Product packaging is one of the worst offenders when it comes to single-use plastic waste. Thankfully, compostable plastics are growing, but they haven’t caught on at scale yet. Financial obstacles, logistics problems, and a lack of knowledge about biodegradable packaging materials keep businesses from making that shift.
Despite these challenges, biodegradable packaging has significant advantages for both businesses and their buyers. Creative strategies can also make the green transition easier.
The biggest reason to switch to biodegradable packaging materials is that conventional packaging waste takes a toll on the environment. Packaging accounts for 36% of all plastic production, and 85% of plastic food and beverage containers end up in landfills. Waste aside, manufacturing this plastic is an emissions-heavy process.
There are financial benefits of swapping plastic for biodegradable alternatives, too. Collecting, sorting, shipping, recycling and otherwise disposing of plastic packaging is expensive. Buyers are also becoming increasingly eco-conscious, even to the point of spending more on eco-friendly products without plastic. Consequently, sustainable packaging could boost company revenues.
Using biodegradable packaging also helps improve a business’s image in the public eye. Even if customers don’t change their buying habits, many appreciate the effort to go green. It can also help comply with rising environmental regulations.
Thankfully, there are many different biodegradable packaging materials to choose from today. Regardless of what your needs are, there’s likely an eco-friendly alternative to plastic that works for you. Here is a short list of the main compostable packaging materials.
The most familiar biodegradable alternative to plastic is cardboard — more specifically, recycled cardboard. Cardboard is the most recycled material in the U.S., but many companies make it from newly harvested trees, which isn’t good for the environment. Ensuring you source cardboard from certified recycling sources provides the same strength and affordability with a smaller footprint, and it is further recyclable.
Cornstarch is another promising option. Hardened cornstarch has similar properties to plastic and styrofoam or bubble wrap but is entirely compostable. This material can replace conventional packing peanuts, bubble wrap packaging, and other loose-fill packaging for fragile products, plastic or cardboard boxes or any other type of packaging made of fossil fuel-based plastic.
Cornstarch isn’t the only plant-based material scientists can turn into plastics. Other bioplastics come from different raw materials like sugarcane, wheat, algae, and seaweed. Each type comes with unique strengths and weaknesses, but all offer a biodegradable alternative to petroleum-based plastics and are commonly used in food packaging.
Some companies have turned to mushrooms as a plastic alternative developing true mushroom packaging. Mycelium — the root-like structure that grows under mushrooms — can rival plastic’s strength but is fully biodegradable. Because fungi grow quickly and break down agricultural waste, producing this sustainable material helps the environment along several fronts.
Eco-friendly soft packaging options exist, too. Organic fabrics made from recycled cotton, hemp, banana leaves or other plant-based materials can compost rapidly but offer similar strength and flexibility to plastic bags. Cloth can replace plastic cling, it is reusable and also ideal for insulation within a package.
Businesses bear much of the responsibility for moving away from plastic packaging and helping solve the plastic pollution problem. While that switch can seem challenging at first, here are some creative ways they can make the swap.
Recycled cardboard and paper are the most obvious biodegradable alternatives to plastic packaging, but not the only ones. Expanding your search to novel eco-friendly materials can bring more benefits while remaining green.
Plant-based plastics are an excellent example. These materials meet the same food contact standards and provide the same strength as regular plastics without their carbon footprint. That way, businesses don’t have to sacrifice practicality for sustainability.
New eco friendly alternatives to packaging materials emerge all the time. Restricting yourself to the most common or oldest of these options will limit the potential benefits. Considering more niche alternatives of compostable materials can help overcome conventional barriers to sustainable packaging and meet your specific packaging needs.
Costs are some of the most significant obstacles businesses face in switching to biodegradable packaging. One of the reasons plastics have remained the standard for so long is because they’re cheap. You can work around this issue by designing packages to use less material in the first place.
