What Is Eco-Friendly Packaging?

by Steffani Cameron ; Updated October 30, 2018
Woman wrapping Christmas presents in a crafty way

Public consciousness about issues like climate change is influencing buying habits and consumer choices. Among the many desirable features, they choose products for their packaging. Increasingly, eco-friendly packaging isn’t just an Earth-friendly way to sell a product; it’s how to broadcast a company’s values and ethos.

Advantages of Eco-Friendly Packaging

Eco-friendly packaging goes by a few other names such as sustainable packaging, green packaging and environmentally-friendly packaging. To be eco-friendly, packaging can be biodegradable (but preferably compostable), recyclable, reusable, non-toxic, made from recycled products, based in biomass or natural products or manufactured through low-impact means.

For instance, yogurt available in glass bottles is eco-friendly, while plastic containers are not. Glass meets the green packaging definition because it’s recyclable but also infinitely reusable. Unless it's broken, glass lasts for centuries.

How do Eco-Friendly Products Help the Environment?

Consider the glass yogurt bottle. It can be reused until some butter-fingers drops it, otherwise it gets easily recycled in most of the world. But to make that glass involves someone collecting silica – sand, which is facing a shortage worldwide – and trucking that sand to a factory. The truck uses gasoline and emits carbon dioxide, a “greenhouse gas” contributing to climate change. Then, turning that silica into glass requires electricity as well as other fuels to heat the furnace used to melt and form the glass. It requires machines to shape the glass, plus paper and inks to print and label the bottle.

Every time someone reuses the bottle, it’s one fewer time that whole process of using natural resources occurs. And every time someone recycles a glass bottle, it may still need energy and cause carbon dioxide pollution from trucking the bottles, melting them down and reforming them, but at least sand isn’t used, and that’s a resource that experts are increasingly saying needs conservation.

Eco-friendly products and packaging can be helpful in other ways, too. They may be biodegradable or made from more sustainable, faster-replenishing natural products like bamboo. Bamboo, for instance, can be harvested for paper and other materials every two-to-three years, versus upwards of 60 years for a new tree to grow.

Video of the Day

Brought to you by Techwalla
Brought to you by Techwalla

Simply using less packaging is also an excellent way to be eco-friendly.

Biodegradable Packaging Examples

By definition, “biodegradable materials are composed of waste from living organisms and the actual plant, animal or another organism when its life ends.”

So products made of paper, banana leaf, processed bamboo, vegetable fibers and food waste are examples of things that can be biodegradable, which means they will break down in a landfill. Even better for the environment are compostable products, which can be broken down in one industrial composting cycle but will enrichen soil and provide a fertile place for other vegetation and flora to grow. Enriching soil quality is important as the world population increases because it dramatically affects our food production. Focusing on compostable products is a win-win solution. But while compostable products are always biodegradable, the reverse is not true.

Many big packaging companies are making biodegradable polymers, a kind of Earth-friendly plastic and resin, which use natural fibers in their creation. And forward-thinking companies like Level Ground Coffee are creating unique compostable products. Their fair-trade coffee beans are packaged in compostable bags that can be filled with soil and seedlings, planted in the garden and completely break down to enrich the soil. Recycled paper products can be made as compostable packaging or containers, like the {POST}MODERN compostable compost bin, for people who save food scraps for compost, which cities like Vancouver, British Columbia now require citizens to do.

There isn’t a fixed standard for what constitutes “biodegradable” packaging, and the result is that this term is used more casually by some companies whose products may break down, but not in the short-term as consumers may think. The Biodegradable Products Institute is a third-party non-profit who test and certify products as biodegradable and compostable, and they offer a searchable database that is free for public use to find products that meet these standards.

What Is Eco-Friendly Food Packaging?

Eco-friendly food packaging is getting exciting recently thanks to innovations that are inspiring packaging designers around the world. From store-bought products to take-out and delivery food, eco-friendly packaging can be integral to helping the environment.

People in their 40s can remember a time when McDonald’s used plastic-based foam containers for its marquee burgers like the Big Mac. McDonald’s was one of the first large companies to switch to paper-based products for takeout. Over time, they even stopped bleaching their trademark white paper bags; all that began in 1990. Today, McDonald’s is still a leader in the takeout industry and has gone on record with a pledge to have 100 percent of its packaging renewable, recyclable or certified sources by 2025.

Many restaurants in the takeout industry are switching to unbleached cardboard boxes with vegetable-based inks for branding, thanks to consumers being savvier about the impact of takeout packaging.

And products on store shelves are getting inventive updates, too. Companies like Carlsberg Brewing have tried paper-based "bottles" for beverages and other liquids with great success. Further innovation has led to things like plastic wrap for foods made from algae which replenish quickly in the sea.

Australia’s food packaging is some of the most innovative in the world. They embrace creative container design and new uses of products like paper, plant-based resins and other recyclables, but not just because they're forward-thinking. The Aussie government has mandated that 100 percent of the country’s food packaging must be recyclable, compostable or reusable before 2025.

Advantages of Using Eco-Friendly Products

Countries around the world are realizing they must act to reduce the impact that trash is having on the planet. When trash doesn’t biodegrade or compost, it’s a long-term problem they are forced to find space for. Non-friendly packaging is an eyesore and a logistical nightmare. A collaborative report from a few departments of the U.S. government listed the time it takes for some packaging to break down in the environment. They include:

  • Glass bottle: 1 million years.
  • Plastic beverage bottles: 450 years.
  • Aluminum can: 80-to-200 years.
  • Plastic bag: 10-to-20 years.

It’s not just Australia taking a strong stance. Morocco has already entirely banned plastic bags in the country. In Kenya, one faces a possible four-year jail term or a hefty fine for the use or sale of plastic bags. China has cracked down on plastic bags, too.

The point is that laws are changing and companies that don’t lead the way by embracing eco-friendly packaging now will soon be perceived as dinosaurs. By being a part of the solution today, it doesn’t just save the planet, it demonstrates corporate responsibility and states company values loud and clear.

The argument that going green with products and packaging is financially unprofitable for companies no longer holds water, either. A 2015 Nielsen study showed that 66 percent of global respondents were willing to pay more for enviro-friendly packaging, a number that has surely risen as consciousness has increased.

Even luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton are promoting their sustainable packaging. Trash is being turned into desirable, trendy furniture and other products. Sports industry leader Nike boasts that it has saved over 3 billion plastic bottles from reaching landfills since 2010, thanks to using recycled polyester in making clothing from plastic. It uses plastic to kit out the U.S. National Soccer Team, and every team uniform is made from at least 16 plastic bottles for its shirts, socks and shorts.

Society has learned the hard way that convenient packaging was inconvenient to the planet. Today, the best packaging is either part of a brave new future of using waste to make innovative products, as Nike has done, or a return to the old ways, making packaging so appealing it's reused endlessly. Both, it seems, are great strategies for companies playing to win.

About the Author

Steffani Cameron is a professional writer who has written for the Washington Post, Culture, Yahoo!, Canadian Traveller, and many other platforms. Some writing projects have included ghost-writing for CEOs and doing strategy white papers. She frequently writes for corporate clients representing Fortune 500 brands on subjects that include marketing, business, and social media trends.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article