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22 November 2021

Top 5 Sustainable Materials: For Product Packaging

Custom packaging

With the growing barrage of statistics, facts and repercussions of packaging material production; international organizations, entrepreneurs and watchdog societies have been finding renewable alternatives to our global plastic problem. 

Over the past few years these alternatives have started getting traction in the mainstream packaging markets so that – with help from mounting consumer awareness – they are becoming more accessible and affordable. In this post, we’ll be sharing our Top 5 Sustainable Materials for Product Packaging, factoring in the ethics of sourcing these products, the production process and realistic price points behind each option. 

 

Marine Plastics

These plastics are reused once they are pulled from oceans around the world. 

2 million tonnes of plastic packaging is used each year in the UK alone. There is now estimated to be 5.25 trillion pieces of micro and macro plastic in the sea – that’s 46,000 pieces every square mile weighing in up to 269,000 tonnes. That’s the same as 38,000 African elephants

One way of combating this horrendous statistic is to reuse the plastic that’s already in the oceans rather than using virgin plastic to create new products. The good news is that there’s no shortage of companies who are interested in upcycling ocean plastics. The bad news is that because of the process of reusing these plastics – the reality is costly, time-consuming and compromises on quality due to the breakdown which polymers have experienced while in the ocean for long periods of time. According to Oceanworks CEO Rob Ianelli, with such a large number of uncontrollable factors most companies will unfortunately walk away from this option in favour of a less sustainable choice once the numbers are crunched. 

But it is possible for companies to use marine plastics in their production, some are mixing marine and virgin plastics to get a blend which, (though not 100% shore-to-store) does at least begin to combat the problem of waste in the oceans. Sana Packaging CEO says that “plastic and packaging specifically hasn’t accounted for the externalities of the cost to society and the environment and so the real cost is what sustainable materials are going to cost.” For packaging service providers like BPAK, providing the option of marine plastics as an alternative material – is a step towards companies investing in a loop production system as opposed to the current ladder system which is increasing rather than minimizing plastic waste.  As for the companies who are investing in packaging production – for the gains made in consumer satisfaction, sustainability and overall carbon footprint – it is surely better to invest and make leaps rather than spend and do nothing?

 

Glass

Endlessly recyclable closed-loop method that never compromises on quality. 

Using old glass to make new glass products reduces energy and CO2 emissions and creates a circular economy. What’s not to love?

Known as Cullet, glass that has been recycled and processed ready for new production use is – according to British Glass – always in high demand. Used to manufacture bottles, windows, fiberglass, jars and tiny beads for industrial use; the capabilities of recycled glass are equal to it’s virgin counterpart which means you will never have to compromise on quality or purity. Something which few alternatives can boast, especially when every tonne of glass re-melted saves 246 kg of carbon dioxide emissions. 

According to C&EN, Americans dispose of around 10 million metric tonnes of glass per year. Found in Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), it is a common element in primary packaging. However it is not always the only element used, when mixed with other materials the ability to recycle the glass component is minimized because the process is so much more complex. This means that when companies try to economize or reinforce the material – they are limiting the chance that product has of being recycled. For example in 2018 the US glass regeneration was 12.3 million tons across all products which accounted for 4.2% of their MSW generation. Of this 3.1 million tons of glass was recycled which is a recycling rate of 31.3%, and the total amount of combusted glass was 1.6 million tons

In 2020 Brussels estimated that 76% of glass packaging was being recycled within the EU – this is despite Britain only increasing their recycling rate by 3% since 2010 with aims to have reached a 50% recycle rate by 2020. The leaders in recycling are Germany, Austria and South Korea who have a recycle rate averaging 60 – 70% of all their waste. 

There is closed-loop recycling, which refers to the process where the glass is melted back down to form a new glass product. Open-loop recycling: ‘is a recycling process that postpones disposal through converting manufactured goods into both new raw materials (which can be used as production inputs) and waste products’. If you can get closed-loop materials it is of course better for the environment and gives you all of those great benefits such as low CO2 emissions and doesn’t compromise on quality either. 

Due to it being a relatively common process – it won’t be as expensive as using marine plastics; however to ensure you are working with a company that uses a closed-loop method with pure cullet make sure you do your research to work out which one is best for you. 

 

Mycelium

During the first twenty years of the twenty first century, over 300 million metric tons of polystyrene were produced around the world and more than half was disposed of within the time range of a single year. Although incredibly effective and practical, polystyrene can take thousands of years to biodegrade – leading people to try and find a more eco-friendly alternative.

Enter Mycelium. A more obscure option on this list, however if done right it could be a complete game-changer for the packaging industry. 

Mycelium is made with just 3 major ingredients, (all renewable and accessible) water, mushrooms and agricultural waste. Created as an alternative for petroleum based foam packaging, this is 100% biodegradable and apart from the plastic moulds used to make the packaging it is 100% ethical. Of course depending on where you get that plastic it could be totally ethical and green. 

