Most of the choices you make for your packaging are a tradeoff, and sustainability choices are no different. The good news is, there's usually an easy place to start.
The sustainability strategies in this post start fairly simple and get progressively more complex, with a more substantial impact. It's all about getting started where you can and making the right choices for your company and your customers.
- Use less packaging
- Share disposal and recycling best practices
- Ship in a smaller package
- Avoid mixed materials
- Use less virgin material
- Use materials that are easy to recycle curbside
- Try alternative materials
- Plan ahead to avoid air freight
- Use local manufacturing partners
- Use manufacturing partners with sustainable practices
- Avoid over-packaging throughout the supply chain
Design updates can be the easiest to start with because often, they involve less stakeholders and less drastic changes to the supply chain.
1. Use less packaging
With less components in your packaging suite, you're using less resources, less space in transit, and putting less burden on the customer for disposal. When designing your unboxing experience, try to use the least amount of packaging you can to ship your product safely.
When sharing disposal practices, identifying your materials is always the top priority. It's a more scalable option than telling customers how to recycle the materials. Why? Recycling rules change drastically from city to city, but your material info stays the same. When they know the materials, customers can look up the best way to recycle them locally. You can indicate materials in your packaging with a recycling symbol (if the material is recyclable). Use an unnumbered symbol for paper and numbered symbols for plastic — the numbers indicate different plastic resins, and each of those has different recycling availability.
If you'd like to go deeper, you can add more information to your symbol like "curbside recyclable in most cities" or "dropoff recyclable in most cities." Including "Please recycle" on paper packaging is helpful because curbside pickup is widely available, but it could be misleading on plastics since most aren't as widely accepted. You might even consider becoming part of the How 2 Recycle program to get access to their wide range of more informative symbols.
For a more customized customer experience, you could also include a link or QR code to a page on your site, breaking down disposal details about each piece of your packaging. Maybe even give people ideas for reuse. This is a great way to take more of the disposal burden away from your customer and build your own social responsibility and customer loyalty.
3. Ship in a smaller package
Shrinking your packaging size shrinks shipping costs, material costs, resources, and emissions en route to your shipping warehouse and your customer.
Typically, there are two strategies for choosing packaging sizes. One strategy is to use a wide range of sizes to optimize for various product assortments. Another strategy is the one-size-fits-most approach, using only a few packaging sizes.
Pick a strategy based on your product line and order patterns. Take a look at your current packaging sizes and estimate how much air you're shipping (unused space). From there, see if you can lose some inches on your containers, or even switch from one strategy to another for optimization.
Material strategies tap a bit deeper into your supply chain, but changing up your material doesn't have to be drastic. Explore your options and start thinking about what a material shift could look like for your packaging.
4. Avoid mixed materials
When paper and plastic, or even two types of plastic, are fused together, they are no longer recyclable because the layers can't be separated in sorting. Stick to packaging pieces that are made entirely of paper or the one type of plastic.
Note: small amounts of mixed materials layered onto paper (like paper reinforced with fiberglass strands, or boxes sealed with plastic tape) doesn't rule it out of being recycled.
5. Use less virgin material
The longer you can keep materials in use, the better. The more recycled material you use, whether it's plastic or paper, the less new resources you're using from the planet.
6. Use materials that are easy to recycle curbside
The availability of curbside recycling varies from city to city, so it's not easy to know what your customers can recycle locally. With China no longer accepting most of our recyclables, it's more pressing than ever that we avoid wishful recycling and follow the restrictions of each city. At Lumi, we dub products curbside recyclable when 50% of the U.S. population has curbside access to recycle that material.
Paper is the safest bet — nearly any city that offers curbside recycling, accepts paper. Plastic is where curbside availability gets complicated. Generally, the more rigid a plastic (milk jugs, soda bottles) the more widely accepted it is curbside. On the other hand, thinner plastics (single-use plastic grocery bags, poly mailers) have less curbside availability. That's because thinner films get caught in processing machines, causing a backup and ultimately a shut down while the machines are cleared out. Luckily, many cities offer dropoffs for thin plastics at convenient locations like grocery stores. You can locate local dropoffs in the U.S. in the Plastic Film Recycling directory.
7. Try alternative materials
A wide variety of new renewable materials such as bioplastics are becoming available and can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. These alternative materials can have unique, exciting properties like biodegradability or compostability. Often, these materials are more expensive because they are in limited production, but the more companies start to adopt them, the more costs will go down as production scales up to meet demand.
Now we're getting to the root of things — factories. Visibility at factories is often limited (we're building tools at Lumi to help with this!), but there are some direct questions you can ask Lumi or your packaging partner to learn more about the environmental impact of your packaging before it even gets to your warehouse.
8. Plan ahead to avoid air freight
Air freight shipments emit up to 47 times more emissions that ocean freight, according to MIT. To avoid air freight, check your products' lead times and plan to send your final design a few days before the necessary order date for Standard Delivery. This allows time for proof approval and any last-minute changes.
9. Use local manufacturing partners
The closer your packaging manufacturer is to your shipping warehouse, the smaller your transit footprint. Lumi can help you find the closest manufacturing partner that can meet your design and delivery needs. Local fabrication is easier for products that are widely manufactured and made from resources that are produced locally. In the US most paper-based goods fit this description.
10. Use manufacturing partners with sustainable practices
Factories have various ways of practicing sustainability — minimizing electricity or water use, optimizing machines, even time management. At Lumi, we're working to improve visibility into all of our factory partners' sustainability practices and data.
11. Avoid over-packaging throughout the supply chain
There are dozens of touchpoints in your supply chain, both for your product and your packaging. Throughout these touchpoints, products are bagged, baled, or bundled before they get to you, often using additional packaging. These layers are added to keep your product clean, safe, and organized, but often there are opportunities get the same affect with less packaging.
Talk to your manufacturing partners to get more visibility into these touchpoints, and maybe you'll discover some opportunities to spare materials.
If you're a Lumi user and you'd like help making some of these updates to our packaging, let us know!