Current packages may have unnecessary folds, unused space or edges that are thicker than they need to be. Refining these designs to require less material per product will reduce manufacturing costs. Consequently, you’ll have more room in the budget to justify costlier biodegradable packaging materials.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can help. Many industry-leading companies like Amazon have used AI to look for packaging inefficiencies and redesign them to use less material. Doing the same can open the door to easier sustainability.
Another creative way to embrace sustainable packaging is to focus on local suppliers. It can be tempting to look globally for any supplier that offers biodegradable materials in search of the best resources. However, this can limit your packaging’s sustainability by introducing more transportation-related emissions.
Supply chain emissions are 11.4 times higher than a company’s operational emissions on average. Transportation accounts for much of that. If a biodegradable material has to travel hundreds of miles to get to the facility, the resulting transportation emissions hinder its sustainability.
By contrast, partnering with a local supplier lowers these emissions. Transport costs will also fall, making biodegradable packaging more affordable. It also becomes easier to set up a circular economy, where you join forces with companies in other industries to extend resources’ useful service lives and minimize waste.
Some eco-friendly packaging solutions are easy to overlook because they’re so simple. A great example is to not package every product.
While this strategy doesn’t apply to every item across every company, some businesses can forgo packaging altogether. Brick-and-mortar shops can store loose goods in open containers for customers to use their own reusable packages or buy reusable containers from the store.
Offering packaging-less goods has two primary benefits. First, it reduces the amount of resources — biodegradable or not — the business consumes. Secondly, it minimizes packaging expenses to free finances for biodegradable packaging materials for other products.
As a consumer, you may not control what a company does with its packaging, but you can still encourage sustainability. Here are some ways buyers can drive businesses to embrace biodegradable alternatives to plastic.
The most important step as a consumer is to practice eco-friendly purchasing habits. Sustainability has become increasingly popular among businesses recently, largely because buyers have become more likely to pay for it. As many as 82% of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging now, 8% more than in 2021.
Few things speak as loudly to a business as money. If companies see that they can get more revenue from using biodegradable packaging materials, they’ll be more likely to make the switch.
This goes beyond filling out surveys saying you’d be willing to buy environmentally friendly products. There must be an actual exchange of money. If one business doesn’t provide a sustainable option, consider buying from a more eco-friendly competitor instead to emphasize the importance of going green.
Another easy way to help promote sustainability is to prefer local businesses. Buying from local organizations reduces your own carbon footprint by minimizing your contributions to transportation emissions. It goes further than that, though, by enabling smaller companies to afford biodegradable packaging.
Shopping locally will increase revenues for the small businesses you buy from. That extra cash means these companies can afford to raise their production costs by embracing eco-friendly packaging materials. Small businesses may be unable to do so without increased support.
Focusing on the local level is important because a local circular economy will produce fewer emissions. As a result, these companies switching to eco-friendly packaging will have a more positive environmental impact than a larger multinational doing the same.
It also helps to be on the lookout for any recycling programs or other sustainability initiatives from businesses. Companies may run these as experiments to gauge interest in sustainable options, so it’s important to show them that consumers care about the environment.
Some businesses run recycling programs where they’ll recycle or reuse products or packaging if consumers send them in. If few consumers engage with the program, it’ll discourage the company from pursuing similar initiatives in the future. By contrast, if you use it regularly, you tell businesses you’re actively looking for ways to become more sustainable.
Increased interest in programs like this makes biodegradable packaging materials seem like a safer business move. If customers already use other sustainable services, chances are they’ll enjoy new eco-friendly products.
For most companies, packaging has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the environment as it is disposable plastic. Biodegradable alternatives to plastic are available. Businesses and their consumers only need to learn how and why to embrace them.
The single use plastics problem presents a significant threat to the environment in terms of plastic pollution. Companies and buyers alike must switch to more sustainable alternatives sooner rather than later to protect the planet. If we can move away from conventional plastic packaging, the world will have a better chance at a safer, cleaner future.