Overall energy efficient, the stage that takes up the largest percentage of the overall energy for the process is the drying stage – standing at 50%. However this is compared to the polystyrene alternative which at just the pulping stage uses 40% more energy and 90% more water than the mycelium option. Ecovative also use Marine-Compost to make their packaging – another alternative on the bio branch. 

Having an eco-friendly production process isn’t the only bonus to this material, Mycelium is also hydrophobic and flame-resistant as well as being lighter but stronger than polystyrene. 

Due to it being a relatively uncompetitive market at the moment, with Ecovative owning a basic monopoly alongside Grown Bio it is bound to become a relatively popular and well-known option. Already large companies such as Ikea are adopting it as a packaging alternative to appeal to the strong mass movement towards conservation and eco-friendly consumer habits.

 

Aluminum

Once produced Aluminum can be used infinitely, it is incredibly valuable as a material for its properties but also because it is relatively cheap to reuse. Nearly 75% of all aluminium ever produced in the US is still being used.

Recycling 1 tonne of aluminum saves the equivalent CO2 emissions of driving 27,000 miles, as well as 6 tonnes of bauxite. Globally 70% of aluminum is recycled worldwide each year, the recycling of aluminum worldwide means that 100 tonnes of CO2 emissions are saved each year. In the US more than $800 million a year is spent by the aluminum industry on recycled cans. 

In America, more than $700 million worth of aluminum is thrown every year by consumers and end up in landfills rather than being recycled. If aluminum ends up in landfill it will take a whopping 500 years before it oxidizes. 

For production there are two types of scrap, there’s post-consumer and pre-consumer. Post-consumer scrap has already been ‘something’, be that a can or another product; it is then recycled over and over again into different products. Pre-consumer scrap has typically come from the production process and not been used before. Post-consumer is preferable to use because it’s less likely to end up in landfill, it is also more popular with manufacturers who want to repurpose waste. 

In packaging, aluminum is used as an alternative to plastic tubes, due to it’s lighter weight and shiny appearance it is a clean and sustainable option. There were concerns about the material leaking into the product within the packaging, however through using the right manufacturers and suppliers this will never be a problem. 

It can easily be embellished with designs so that the telltale shine of the metal doesn’t show, this is another reason why it is gaining popularity with the industry. Unlike glass it doesn’t break and unlike the sustainable plastic options it doesn’t require an exorbitant amount of funds. No matter how many times it has been recycled before it doesn’t lose its quality as a material, it remains durable for molding, is not affected by extreme temperatures and has a long shelf-life. 

Aluminum producers and recyclers are working with businesses, communities and individuals to introduce recycling programmes that will help to ensure a circle economy. The Aluminium Stewardship Initiative is a non-profit international certification that aims to: bring together producers, users and stakeholders in the aluminium value chain with a commitment to maximise the contribution of aluminum to a sustainable society. Working together, we aim to collaboratively foster responsible production, sourcing and stewardship of aluminum.

Overall aluminum is the most accessible of all the sustainable materials available. It’s popularity and the ease of recycling it mean that no matter your budget it’s an option you should consider. 

 

PCR Plastics

Post Consumer Resin (PCR) Plastics are part of the post consumer waste flow – the largest source of waste in the world. It’s sheer volume means that there is always research into alternative ways of using it. The compound of PCR Plastic differs per product but usually it contains at least 95% of that material. 

It is a durable material that doesn’t use fossil fuels and is circular. However, it is not fully transparent and cannot be manufactured in custom colours. 75% of plastic packaging is recovered, with 86% of consumer plastic being recovered and 32% of all plastic is recycled. It’s still a difficult process because it’s relatively new – and in 2018 only 9% of the US’s municipal waste plastic was recycled. The biggest plastic problems are shopping bags and ocean plastic; but there are increasing amounts of opportunities to use these as material alternatives for virgin plastics.

Between 2021 and 2028 the market for PCR Plastic is expected to grow by 6.4% helped by government initiatives to incorporate this material into mainstream industry. The main factors restricting this growth is the limited awareness of sustainability in emerging economies, a move away from plastic in industries and fluctuations in raw material markets. Manufacturing 100% PCR Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), like in a water bottle, has a 60% lower CO2 output than virgin PET.

Easier to access than Marine Plastics, PCR Plastic is another amazing option now available to companies as an alternative to virgin materials. 

 

We hope you’ve enjoyed finding out more about the sustainable materials that are out there. If you want to learn more about how the packaging industry is impacting the climate crisis take a look at our Green or Mean: can the packaging industry really be sustainable? blog post about sustainability in this sector. 

BPAK gives sustainable materials as options for your packaging. Our Top 5 list is just a taste of what’s out there and score highest for affordability, ethical sourcing, conservation and usability. If you have any questions or want to discuss our materials further, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our amazing team who will be more than happy to talk you through all of the options available for your dream packaging.