Zero Waste Packaging Saves You More Than You Think

Standardisation may save your organisation money for the short term, but zero waste packaging provides savings that last.

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You may have had the experience where you order something online, and when the package arrives, it’s a larger box than you expected. Once you open it, you see why: Your items are effectively swimming in space, surrounded by long strings of plastic air-bubble packing, foam peanuts, or crumbled paper, most of which you will throw away.

The company that sent you the oversized box has three problems:

  1. Their packaging isn’t right-sized for the items being shipped
  2. They are paying more to ship that empty space, since excess material means an increase in shipping costs
  3. They are spending money on packing materials to fill the empty space, package after package after package

Organisations of every size can benefit from efficiency in packaging and shipping, but so many resort to standardisation, which can seem thrifty on the surface but can increase the budget and create more waste in the long run.

What is zero waste packaging?

Zero-waste packaging describes packaging in which every part of the packaging are reusable or recyclable, meaning no actual waste is generated. This could mean that the packaging is meant to be used for another purpose by the consumer on the other end, like an edible container, “plantable” paper embedded with seeds, or packages that can be returned to local drop-off points for re-use.

“Zero waste packaging is being hotly discussed in the manufacturing space, with many companies committing to reducing or eliminating waste — and many consumers actively seeking these options.” -David Roberge, Industrial Packaging

Zero waste packaging in the U.S.

There are multiple efforts already under way in the United States. Grocery stores like Brooklyn’s The Fillery and Denver’s Infinity Goods allow customers to weigh and fill their own jars, bags, or bottles with such items as beans, dry ingredients, oils and vinegars, spices, and snacks. Consumers can search their own state for such grocery stores on Litterless, a website that supports and journals about the zero-waste movement. Loop is a zero waste coalition of name-brand consumer companies that are packaging their products in containers that can be returned and reused, such as Tide detergent, Cascade dishwashing soap, even Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

Zero waste packaging in the E.U.

Europe has made significant strides towards a zero-waste economy. In Norway, a staggering 97% of plastic bottles are recycled after use. Germany’s recycling rates are nearly as high at 93.5% for PET bottles. Organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and several others have advocated for a circular economy, where waste and pollution are designed out of the economy, favoring regenerative materials and practices.

“In a circular economy, economic activity builds and rebuilds overall system health. The concept recognises the importance of the economy needing to work effectively at all scales – for large and small businesses, for organisations and individuals, globally and locally. Transitioning to a circular economy does not only amount to adjustments aimed at reducing the negative impacts of the linear economy. Rather, it represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.”
-Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Millennial attitudes on zero waste packaging

Zero waste packaging and the circular economy are not yet  occurring on a grand scale. Currently, zero waste packaging movement happens business by business, demographic by demographic, decision by decision. Companies that are interested in attracting the millennial demographic would do well to focus on and make others aware of their zero waste efforts. In a 2017 survey by Statista, 26% U.S. adults aged 18-29 were already on board, and another 27% were aware of it.

At its core, every company can make its own commitment to try to accomplish zero-waste packaging – or as close to it as possible – while lowering costs and building loyalty among eco-conscious consumers. In a case study by UPS, carton size, compression strength, stacking and stability were cited as helping to maximize efficiency and reducing shipping costs. UPS has stated the following in regards to aligning with customer values: 

“Today the sustainable consumer isn’t one type of person but a collection of people from all walks of life interested in— and actively committed to —a wide range of social and environmental issues.” -UPS, “Sustainability is a long-term growth opportunity with consumers”

The keys to a zero waste packaging solution

To become a zero-waste company, you need to incorporate sustainable practices, materials and attitudes into the foundations of the business. A fundamental place to communicate your zero waste values is through packaging. You can begin eliminating waste by right-sizing your packaging and work with a packaging supplier with the materials and design expertise to engineer out unsustainable materials such as plastics and foam.

“When buying transportation, what you’re really buying is space on an airplane, ship or truck. The issue is less about how much your packages weigh and more about how much space they take up. The goal, then, is to design packaging to take up the least amount of space possible.”
-BillerudKorsnäs, “
Packaging optimisation: how much air do you transport?

Are you “shipping air?”

It’s important to investigate how much air is being shipped by using cartons that are too large with excessive wasteful materials like foam and plastic. When it comes to right-sizing your packaging, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Are your packages made to fit the products you’re shipping?
  • Is there measurable empty space between the top of your product and the top of the shipping carton?
  • Do you have to use fillers to protect your products from shifting while in transit?

Reducing this “dead space” in your packages is the first task. Smarter packaging solutions can mean designing stronger outer cartons in smaller or more appropriate sizes, which also will reduce the packaging damage that can occur from the products shifting in-transit (a full box is a box where nothing shifts, so nothing gets damaged). 

If you ship globally, the size of your outer cartons dictates how much space your products will need on sea-going shipping containers. And while eco-consciousness is one of your primary objectives, you also want to make a positive impression on your recipient, whether that recipient is a company, a retail establishment or an individual. 

Sustainability as a packaging consideration

While many plastics can be recycled, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that only 8.4% of plastic products in the U.S. are actually recycled. In 2017, discarded plastics totaled 35.4 million tons, yet only 2.96 million tons were recycled; 26.82 million tons went straight to the landfill, which represented 75.83% of the total. In contrast, paper and paperboard are recycled at a much higher rate. Of the 67 million tons generated in 2017, 44.17 million tons were recycled, a rate of 65.9%. Switching from non-sustainable materials to sustainable materials in your packaging can make a big difference in your company’s carbon footprint.

Companies with zero waste campaigns

It may seem hard to pinpoint how much a zero waste effort will save your company. The truth is that it’s different for every business. In 2017, TriplePundit profiled 10 companies that are supporting “zero waste to landfill” campaigns (these differ slightly from “zero waste” in that while nothing goes to a landfill, some waste can be recycled or reused and other waste can be incinerated with waste-to-energy technology). 

Some companies with zero waste campaigns include:

Work with a packaging expert to implement zero waste packaging

Implementing zero waste packaging will not happen overnight. You’ll need to make sweeping and foundational changes to your organisation to affect real change, but know that becoming a zero waste organisation happens one step at a time. Starting with optimising the packaging in your supply chain is an essential step towards zero-waste packaging, and the experts at BillerudKorsnäs Managed Packaging are here to streamline the packaging aspect of your supply chain, while introducing sustainable materials and practices.

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