The Rise of Eco-Conscious Choices: Exploring Sustainable Packaging Materials

Published - 12th Jan 2024

Introduction to sustainable packaging

The rise of eco-conscious choices in packaging

Eco-conscious choices in packaging are being driven by climate change, and this has gained momentum in the last ten years through government policies/treaties and broadcasts such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet attack on plastic pollution.  The rise of social media has also made it much easier to convey the impact of packaging and share this quickly through populations. Products recently landing more on doorsteps housed in packaging through COVID have also had an impact.  With the rise of online retail, much of the secondary and tertiary packaging normally sorted by retailers now ends up in the home.  The presence of transit packaging like corrugated cardboard, and the fact that waste collections now insist on separating waste materials not only demonstrated how much packaging there is but also showed the inconvenience of having to deal with it.  However, in recent years, the public has been more compassionate towards recycling and the importance of this inconvenience is much more understood.

The growing demand for eco-friendly products has led to a significant rise in the use of sustainable packaging materials, a cornerstone in modern eco-friendly business practices.

Overview of sustainable packaging materials

If you buy something online, it will very likely arrive in a cardboard box or another paper-based material, because these materials are an eco-friendly packaging material and cost-effective.  Shipping in cardboard boxes supports a circular economy, has a much lower impact on the environment than other packaging types and lends itself to eco-friendly packaging trends because it is adaptable and flexible by nature.

This blog delves into a list of sustainable packaging materials, exploring various eco-friendly and recyclable packaging materials that are transforming the industry.

Introduction to sustainable packaging

Despite leading recycling rates as a packaging type, what is it about paper and cardboard that lends itself to being sustainable, and what are the basic principles of eco-friendly packaging?

Sustainable packaging at its core is an effort to minimise environmental impact, but this includes the use of compostable or biodegradable materials, reducing packaging weights, and design optimisations to reduce energy use and the amount of packaging used.  Recycling is just part of the process and works in partnership with these other efforts, but Cardboard as a biodegradable packaging option is a very good example of a sustainable packaging type.

The evolution of packaging

Why is sustainable packaging so important? Corrugated cardboard has been around for hundreds of years, so is a ‘traditional’ packaging type but made from a natural resource.  However, due to its adaptability and the fact it’s a renewable and recyclable packaging material, it is already an eco-friendly packaging type.  Its evolution has mainly come through better and more ethical forestry practices (such as carrying the FSC® certification) and in line with sustainable and eco values – more recently its development and focus has been on looking at designing sustainable packaging that offers a reduction of material through lightweight or improved re-engineering and/or use of recyclable packaging materials and 100% recycled liners.

The Various Types of Sustainable Packaging Materials.

As we have mentioned, sustainable packaging types/eco packaging types are those which have minimal impact on the environment and minimise harm.  This could include several different materials depending on how they are made, and how its handled as a waste product.  Recyclable packaging materials are classed as sustainable.

In 2024, the most sustainable packaging materials are not just about recycling; they’re about innovative solutions like biodegradable and compostable materials. This section will compare the most sustainable materials currently available.

For corrugated, a 100% recycled material-based box or product would be a sustainable packaging choice because the focus is on reuse/recycle from a circular loop.  Likewise, cardboard that does include an element of kraft (which is necessary for strength and performance)  also uses a sustainable resource made from paper.  This of course means that trees are harvested for production of these, but for every tree harvested three are planted, and in Europe, forest area is increasing by 1500 hectares a day. It could be argued though that unnecessary use of kraft material in cardboard is not a sustainable practice compared with re-using a waste product or recycled packaging material.  A move towards using 100% recycled material was a major sustainable packaging trend in 2023, for example, Amazon’s commitment to using 100% recycled cardboard on all their tertiary packaging. 

Away from recycling, if cardboard does end up in landfill, it’s compostable and biodegradable.  Just like cardboard and paper, other packaging types which are seen as sustainable are those which are derived from natural products, mainly plants.  Materials that contain PLA (polylactic acid) derived from plant sugars, cornstarch, bamboo and sugar cane are other examples of more sustainable packaging materials, against traditional oil-based plastic packaging.

Innovations in recycling and reusable packaging options.

Cardboard and Paper have the highest recycling rate of any other major packaging material making it one of the most sustainable packaging materials available. Cardboard has been widely recycled since the 1970’s, and rates have increased exponentially since then.  Innovation has really centred on improving the quality of the recycled materials (thus the number of times they can be recycled), advancements in the de-inking process and how contaminants in the process are dealt with.  We have worked closely with our ink suppliers to find more eco-friendly chemical solutions as well as to reduce the environmental impact at our production level.

The Role of plant-based materials in sustainable packaging. And The Environmental impact of traditional packaging methods.

