Despite an increase in recycling rates, packaging continues to make up one-third of post-consumer waste in the United States. In 2010, almost 76 million tons of product boxes, bottles and bags were dumped in U.S. landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As it turns out, the mantra to “reduce, reuse and recycle” can get us only so far. It’s time for some new ideas in the realm of eco-friendly packaging, and here are a few we think are particularly promising.
Who needs packaging anyway?
This question is being asked by at least one retailer: in.gredients, a store under development in Austin, Texas, that is promising to be the world’s first “package-free and zero waste” grocery store.
Pushing the envelope on anti-packaging is forcing this Texas retailer to reconfigure traditional grocery store operations in everything from product sourcing to point-of-sale displays. The company’s cofounders plan to avoid pre-packaged goods by focusing on bulk items. Shoppers who don’t bring their own containers will be given the option of purchasing compostable ones.
And what about issues of spoilage and potential contamination? Sorting out such challenges may be part of the reason why in.gredients—originally slated to open in the fall of 2011—was still in the construction stage in early 2012.
Although most retailers are unlikely to eschew packaging all together, a growing number are questioning the economics behind excessive packaging. “Retailers are saying to manufacturers, ‘We don’t want to see this amount of packaging. It costs too much for us,’” said Catherine Greener, CEO and cofounder of the consulting group ClearGreen Advisors. “Why pay for the shipping, the handling and disposal when there’s no value added?”
1. Growing next-generation packaging
For the typical natural products retailer, going totally package-free is not only unrealistic, it’s also a potentially bad idea. Sure, at its worst, packaging is difficult and wasteful. But at its best, packaging exists to prevent damage, prolong shelf life and communicate a product’s attributes to consumers.
That’s why the most relevant solutions for retailers hail from innovations that make packaging smaller and smarter. The New York City–based start-up Ecovative is one company working to deliver on these lofty goals. The company was named “Innovator of the Year” at the 2011 Greener Package Awards for creating a new compostable protective packaging material called EcoCradle. This next-generation packaging is made from cottonseed hulls (leftover from textile production) that have been bound together by mycelium, a.k.a. mushroom roots.
The result is a material that offers the same cushion as polypropylene foam. Furniture-maker Steelcase and computer giant Dell are already using the mushroom packaging for product shipping. We wonder how long it will be before this eco-friendly packaging starts making its way into the world of natural products?
2. Truly Earth-friendly plastic
Advances in manufacturing technology and experimentation with new materials are making it possible to imagine a future where product packaging is designed to not only have less impact on the environment, but to actually help clean it as well.
In a move that will soon benefit the natural products industry, the cleaning supply company Method is partnering with Envision Plastics to create recycled bottles made, in part, from plastics polluting the world’s oceans. By utilizing plastic collected through beach clean-up groups in Hawaii and elsewhere, Method hopes to begin making plastic containers that are as durable as the ones currently on the shelf—but have much less of an environmental impact.
3. Seventh Generation's package evolution
As sustainable products become more mainstream, natural products manufacturers are positioned to maintain the leading edge on the next evolution of green packaging. The eco-friendly cleaning company Seventh Generation staked a unique position on the shelf last year with the introduction of its super concentrated Natural 4x Laundry Detergent, which is sold in a compostable molded fiber bottle.
Developed in partnership with EcoLogic, the innovative bottle shell is made from 100-percent recycled cardboard and newspaper. The Seventh Generation launch caused quite a buzz when it debuted at Natural Products Expo West 2011.