCR material in the packaging can fluctuate the cost, feel, and look of a piece of PCR packaging, but the flexibility of various choices in size and shape makes this an accessible option for many brands. Brands such as Love, Beauty, and Planet and Burt’s Bees have made a commitment to using PCR, and Aether Beauty has recently unveiled the first 100% recycled plastic lip component.
Unfortunately, if a packaging design aesthetic involves a crystal-clear component, PCR plastic will never quite get there. The higher percentage of recycled plastic, the foggier and grayer the plastic will look, with only virgin plastic keeping it clear. Colored packaging can be challenging as PCR bottles are not always consistent in color. Referring back to an earlier point, recycled plastic is not infinitely recyclable. PCR does not retain quality when it is remade, resulting in thinner walls — its lifespan likely ends right after the first recycled material bottle, thus ending back in the landfill.
Bioplastics are a hot topic of recent years due to the scientific breakthrough of using plants instead of fossil fuels to create plastic. The most common materials used to make these plant-based plastics are sugarcane and corn, but recent innovations have introduced algae and seaweed. Also an option, albeit less common, are cellulose (wood pulp) and wheat gluten. These easily renewable resources deplete the use of fossil fuels and are considered carbon neutral. The great news is that bioplastics are available in various components from tubes and bottles to films and bags.
Men’s grooming brand, Bulldog, uses tubes and bottles manufactured from sustainably harvested Brazilian sugarcane and is mainstream enough to be found in CVS, Rite Aid, and Target. This sets a great example for other brands in this retail market to follow suit. Although Bulldog does an excellent job of showing instructions on how to recycle the sugarcane packaging, bioplastics are not always recyclable. Many brands may also run into issues with formulas that are not compatible with these materials, which requires stability testing. Overall, bioplastics do cost more due to their slightly lower availability and thicker polymers, but this may change in the future as it becomes more obtainable.
Some beauty brands are opting out of packaging overall to reduce waste. At one time, this was a foreign concept, but major retailers such as Lush are taking the plunge. By reworking formulas to be in bars, Lush took a giant step to becoming waste-free. Other package-free explorations include water-less formulas, which create powders or tablets that users mix with water to complete the formula. Even just a paper bag to hold the formula is a massive amount of waste reduced.
The obvious downside is not every product can be easily converted to a solid or waterless form. As technology adapts, it very well may be possible to have a bar of anti-aging skincare. Until then, it is an open opportunity for shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotion, and face masks.
As demand for sustainable packaging continues, manufacturers and material scientists continue to innovate and improve on existing packaging. Before some of the most exciting new packaging abilities even are available on the market, it is still thrilling to know what will soon be possible.
Taking a look into the future, we may be seeing ink made out of “repurposed” air pollution (AIRINK), more algae-based foams and resins, PCR aluminum films, and PCR plastic films. Factories, such as Toly, are taking measures to make their manufacturing process more sustainable with less water, less byproduct, etc. As the suppliers also take initiative, this will also make sustainability easier and more accessible for those who need their packaging.
It is clear that in modern day, consumers want to know that a brand is making the investment for sustainability. While there is a cost for companies to do so, there are plenty of options to explore at various price points, formulation needs, and designs. With all that is available, brands can take a complete look at their packaging needs and be guaranteed to find a more sustainable fit. This will make the customer happy and the Earth happy, too.
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