- Determine the optimal end of life of packaging
From a purely ecological perspective, prioritize reuse (as many times as possible) then recyclability as the optimal end-of-life solutions for recycling.
While composting has hit the mainstream, designing packaging for compostability should be reserved for packaging likely to carry food residue and food waste at the end of its life. It’s true, most composters don’t want to clean packaging.
- Take stock of primary substrates in packaging
While this is an easy step, it’s one many brands overlook. Take a moment to consider what your main packaging material actually is to drive your decisions on the “little things.” Examples of common elements, or substrates, include glass, paper, rigid plastics, flexible plastics, bioplastics, and aluminum.
For each “little thing,” consider:
- Functional and aesthetic needs: Do you need your labels to withstand high heat or excessive moisture? Is it critical that your ink never rubs off?
- Ecological challenges: What are the common ecological hazards? For example, a primary concern of inks is around using solvent carriers and their impact on air quality and worker health and safety.
- Sustainable alternatives: What options exist that improve upon ecological challenges? For example, water and soy or vegetable-based carriers are more sustainable than solvent carriers in ink.
- The end goal: Don’t choose an alternative simply because it is (or sounds) more sustainable than the norm. Align your decisions with your functional needs, the substrate you’re using, and your desired end of life.
Speaking of little things, let’s break it down:
Tape falls into two categories. Pressure sensitive tapes apply to a substrate with pressure alone. Water-activated, gummed tapes feature an adhesive that is activated with water before they can be adhered to a substrate.
Options for tape facestock, or the adhesive coated on one side, include: uncoated paper (uncommon, coated paper, plastic (including PVC, PP and PE), bioplastic (like cello) and foil. Many tapes include some sort of reinforcement. Water-activated tapes often feature fiberglass within the paper, and duct tape includes a thin gauze called scrim.
Like with all tape facestocks, the most important thing to consider is how it impacts the recyclability or end of life of the package it is adhered to. Additionally, consider whether or not the facestock is recycled. If recycled content isn’t feasible, renewable facestock (like paper, cotton and cellulose) may be preferred over non-renewable options (foil, plastic). When renewable inputs are chosen over non-renewable, consider the origin. For example, make sure your virgin paper facestock isn’t derived from ancient and endangered forests.
What EcoEnclose recommends:
- Paper-based, water-activated tape, especially when the paper contains recycled content, and paper-based kraft tape.
- But in certain circumstances, cello tape, recycled plastic and even virgin plastic are also a great option.
Labels and stickers have three components: facestock, adhesives, and inks. They have a variety of facestocks: paper, coated paper, direct thermal paper, vinyl, and more.
When it comes to labels and stickers, another consideration is the release liner. Most labels arrive on a release liner which end up in the landfill after being used. And traditional release liners are made with virgin paper and are coated with a layer of silicone.
The most important thing to consider is how the facestock impacts the recyclability or end of life of the package it is adhered to. Additionally, choosing between recycled or virgin facestock is very important. When you can go with recycled options, choose the highest levels of post-consumer waste possible. When it comes to release liners, look for ones made with recycled content.
What EcoEnclose recommends:
- 100% post consumer waste paper. Uncoated is ideal, but in certain circumstances, coated may be important.
- If recycled paper isn’t feasible, choose paper that has a known forest of origin.
- If plastic is needed, recycled polypropylene is recommended.
- Options like stone paper and vinyl are common, but aren’t strong ecological alternatives.
- Don’t forget to look for 100% recycled, curbside recyclable release liners.
Most packaging inks consist of pigment (the color), carrier (which transfers the color onto the substrate and then dries off), and additives (which affect variables like printability, drying, and smudging).
Packaging inks fall into a few categories: solvent-based, water-based, soy/vegetable-based, UV treated, and toner. The first three inks refer to the carrier. Solvent (petroleum) carriers evaporate into the air, emitting harmful VOCs into the atmosphere. Water-based means that the carrier is water, which has no to minimal VOCs. Soy and vegetable based carriers typically emit low VOCs. Toner and UV have no carrier, so they don’t emit VOCs. But they do have other issues.
Toner ink contains polymers (i.e. tiny bits of plastic) that are fused onto the substrate, making them more challenging to recycle (and terribly difficult to compost). UV ink requires high heat for drying, making it an energy intensive packaging ink option.
It's important to note that until recently, most of the dialog around sustainable inks has been related to the carrier. Recent attention has been given to pignmens. Historically, petroleum and non-renewable minerals have formed the basis of most pigments. However, new innovations, such as black algae ink, whose pigment is derived from dead algae cells, are emerging.
What EcoEnclose recommends:
- Black algae ink. However, it has its limitations—you can only print in black and it is only available for flexographic, offset or screen printing (not digital).
- When algae ink isn’t an option, look for water-based ink and soy-based inks.
Adhesives are split into two categories: natural and synthetic. Natural adhesives are often derived from natural rubber, vegetable starches, or animal products. Synthetic adhesives are typically polymer-based or synthetic rubber-based.
It's tempting to say that natural adhesives are always more sustainable, but this isn’t true. Natural adhesives are derived from renewable sources, but they don’t necessarily work effectively in all applications. Generally, they’re weaker and have to be applied to both substrates in order to adhere. Additionally, sometimes (as with sugarcane adhesives) they're actually more challenging for recycling than synthetic options which break apart more easily in the paper re-pulping process. A small percentage of natural adhesives are animal-based, making them a no no for vegan brands and their consumers.
Synthetic adhesives are generally based on polymers, essentially plastics, and a lot of brands are actually moving away from using them. But, they’re more efficient and stronger than many natural counterparts. This means less needs to be used to achieve a strong bond and they don’t fail as often when the packaging is in use. This is particularly important if your primary packaging substrate is recycled paper. Recycled paper has shorter fibers, making it slightly more difficult for labels to stick to it. If you use a weaker adhesive (whether that adhesive is synthetic or natural), and the label falls off, this can be a bigger environmental impact than if you had opted for a starch based adhesive.
What EcoEnclose recommends:
- Adhesives that meet your functional needs and your end of life needs, and minimizing the percentage of adhesive that is polymer-based, or choosing natural if that meets your needs.
- For example, if you are working with a recycled paper box, and your optimal end of life is recycling, choose a high strength adhesive (likely a high tack, hot melt adhesive) that is as recyclable as possible. If you are designing a compostable food package, look for a strong label that either is made with compostable adhesive or uses a minimal layer of adhesive. This allows the entire package to still pass compostability testing and standards.
- If you’re building a reusable packaging option, look for adhesives that can be easily removed so the package can be successfully reused.