Busting Common Sustainable Packaging Myths

July 20,2022 Category: Sustainability
Sustainability is one of the hottest topics of conversation in packaging circles and continues to grow in importance for consumers and brands alike. It can be a consideration for nearly any packaging project, but a handful of persistent myths and misconceptions can lead even experienced packaging pros astray. Tackling these inaccuracies head-on is an important step for building a thorough understanding of sustainable practices for everyone involved in packaging decisions.

Here are a few of the most common myths about sustainable packaging, along with key insights for developing a better understanding of the truth behind the misconceptions:

Myth 1: Sustainable Just Means Being Eco Friendly

While using environmentally friendly materials is an important part of sustainability, it isn’t the only consideration for what makes something sustainable. The least sustainable package is one that doesn’t survive its distribution environment; inadequate protection leads to returns, which increases greenhouse gas emissions due to the additional shipping. Repairs and replacements can be expensive and consume resources, impacting a brand’s sustainability and its bottom line.

Designing and optimizing packaging to protect the product without overpackaging is the ideal solution. Thoughtful design and well-planned testing can help packaging pros strike a balance that reduces or eliminates this waste.

Myth 2: Sustainable Packaging Costs More

While consumer demand is a primary motivator for brands to pursue sustainable packaging initiatives, it’s important to note that many of the packaging changes that enhance sustainability also double as cost saving opportunities. A direct comparison of sustainable and traditional packaging materials does reveal a higher cost, but sustainability is about much more swapping out materials. Rightsizing packaging specs to eliminate overpackaging, for example, saves on material costs and reduces the amount of packaging waste produced. In most cases, it also decreases the weight of the package, which saves on fuel costs and reduces greenhouse gas emissions during shipping.

As consumer preferences for sustainable products continues to grow, they’re demonstrating their preference by gravitating toward products they perceive as sustainable. Research backs this idea up, as studies find that consumers across age groups are becoming more aware and more interested in sustainable products. This preference is strongest among young consumers, suggesting that even if moving towards more sustainable packaging requires some up-front investment, doing it now will continue to pay off for years to come.

Myth 3: Biodegradable and Compostable Mean the Same Thing

To bust this myth, it is helpful to look at what each term means on its own and then highlight the differences. A biodegradable material is one that can be consumed by living micro-organisms such as bacteria. A compostable material is one that breaks down into non-toxic, natural elements at a rate similar to organic materials.

A key difference here is the time factor; compostable materials break down over a defined period of time under a specific set of conditions. Biodegradable materials don’t have similarly defined restrictions. On a long enough timeline, every object will biodegrade when exposed to conditions such as sunlight and moisture in the presence of micro-organisms. Paperboard may break down more quickly than a plastic bottle, but they’ll both get there eventually.

For packaging, compostable is a much more meaningful designation. Because the conditions for composability are well defined, organizations in many global territories issue certifications brands can use to market their product’s packaging as compostable, but no such certifications exist for biodegradable materials. Avoiding use of loosely defined terms like biodegradable makes it easier for consumers to choose products that align with their environmental priorities, and greenwashing – the act of using misleading claims about sustainability – is a bad look that will likely backfire as consumer awareness of sustainable practices grows.

Myth 4: Plastic Should be Eliminated from All Packaging

While plastic is rarely the most sustainable option, it does have its advantages in some applications. Products that require packaging with sterile barrier properties are likely to continue benefitting from plastic packaging or packaging that features plastic coating for years to come. Plastic is generally lighter in weight and less energy intensive to make than alternatives such as glass, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions during shipping.

Reducing or eliminating reliance on single-use plastics should be a priority, but in the meantime it’s important to note that some plastics are getting better. Many can be recycled or reused, and there are opportunities to use plastics made from post-consumer recycled materials. What’s most important is to understand where there are opportunities to phase plastic packaging out and where using plastic is necessary. A sustainability audit can help packaging teams draw a clear line between those two situations.

Don’t Go It Alone

Clearing up these common myths is important, but it would be impossible to eliminate every misconception that impacts packaging sustainability. If you’re struggling to answer important questions about your packaging or determine the best path toward your sustainable packaging goals, get in touch. Adept Group has experts with extensive experience helping brands like yours identify the impactful opportunities to improve sustainability and set defined milestones that will guide your packaging department toward a more sustainable future.