Traditional packaging methods can adversely impact the environment.  These include pollution, resource depletion, greenhouse gas emissions, waste management issues and toxicity, much of which was well publicised in broadcasts and documentaries which are now commonplace.

Eco-friendly and sustainable packaging options now must play a crucial role in sustainable packaging offering alternatives to traditional petroleum/oil-based packaging.  By using packaging like paper, cardboard, cornstarch,  and recyclable packaging materials, we are reducing reliance on fossil fuels, promoting the use of renewable resources, and making use of readily available recycling loops.  These materials also tend to have smaller carbon footprints compared to plastics which is helping to mitigate climate change.

The Various Types of Sustainable Packaging Materials.

We suggest the following:

Identify the packaging used in your business, and ask suppliers to confirm what source the packaging is from and what it’s made of. Ask customers what they do with the packaging you send it in and question the packaging that comes into your business.

Measure what packaging you use and how much, and ask questions like; Could you use less? Could you re-engineer? Could this piece of packaging be recycled?

Explore options like sustainable packaging materials suppliers and consult about the latest sustainable packaging trends in 2024.

Talk to other business contacts about what they do, and see what competitors are doing in terms of their packaging options.

Challenges and Solutions

While sustainable packaging is beneficial, it presents challenges such as sustainable packaging regulations and finding affordable sustainable packaging materials, for which innovative sustainable packaging technologies offer solutions.

One major obstacle lies in the initial investment required for transitioning from conventional packaging materials to eco-friendly alternatives or biodegradable and recyclable packaging materials. These can be perceived as cost-prohibitive, but this is not always the case and there is often a saving -and suppliers like us can help with this.  Governments and regulatory bodies are increasingly supporting sustainable practices through incentives and legislation, hence the emergence of EPR (extended producer responsibility).  This is leading to businesses making more sustainable packaging choices. Moreover, consumer education campaigns and transparent labelling can empower customers to make environmentally conscious choices, fostering a demand for sustainable packaging and encouraging businesses to invest in greener alternatives. Using sustainable packaging may lead to your business gaining more market share.

Additionally, sourcing and manufacturing sustainable materials at scale can be challenging, leading to potential supply chain disruptions – however, this is not the case for using cardboard, which is already a well-established, Eco-friendly option.  

Innovative solutions are emerging to address challenges. Collaborative efforts across industries can drive economies of scale, making sustainable materials more cost-effective. Research and development initiatives are continuously improving the performance and affordability of sustainable packaging options.

Many would see the main challenge as to will the package using sustainable material perform to keep the product protected?  Most businesses like us will arrange and suggest samples, and trials and call upon existing knowledge and real-life examples/expertise to find the right solutions.

Case Study

Numerous case studies showcase companies successfully adopting sustainable packaging materials, highlighting the shift towards more eco-friendly packaging materials in various industries.

One case study illustrating sustainable packaging benefits involves a shift to cardboard in the home improvement sector.

A tile manufacturer asked us to look at the cardboard packaging around large, heavy rectangular tiles.  The tiles were packed in threes, one on top of the other.  Each tile had a plastic corner/cover to protect the edges and also separate the tiles from each other to avoid damage.  Whilst the concept worked, there were 12 plastic corners in each pack and the company wanted to move away from this to not only use an eco-friendly packaging type but also where possible save cost.  By adding cardboard sheets in between the tiles and adding more cardboard protection around the corners and the edge of the box, trails were successful, breakage rates were not impacted and most importantly the pack was now more sustainable and there was a cost saving.

Latest Trends and Advances

Sustainable packaging trends in 2023 and moving into 2024 are prominently centred around paper-based and cardboard solutions, driven by the growing awareness of environmental concerns. One key trend is the rise of advanced technologies that enhance durability and barrier properties, allowing cardboard to compete with traditional materials like plastic in protecting goods. Additionally, there is a notable surge in the popularity of recycled and responsibly sourced paper, reflecting a commitment to circular economy practices. Technological advancements in cardboard include the development of water-based coatings and inks, reducing the environmental impact of the production process. Moreover, intelligent packaging solutions incorporating RFID technology are gaining traction, enabling better supply chain management and end-of-life disposal tracking.  There is also a move towards using more QR codes that can take the consumer to information regarding sustainable practices. Overall, the convergence of these trends and technological strides in paper packaging signifies a pivotal shift towards more sustainable and eco-friendly choices in the packaging industry.

The role of suppliers and green credentials

Suppliers play a crucial role in promoting sustainability within the cardboard packaging industry. By sourcing responsibly managed and certified materials, suppliers contribute to the eco-friendly attributes of cardboard packaging. Certifications such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensure that the paper and cardboard used in packaging come from well-managed forests. These certifications provide assurance to businesses and consumers that the cardboard production aligns with rigorous environmental and social standards. Collaborating with certified suppliers not only enhances the overall sustainability of cardboard packaging but also reflects a commitment to ethical sourcing practices, reinforcing the industry’s role in fostering responsible environmental stewardship.

