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Let us help you wipe away the greenwash on sustainable product packaging.

Let us help you wipe away the greenwash on sustainable product packaging.

Yasmina Guemar Yasmina Guemar
9 minute read

If sustainable packaging has got you in a pickle, read on!

If you're anything like us, you try to recycle and compost what you can (even if it means going out of your way, holding onto flimsy plastic packaging in your kitchen cupboard). Then, occasionally you hold a material like a 'biodegradable' protective bag and you bat your eyelids at it, wondering what that means ....inevitably, you put it to the back of a shelf, so you can delay the frustration of what to do with it for a few more weeks...

Or perhaps, you're a brand owner like us, wanting to make environmentally conscious decisions for packing your products but coming up short on the particulars of sustainable packaging.

Below, we're compiled a list of the most common protective packaging materials used in packaging of coffee cups, tumblers and really anything similar in shape and material. We'll explain what the packaging material is, the sustainability implications, how best to dispose of it and what the most environmentally choices are to look for.

And if, like the majority of us, you're a little bit impatient, just skip to the 'Recommendations' at the bottom of each section!

product packaging bag options

Image source: www.polybags.co.uk


Paper & Card

bru travel mug packaging

  • Raw materials

According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, in 2020, around 59% of the global paper and paperboard production was derived from virgin wood fibers. Voluntary certification schemes like FSC and PEFC offer a way for companies and individuals to identify products from sustainably managed timber farms. This is a good start but paper and card produced from recycled sources, is a better choice if preserving biodiversity and ecosystems is something you value highly. Depending on the product, recycled alternatives can cost companies up to double the cost of virgin fibre products so bear in mind that this may be out of the question for start-up companies and low cost items. More sustainable materials usually cost more.

  • Production

Paper and card production require significant amounts of water, energy, and chemicals. Manufacturing recycled paper typically requires less energy and water because the process of pulping and refining recycled fibers is less energy-intensive than processing wood into pulp. Additionally, recycling paper fibers saves energy that would otherwise be needed to harvest, transport, and process virgin wood.

  • Chemicals

The pulping and bleaching processes used in paper production can involve toxic chemicals such as chlorine and chlorine derivatives used to bleach the end product to achieve that perfect crisp white colour. While both recycled and virgin paper production may involve the use of chemicals, recycled paper production often requires fewer chemicals overall.

Printing inks can contain toxic chemicals including VOCs, heavy metals and phthalates. Natural-based printing inks, such as soy, are are more sustainable option in terms of being renewable, biodegradable and generally safer. However, soy palm plantations, particularly in Brazil and other rainforest areas cause incredible biodiversity loss and habitat fragmentation so companies using soy ink products should try to verify the sustainability of the soy source.

Improper disposal of these chemicals can harm waterways and aquatic life. 

  • Disposal

While paper and card are widely recyclable materials, challenges exist in the recycling process. Contamination from inks, adhesives, and other materials can reduce the quality of recycled paper, making it less desirable for reuse. Laminated card is not particularly environmetally friendly as the laminate is thin plastic which will ultimately not be recycled. Generally, if the item is laminated on one side, it is recyclable, but if it's laminated on both, it is not. All glossy surfaces are generally laminated and now you can also get the fancy looking matt laminate which might confuse you. If in doubt, try to tear the card and you will clearly see if it contains plastic laminate as the plastic will stretch and will be very hard to tear. 

Otherwise, the majority of card and paper, whether from recycled or virgin sources can be recycled easily at kerbside where your council collects these for recycling. Unlike a lot of metals, paper and card lose quality and value everytime they are recycled, which is a shame but recycling them still reduces pressure on virgin sources.

You can even compost paper and card as long as it's not bleached (it should be a brownish-grey colour instead of white or coloured) and only contains natural-based inks, if any. 

Recommendations for least environmental impact

Unbleached paper and card from 50% or more recycled sources, with minimal natural-based ink, unlaminated and certified by FSC. Disposal via recycling along with paper and card, at kerbside or local authority recycling centre. 

