A Guide to Eco-Friendly Packaging for Ecommerce

As an online retailer, your packaging is the first impression your customers have of your business. You can make a bold statement by choosing a branded satchel or box, or opting for a distinctive colour or shape to stand out. Using eco-friendly packaging also says something meaningful about your business, and in 2021, amid growing concerns about climate change, it’s something you should seriously consider. 

Allow us to make the case for switching to eco-packaging if you haven’t already done so. 

Why is eco-friendly packaging important?

In recent years, the spotlight has been on single-use plastic bags in supermarkets and plastic straws and cutlery at quick-service restaurants and cafes, but there’s a lot of plastic packaging in eCommerce too. 

Hundreds of millions of parcels are delivered around Australia each year, often in plastic satchels. (Fashion items, which are commonly sent in satchels, as opposed to boxes or envelopes, accounted for over a third of online purchases in 2019, according to Australia Post.) And while plastic is only part of the problem — emissions from air freight and diesel-burning trucks used to deliver parcels contribute significantly to the carbon footprint of eCommerce — it has a devastating impact on the environment. According to Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society, only 10% of plastic in the world is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills and the oceans.

Reducing your contribution to plastic waste is an important reason to switch to eco-friendly packaging. Another is consumer demand. According to a recent survey by Accenture, more than half of consumers would pay more for sustainable products that are designed to be recycled or reused, and 77% said plastic is the least environmentally friendly type of packaging. Switching to more eco-friendly packaging will ensure you don’t alienate the growing number of consumers who are trying to lead more sustainable lives, and could help build brand loyalty. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Australian government is working towards a national target of having 100% of packaging be either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 or earlier. In addition, 70% of plastic packaging will be either recycled or composted by 2025, and all packaging will include 50% average recycled content by 2025.

What is eco-friendly packaging?

According to the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO): 

The primary function of packaging is to contain and protect products from the point of manufacture, through the supply chain to the retail store or end user, to attract people to buy a product to achieve more sales, and to provide product information. Sustainable packaging is packaging that performs this primary function but also has lower environmental impact compared to existing or conventional packaging

APCO lists 10 principles that should be considered in the design and procurement of packaging to improve sustainability. They are: 

  1. Design for recovery 
  2. Optimise material efficiency
  3. Design to reduce product waste 
  4. Eliminate hazardous materials
  5. Use recycled materials
  6. Use renewable materials
  7. Design to minimise litter
  8. Design for transport efficiency
  9. Design for accessibility
  10. Provide consumer information on sustainability

Where should I start?

If you’re thinking about switching to more eco-friendly packaging, the first thing you need to do is decide where you want to start — because you won’t be able to do everything right away. It will take some time to research the pros and cons of all the alternative materials on the market, and the outer packaging — the satchel or cardboard box — is just the beginning. Some other packaging elements that you may want to consider include: the overall size of the parcel compared to the item inside, how much and what kind of void fill you use, the type of packing tape you use, as well as any inner packaging around individual items.

When researching alternative materials, you’ll need to balance sustainability with commercial concerns. For instance, some compostable and biodegradable satchels have shorter shelf lives than traditional plastic satchels, while forgoing void fill altogether is probably a recipe for disaster. Don’t neglect the practical side of packaging — if your product arrives broken or in bad shape, your customer won’t care how environmentally friendly your materials are.

What eco-friendly packaging is available?

Here are some of the main eco-friendly packaging solutions on the market today.

  • Compostable and biodegradable satchels: Like standard satchels made out of soft plastic, compostable and biodegradable satchels are easy to pack, lightweight and suitable for a range of different items. Unlike plastic satchels, however, they break down after use. Compostable satchels are typically made from cornstarch or other plant matter and require specific conditions to break down, while biodegradable satchels don’t require any special conditions to break down — they contain a special additive to help them biodegrade naturally in landfills. Shippit’s Supply Store offers compostable satchels in a range of different sizes and quantities from noissue.co.
  • Recycled plastic satchels: Some online retailers, such as The Iconic, have opted for plastic satchels that are made out of recycled plastic that can be recycled again after use.
  • Recycled cardboard and paper: Some online retailers can’t use satchels due to the nature of the products they ship. For those using cardboard boxes, it’s important to look for FSC-certified boxes and paper — this means the cardboard is renewable and responsibly sourced — or recycled or reused cardboard.
  • Corrugated bubble wrap: Instead of plastic bubble wrap, try using cardboard cut in a particular way to provide the same shock-absorbing effect. This material is extra eco-friendly, since it provides another use for leftover cardboard.
  • Air pillows made of recycled materials: This is a great void fill alternative to filling a box with styrofoam peanuts. While these little air pillows are made out of plastic, they are generally biodegradable, or at a minimum recyclable, and use very little plastic because they are so thin.

In addition to the materials mentioned above, you can also reduce your carbon footprint by shipping smaller parcels. Some eCommerce companies have invested in high-tech machines capable of building boxes around the items in each individual order, so less void fill is needed, and items are still shipped safely.