Business Benefits of choosing sustainable packaging

Using sustainable materials like plant-based packaging alternatives for shipping and recycled packaging solutions significantly reduces the environmental impact of sustainable packaging, contributing to a circular economy.

Utilizing sustainable cardboard packaging materials and other eco-friendly options not only benefits the environment but also bolsters business branding.

Consumers today increasingly value businesses that prioritise sustainability, and opting for eco-friendly packaging can significantly boost brand reputation. Additionally, such choices often resonate with a growing segment of environmentally conscious consumers, fostering loyalty and attracting new customers who align with the company’s values. Sustainable packaging not only reduces a business’s environmental footprint but also demonstrates a commitment to long-term sustainability, creating a positive association with the brand. In essence, the adoption of sustainable packaging serves as a strategic investment that not only contributes to a healthier planet but also strengthens the bond between businesses and their environmentally-aware customer base

Analysing cost effectiveness

When analysing the cost-effectiveness of sustainable packaging solutions you should consider both short-term and long-term factors. Initially, there may be higher upfront costs when transitioning from conventional packaging materials to eco-friendly alternatives. These costs may include research and development, procurement of sustainable materials, and potential changes in manufacturing processes. However, the long-term benefits, especially for the planet, will outweigh the initial investment.

Long-term investments in eco-conscious packaging choices include enhanced brand reputation and customer loyalty, which contribute to increased market share and sales. Sustainable practices can lead to cost savings through reduced waste disposal fees and potential regulatory compliance benefits. Moreover, as eco-friendly materials become more mainstream, economies of scale can drive down the cost of sustainable packaging over time.

Returns and Long Term Investments

Returns on these investments are often realized through improved customer perception, as environmentally conscious consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products. Reduced environmental impact can also result in positive public relations and may attract partnerships or collaborations with like-minded businesses. Additionally, as regulatory pressure and consumer demand for sustainable practices continue to rise, businesses that proactively adopt eco-conscious packaging position themselves for long-term success and resilience in a rapidly changing market. Overall, the cost-effectiveness of sustainable packaging solutions is not only measured in immediate financial terms but also in the broader context of long-term brand value, environmental impact, and market positioning.

Returns and Long Term Investments

In conclusion, the shift towards eco-friendly packaging materials like cardboard and paper products marks a significant moment in sustainable packaging design trends.

The shift from traditional packaging to eco-friendly alternatives like cardboard is not merely a trend but a fundamental transformation in the way businesses operate. The growing emphasis on materials like cardboard and other sustainable options reflects a collective commitment to mitigating the ecological impact of packaging.  Adopting sustainable packaging, including eco-friendly packaging trends and green packaging certifications, is a significant step towards a greener future and aligns with sustainable packaging strategies. We can anticipate further innovations in material science, process optimization, and recycling technologies. Collaboration across industries, government support, and consumer awareness will continue to drive this evolution. The mastery of sustainable packaging materials not only benefits the planet by reducing waste and resource depletion but also positions businesses as responsible stewards, fostering customer loyalty and long-term success.

Join the Eco-Friendly Movement with RH Fibreboard's Innovative Solutions

RH Fibreboard Containers Ltd can help you transform your packaging strategy by offering sustainable and innovative solutions tailored to your specific needs. Leveraging our expertise in cardboard,  we can collaborate with your business to replace traditional plastic packaging materials with eco-friendly alternatives. By incorporating RH Fibreboard into your packaging strategy, you benefit from potentially using more sustainable materials whilst ensuring the protection of your products during storage and transit.

We specialise in creating packaging solutions from recycled or renewable materials, aligning with sustainability goals. Collaborating with us can result in a reduction in your environmental footprint, as our products are designed to be both effective and environmentally friendly.

Additionally, the company can provide consultation and support in optimizing your packaging processes, ensuring that your transition to sustainable packaging is seamless and efficient. This may involve customisation of your cardboard packaging to meet the specific requirements of your products, improving overall packaging performance.

By partnering with RH Fibreboard Containers Ltd, you not only enhance the sustainability of your packaging but also gain access to a wealth of industry knowledge and innovative solutions. This collaboration positions your business as a leader in adopting eco-friendly practices, potentially attracting environmentally conscious consumers, and bolstering your brand’s reputation for corporate responsibility.

As we move forward, the ongoing pursuit of sustainability in packaging remains a dynamic journey, one that holds immense potential for positive environmental change and a more conscientious global economy.

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