 

Flimsy Plastics

  • Compostable (usually PLA-based from corn starch or sugarcane but can be fossil-fuel based)

                                                               compostable bag exampleImage source: www.rajapack.co.uk

This may be either 'home compostable' (identified by a logo such as TUV OK HOME Compost) or 'industrially compostable' (TUV OK INDUSTRIAL Compost and Seedling logo(!)). Home compostable theoretically means that these can be composted along with your fruit and veg in your 'well managed' compost heap (which runs at a lower temperature and thus slower and less efficient than an industrial one) as well as at kerbside where many councils collect food waste for industrial composting. Industrially compostable means that it will only break down in an industrial in-vessel composting facility where things like oxygen and temperature are tightly controlled. Unfortunately for compostable bags, at least in the UK, much council collected food waste is actually sent to anaerobic digestion facility where food waste is processed by bacteria without oxygen to produce methane for capture to make green electricity. In this process, all plastic and bags are manually removed, including compostable ones unless the facility has a subsequent composting step.

 

  • Biodegradable or oxo-degradable (also often PLA-based from corn starch or sugarcane but can be fossil-fuel based)

                                                            biodegradable bag example

Image source: www.polybags.co.uk

These are similar to compostable bags but are usually thicker and are not suitable for either home composting or industrial composting. They do biodegrade but only in specific conditions achieved in a lab and with no definite time limit. Although they are technically recyclable, their difference in structure to ordinary plastic bags means that they will be treated as contaminate if you try to recycle them along with other flimsy plastics. For this reason, they currently have to be disposed of along with your general non-recyclable waste. Notably, the dreaded black wheely bin.

 

  • Recyclable (fossil fuel-based polyethelyne (PE) plastic)

poly bag example

Image source: www.polybags.co.uk

These are your ordinary flimsy plastic protective packaging bags, increasingly available are ones made with some recycled content, the more the better. These (including bubble bags) can be recycled along with all other flimsy plastics, which is rarely at the kerbside and instead you take them to a local large supermarket that takes these in for recycling. Again, this is good in theory but in reality, just like paper and card, plastics degrade in quality every time they are recycled and some flimsy plastics are valued higher than others so down the line, the lower quality types are likely to be disposed of anyway...but it's still better to try than to put them into general waste yourself. I would mention though that when looking into this some time ago, I came across an article where an experiment was done that put trackers into flimsy plastic recycling to see where it went and it ended up overseas in Europe which is something to consider.

Recommendations for least environmental impact

Out of the options above, Certified HOME compostable natural-based PLA protective bags would be the most eco choice. However, even better than this, would be unbleached paper bags where this provides enough protection or where more protection is needed, a fabric protective bag made from sustainable materials (eg linen, recycled fabric) which is of high enough quality to be re-used throughout the life-time of the product itself, would be an excellent choice although this would undoubtably increase the total product cost. Disposal of compostable bag ideally via council provided food waste collection or alternatively, a well functioning (at least 1.2m x 1.2m) home composting situation. Disposal of paper bags via ordinary paper and card recycling. (Eventual) disposal of fabric bag by donation to charity if if good condition or textiles recycling station (some councils offer this at kerbside).

 

Fillers

  • Void fill packaging paper

Image source: www.pack-supplies.co.uk

This is generally a thin, single layer card, which is either already formed to absorb shock or can be manually scrunched up to the same effect. It can also be a tissue type paper but thicker than that used in gifting. The main points are the same as in the first section where we talked about paper and card and have all the same considerations including virgin vs recycled sources, minimal natural, sustainable ink if any, FSC cert.

 

  • Compostable peanuts

Image source: www.ecopackagingsolutions.co.uk

Starchy material originating from natural sources such as corn, wheat or potato. Non-toxic, dissolve in water and are compostable.

 

  • Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)

Image source: shop.mcfarlanepackaging.com

Petroleum derived, non-degradable plastic. Not recyclable.

Recommendations for least environmental impact

Compostable peanuts are a good choice as they are fully compostable and can be composted both at kerbside and at home. Void fill packaging paper is equally good and more typically used when shipping reusable cups. Recycled, FSC certified, unprinted paper being preferable, (this is generally compostable too!). Both peanuts and void fill paper can be reused for their original purpose several times before recycling/composting.


 

That should be the main packaging materials covered and hopefully with give you some clarity on what to do with the packaging you come across and what to encourage your favourite brands to shift to using. Remember to bookmark this page to come back to later!

Click the link below to read a little about sustainability and sustainable packaging at bru...

Sustainability at bru

 


bru Ceramic Travel Mug

bru Ceramic Travel Mug

£21.95

Vacuum insulated, stainless steel travel mug with an innovative ceramic lining, made for enjoying drinks on-the-go.  Choose between the compact and portable 8oz ideal for your flat whites, the versatile 12oz, or the generously sized 16oz travel mug. Get ready… read more

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