Sustainability for Packaging Success

  • Sustainable practices are now more an expectation than a trend.
  • Over time, sustainable practices can be money- and energy-saving investments.
  • Materials used, where it is sourced, how it is created and transported, and the technologies used to produce the package are important to consider in how a package impacts the environment.
  • Researching new materials, such as bamboo and wheat straw, to make corrugated paper and packaging materials could potentially lower costs and raise public awareness.

Brands have been “going green” for years. It is now less a trend and more an expectation. Sustainable practices in businesses not only provide a positive marketing selling point to consumers, especially those who support the going-green trend, but over time, sustainable practices can be money- and energy-saving investments.

Sustainability is a huge driver for innovation. When consumers see sustainable packaging, it signals a company’s own commitment to the environment. It also can backfire if brands are seen to be using sustainability for marketing without substance to their claims. It is important to be authentic.

“Many companies initially embrace sustainability for marketing reasons but don’t think through the link to their brand promise,” says Nina Goodrich, executive director of GreenBlue, an environmental nonprofit that equips businesses with the science and resources to make products more sustainable.

“Sustainable packaging is often driven by brand promise. Cost savings and efficiency are often early drivers as well,” she continues. “Integrating sustainability into the overall strategy of a company, to include looking at the package as it relates to the product, will help us move toward more sustainable systems.”

What is Sustainable Packaging?

Packaging has value in its role in protecting the economic, environmental and social value of the products it contains. But, it must be considered in the context of the product.

Initially, going green primarily meant light-weighting. That can be one piece of it, of course, but now it’s more important than ever to evaluate packaging and product lifecycle holistically.

Consumers won’t necessarily appreciate the effort you put into packaging unless it results in a superior product in an easy-to-use format.

“Start with cost-effective performance, and match material properties with end-uses to make sure the package will perform to expectation,” says Steve Davies, NatureWorks director of corporate communications and public affairs. “Nothing is sustainable long term if it is not economically viable as well.”

Companies, such as NatureWorks, will collaborate with clients to help ensure all conditions are in synch. “There are many paths to becoming more sustainable,” Davies continues. “There is no one right solution.” 

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), an industry working group managed by the nonprofit GreenBlue, is dedicated to a more robust environmental vision for packaging.

SPC has brought together hundreds of companies and stakeholders interested in working together to broaden the understanding of packaging sustainability and develop meaningful improvements throughout the supply chain. The industry group has a wide variety of reports, tools and resources available to help companies make the business case for sustainability.

Goodrich contends that there is no “sustainable package.” Rather, each package is unique and requires analysis to determine how to make it as sustainable as possible. Materials used, where it is sourced, how it is created and transported, and the technologies used to produce the package are important to consider in how a package impacts the environment.

Sustainability can be measured in a variety of ways. The SPC breaks it down into three broad categories: sourcing, optimization and recovery.

Recovery is related to the next life of the package. Metrics include: recyclability, collectability and options for re-use. Paper and plastics are often widely recyclable, but some of the treatments on the packaging to make it stand out on the shelf make the beauty package a contaminant in the recycle stream.

“A great deal of high-end packaging in the beauty industry is difficult or impossible to recycle or uses harsh processes to get specific effects,” explains Goodrich.

Beauty packaging also tends to be small and that makes it difficult to recover in traditional curbside collection systems. SPC has developed a How2Recycle label that can be seen on AVEDA and Target brand products. This label informs consumers how to determine if a package is recyclable in their area. MAC and Origins also have initiated take-back programs to help to recover specific materials.

“Composting is a potential future option for some small packages,” Goodrich adds.

Sourcing can include metrics related to the use of certified and sustainably sourced fiber, biopolymers and recycled content. Energy metrics, such as “percentage made with renewable energy,” are also possible, according to Goodrich.

Optimization is related to material efficiency in primary and secondary packaging and in transportation. Traditional measures can include light weighting, cube efficiency and manufacturing waste.

“The important concept here is that the environmental footprint of the product is usually larger than the footprint of the package, so it’s important not to compromise the product,” Goodrich explains. “In the case of beauty, some packages are very elaborate, so they might have a larger environmental footprint than the product.” 


While consumers ultimately determine whether packaging winds up in the recycling or compost bin rather than the landfill, more and more companies are working to give them the opportunity to make a responsible choice.

