Reducing or Eliminating Plastic in Packaging

February 23,2023 Category: Foundational Processes, Packaging Development, Sustainability
Calls for brands to reduce or eliminate plastics in packaging have continued to grow in recent years. While some brands have already made aggressive pledges to phase plastics out, pressure is mounting for everyone else to follow suit. Retailers, including some major club stores, are joining consumers and government bodies in the chorus of voices calling for an end to unnecessary plastic use and a transition to more sustainable packaging formats.

While plastic’s versatility and ease of manufacture has made it a staple packaging material for several decades, phasing it out is an achievable goal for most consumer brands. Knowing the options makes planning a transition much easier.

Consider Direct Elimination

Because plastic is sturdy, lightweight and relatively inexpensive, it’s become something of a default choice as a single-use material for packaging. In many instances, however, it does not serve an essential function in protecting products as they move from their point of origin to the end user. In these cases, direct elimination – simply removing the plastic components from the package design – is a viable option. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an estimated 5-10 percent of plastic uses in packaging are good candidates for direct elimination.

For example, when clear plastics are used to provide product visibility within a package, removing the material and leaving an open window in part of the package can create the same visibility without wasteful material use. While this may create the need to better secure the product within the package, packaging engineers can accomplish that using more sustainable materials.

Replace Plastics with More Sustainable Materials

Many major consumer brands have made progress against their goal to reduce or eliminate plastic use and have done so mostly by implementing sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging. Companies interested in following their lead must make decisions based on the needs of their product and its distribution environment, but those decisions start with understanding the options.

For many products, plastic packaging components can be replaced with corrugate. It carries the advantage of being fully recyclable and, in many cases, can be sourced from recycled materials. When responsibly sourced, corrugate is made from renewable resources and is also biodegradable, breaking down in a matter of weeks in compared the hundreds of years it can take for traditional plastics to decompose. Corrugate is a highly versatile material that can be made in many different sizes, shapes and thicknesses to meet the needs of a product and its distribution environment. It is also typically less expensive and requires less energy to create than plastics.

Another alternative for brands looking to phase out plastic packaging is glass, though the sustainability advantages of switching to glass are less clear cut. Glass’s greatest advantage over plastic is that it’s infinitely recyclable. Plastic can typically only be recycled a few times before its quality begins to degrade, but glass can be crushed, ground down, melted and reformed repeatedly without any loss of quality. There is also some research that suggests consumers may be more likely to reuse glass packaging than they are to reuse plastics.

There are tradeoffs, as glass is heavier and more fragile than plastic, making it both more expensive and energy-intensive to transport. Virgin glass is also more energy intensive to produce than virgin plastic. Lastly, glass is not accepted at some recycling facilities, leaving it up to private organizations to pick up the slack for keeping glass out of landfills in certain places. (To learn more about one of these organizations, check out this recent episode of our Unpacking Excellence podcast featuring Franzisca Trautman of Glass Half Full.)

Situations where it makes sense to transition from plastic to glass are highly dependent on the product and its distribution environment. Because the weight of glass makes it expensive to transport, this option may make more sense for products that don’t need to travel far to reach their point of sale. Characteristics of glass, such as its strong barrier protection against air and moisture, make it a good option for brands in the beverage and pharmaceutical industry. Colored glass can also provide protection for products that lose quality when exposed to light. Those same features make glass a popular choice among cosmetics and personal care brands, which also benefit from the high-end perception that glass packaging can provide.

Look into Bio-based Materials

As demand for more sustainable packaging materials continues to grow, many suppliers are developing innovative new options. One quickly growing development in the materials space is mushroom-based material.  Suppliers such as Ecovative and others are creating home-compostable, mushroom-based options for interior packaging components that can serve as sustainable alternatives EPS foam and plastic trays.

Finnish manufacturer Paptic creates bio-based, recyclable and biodegradable materials that can be used for bags, mailers, labels and other flexible applications. 

The broad umbrella of bio-based materials also includes bioplastics, but these may not be a good option for brands looking to reduce or eliminate plastics outright. For brands making these changes to meet club store requirements, bioplastics are unlikely to satisfy those guidelines. They are a better option for brands that can’t eliminate plastic outright, but only after a thorough review of the types of materials available and the tradeoffs they offer from durability and sustainability standpoints.

Lean on the Experts

Because the packaging world has depended on plastics for so many uses over the last several decades, paring down their use or eliminating them completely requires careful planning. Enlisting support from an expert in sustainable packaging can help brands understand which options work well for the products and how incorporating plastic alternatives fits within their organization’s sustainability goals. The sustainable packaging experts at Adept Group can help; we have experience supporting brands in many industries as they prioritize sustainability initiatives and determine which projects best satisfy the needs of their products and the metrics within their sustainability goals. Get in touch to discuss how Adept can support your transition away from plastics and other key sustainable packaging projects.