Bottle Coatings Inc., a division of SunDial Powder Coatings, provides a patent-pending recyclable coating for glass bottles. This technology protects against UV degradation by powder coating the bottle—rather than using a combination of liquid and chemicals. The technique helps to prolong product shelf life and is environmentally sound.

“The powder coating process uses no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), there is no release of chemicals in the air through evaporation, and any over-sprayed powder is easily recoverable and safely disposable,” explains Shivie Dhillon, president of Bottle Coatings. “Everyone benefits from reduced environmental cleanup costs.”

Bioplastics is another option increasing in demand. Aveda claims to be the first beauty company to combine PCR and bioplastics in a plastic tube. Bioplastics are made from renewable biomass sources or food crops and are considered more sustainable than conventional plastic packaging products. The bioplastic PLA can, in theory, be recycled. However, it is grouped under the plastic resin code #7. Earth Renewable Technologies is one supplier working with industry leaders to increase the recyclability of these plastics over the long term.

“More than ever before, consumers are seeking products that reflect a comprehensive consciousness to the environment,” says Owen Schultz, vice president of EarthBottle’s New Business Development. Earth Renewable Technologies’s new EarthBottle is a plant-based packaging solution that is a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics.

Boasting a sustainable footprint from cradle to cradle, all EarthBottles are made using plant-based materials without toxic plasticizers or fossil fuels and have the potential to be recycled. The company is working with industry leaders to increase the recyclability of #7 plastics over the long term. The company claims that EarthBottle packaging is stronger and lighter than glass, and outperforms existing PLAs in durability, quality and barrier properties.

The proprietary biopolymer used to make these bottles, called EarthMatter, offers a lower carbon footprint and reduced greenhouse gas emissions over the production of conventional plastics. In addition, during the decomposition process of the biopolymer, no chemicals or hazardous materials are leached into the water or land. Instead, vital minerals and antioxidants are returned back to the earth, according to company materials.

Variations of the biopolymer are being tested for flexible packaging, durable goods, fibers and other uses.


Supply chain traceability and transparency has become increasingly important in raw materials sourcing, and that applies to packaging as well.

Plastic has taken over packaging because it works well at protecting the product, has excellent barrier properties and keeps oxygen out. But Ellery West, whose company EcoVision Packaging started with plastic materials but switched to paper, had this growing consciousness that there was a disconnect between organic, sustainable products and plastic packaging.

Most people have an idea that sustainability is the ability to carry on for a long period of time. “Something that protects life—or better yet is a product of life—that is sustainable,” explains West. “Paper is sustainable, it is recyclable and carbon neutral,” he continues.

The last experience of the brand is as consumer throws the empty package away. Consumers are going to think about whether they had a good experience and whether they are going to buy another one.

“It is important to consider that while plastic looks brand new and the package expression hasn’t diminished, consumers will start to realize that package will last forever—in a landfill,” says West. On the other hand, there is something satisfying about getting rid of the old and replacing with the new. “By changing the expectation, we look at a depreciated package as a virtue, they are already part of life and going back to life,” explains West.

EcoVision Packaging’s Eco line features a sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable tube and a jar in a variety of sizes. The unique compostable packaging is primarily made of paper, with water resistant versions featuring a small amount of compostable corn-based PLA. The Eco Paste Tube will be available in 2017 for creams, toothpaste and other semi-solid products.

Development of the company’s Organic Confidence deodorant was a unique challenge. A deodorant with organic materials that exclude synthetic chemistry has a much narrower useful temperature range for a formulation.

“This would not be as much of a challenge when using a typical plastic screw-up deodorant package, but with a paper squeeze-from-the-bottom tube, temperature matters much more in regards to ease of use,” explains West.

When formulating the product, careful attention had to be paid to the average temperature range in typical bathrooms year-round. In this way, product development went hand in hand with the package development and constraints and influenced the package dimensions.

Having developed the packaging and product concurrently, West solved usability issues for both.

EcoVision can now sell that paper package to others, as stock packaging and as private label products. For the deodorant and lip balm products, the relatively weak oxygen barrier properties of food/pharmaceutical grade casein that is used in the package construction, with the multiple layers of thick paper, are sufficient for keeping the vegetable oils and beeswax from leaking and premature oxidation. Once the product is purchased, daily use by opening the container is enough to fully oxygenate the product surface, but daily use continues to erode the product surface, just as with almost any other package.

EcoVision has been making the same lip balm formulation for 17 years, about half that time with plastic packaging and half that time with paper packaging. “Surprisingly, the paper package has similar time periods to rancidity as the plastic,” says West. “A metalized layer on either would provide better oxygen resistance for both.”

While there are challenges, West believes that with innovation eventually all the plastic on the shelves can be replaced with paper. But for that to happen, expectations must be changed.

“A lot of the industry is making assumptions that they are not aware of making and unable to think outside the box—a clear, plastic box,” explains Ellery. He suggests that researchers take their eyes off plastic and look for ways to develop the right barrier materials that are themselves non-toxic so that they can go back into the earth.

The downside to paper is that it takes a tree about 14 years to grow and be ready for its one-time conversion into paper and one-time use as packaging. Researching and considering new materials—such as bamboo and wheat straw—to make corrugated paper and packaging materials could potentially lower costs and raise public awareness, as well as enable materials to be renewed much more quickly.

Fibrepak, a sub-brand of leading European thermoformer Plastique, manufactures thermoformed fiber-molded pulp packaging from renewable virgin fibers such as sugar cane fibers, bamboo, wheat straw and blends of various grass fibers. The sustainable natural materials produce no waste or toxic materials. 

Unlike traditional molded pulp packaging, Fibrepak’s process—known as thermoformed fiber—uses “Cure-In-The-Mold” technology to produce well-defined, smooth, thin-walled packaging that can be colored and blended using food-safe pigment dyes to provide a variety of finishes. The packaging is recyclable and compostable.


Companies have to measure what they are doing now and find ways to decrease environmental impacts of their packaging over its entire life cycle, as well as other corporate practices including emissions and energy usage. Many brands base their culture on natural products and low environmental impact. They can support their initiatives with more sustainable products from suppliers that support market developments. 

NatureWorks’ Inego is used in a variety of rigid packaging for the food industries, as well as in long-term primary packaging for cosmetics, such as compacts and lipstick cases. Early examples included CARGO Cosmetics’ PlantLove lipstick tube and Priori’s CoffeeBerry Sun Kissed compact case. More recently, Ingeo has been used not only for personal care packaging, but the personal care products themselves, such as Neutrogena Naturals’ Purifying Makeup Remover Cleansing Towelettes.

“Ingeo is a naturally advanced material because it is made by transforming greenhouse gas (GHG) into physical materials,” says Davies. NatureWorks does this today through the photosynthesis of plants, and then harvesting the plant sugar and fermenting it into lactic acid—the building block of Ingeo’s bioplastic.

“Photosynthesis takes carbon out of the atmosphere,” he explains. “We start with a fundamentally safe product (lactic acid, something that the body naturally produces), and then we add nothing to it.” This is something that increasingly conscious consumers are beginning to expect from the brands they trust.

In some packaging, Ingeo requires less material because of its rigidity. This means sourcing less material. Inego also offers price stability. “Petroleum-based plastics exhibit price instability, and over the long haul potential supply issues,” explains Davies.

NatureWorks’ new formulations raise the performance of its Ingeo material used for durable products, such as compacts, while increasing the biocontent and making the material faster and easier to process. The supplier will work with brands to provide naturally advanced packaging and ingredients that support the brand promise and earn brand loyalty. 

Optimization can take place in other areas of the supply chain as well. Being on the forefront of green initiatives, Aveda recently signed a contract with San Diego entrepreneur Eaman Talai. His year-old startup BoxedGreen purchases their shipping boxes for $1 to be reused before recycling.

Finding Balance

Certainly not every packaging solution is easy, but thinking outside the traditional box enables the industry to implement sustainable elements that benefit the company and the world at the same time. Recognizing the long-term of environmentally responsible packaging, more brands are redefining beauty packaging by incorporating sustainability goals into corporate decision-making.

“The industry needs to think about the next life of the package at the beginning,” says GreenBlue’s Goodrich. “Many beauty package design effects could be achieved with more sustainable practices up front.”

Sustainability is a series of steps that are aimed at environmental and social benefits, while ensuring that the company remains economically viable. “It is a balancing act,” says Davies. “It takes time, commitment and measurement, but the benefits in brand loyalty will stay around for a long time.”

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