Sustainable Packaging: A Guide to Achieving Zero Waste

By William Powell, with additional sections
by Aled Ellis, Managing Director at Needham Laser Technologies

With the growing recognition of our environmental impact, creating sustainable packaging that produces zero waste is now more crucial than ever. Businesses and customers are becoming increasingly mindful when selecting their packaging products as we all strive for a greener future.

This guide will shed light on what zero-waste packaging stands for, why its implementation is paramount, and how businesses can successfully incorporate such initiatives into their operations. Time is of the essence, so let’s dig in!

#1 – Evaluate Sustainable and Zero Waste Options

Sustainable Packaging: Boxes saying 'this is gonna be good'
Photo by Sticker it on Unsplash

Before you can put a zero-waste strategy in place, you need to understand the concept before planning. Zero waste is the goal of having no environmental impact and zero dependence on landfills. That means single-use plastics and other non-recyclable materials are no longer an option for your packaging process.

For your business to transform into a sustainable one, the focus needs to shift to natural resources instead. In this context, a resource is a material that is readily available and is part of a circular economy. Glass bottles, aluminum cans, plants, trees, banana fibers, and several other innovative materials fit this description as they can be recycled, re-used, or naturally decomposed back into the environment.

All business models are not the same, and utilizing plant-based materials may not be an option for some. Therefore, a thorough evaluation of potential products is necessary to keep costs in line and increase operational efficiency. The goal is to incorporate practices that will positively affect the planet for generations and prove your business is a good environmental steward.

#2 – Take Inventory of Packaging Materials

As a business owner or a decision maker, you should have a bird’s eye view of the entire packaging process. If not, start assessing your current use of materials before attempting to make any changes. Break down each component in the process to identify what you can eliminate. Once you figure out what to replace, it’s time to find a more sustainable solution that makes it easy for the end user to dispose of or recycle.

Success takes time, so it’s always wise to take on change gradually rather than overwhelming yourself and your team with a drastic overhaul of the current process. Implement a few tweaks at a time to ensure you keep your packaging process simple. If you take baby steps at first, you’ll be able to solve problems faster if an issue arises and make the proper adjustments.

Also, before you make a large initial purchase, ask your suppliers for zero-waste packaging samples so you can test them out and develop a better understanding of their capabilities and compatibility with your merchandise. Durability and weight are critical factors you’ll need to know to accurately assess overall costs and get the most out of your packaging solution.

#3 – Set Goals for Reducing Waste in Your Business

For businesses looking to reduce their waste production and achieve sustainability, focusing on three key metrics is essential. They are the baseline, target, and timeline. You will need them to set realistic and transparent goals.

To find the baseline, you must research competitors within the same industry to assess what sustainable packaging goals look like.

Next, you will need to define the target. To do this, identify the areas that need immediate improvement and realistically assess your company’s financial and manufacturing capabilities. Determining your company’s strengths and weaknesses will increase your chance of success.

Once the baseline and target are clearly defined, you must develop a stakeholder communication plan to ensure your goals align with the company’s mission. If approved, you can then determine a realistic timeline to reach your objectives and publicly share your goals with your customer base.

By taking these steps in this specific order, you are letting the world know that your business is transparent, reliable, and sincere in its efforts to attain sustainability.

#4 – Implement Recyclable, Biodegradable, or Compostable Options

The zero-waste packaging industry is making strides with increasing innovation every day. With new ideas and materials continually coming out, companies must stay informed on the latest releases to keep up with technological advancements. Here are a few zero-waste materials you can implement into your processes immediately.

Compostable Mailer Bags

Compostable mailer bags are made from renewable resources and do not release harmful toxins during decomposition. They reduce waste in landfills and decrease carbon emissions.

Reusable Shipping Bags

Reusable shipping bags are durable and long-lasting packaging options that customers can use multiple times. Typically, these bags contain materials such as canvas or recycled plastic and save money in the long run by eliminating the need for single-use packaging.

Corrugated Cardboard Boxes

Corrugated cardboard boxes are made from thick paperboard and have a fluted layer in the middle to provide extra strength and durability. They are ideal for fragile, heavier items such as glass. These standard shippers are affordable, easy to customize, and recyclable.

Mushroom, Seaweed, and Bamboo Packaging

Mushrooms, seaweed, and bamboo packaging are some of the most innovative and sustainable solutions available today. Mushroom packaging consists of agricultural waste and mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus. It can be molded into any shape or size to create biodegradable, compostable, and eco-friendly packaging.

Biodegradable Packing Tape and Labels

Biodegradable packing tape and labels are eco-friendly alternatives to traditional plastic-based packaging. They typically use materials such as paper, plant-based adhesives, and other natural fibers. They break down naturally in the environment without leaving behind chemicals or microplastics that harm wildlife.

#5 – Focus on Increasing Brand Loyalty

Implementing zero-waste packaging strategies can be a great way to increase brand loyalty. Therefore, branding is of the utmost importance. All packaging materials should showcase the brand logo and information to increase visibility and customer appeal. If necessary, take time and review existing branding and consider potential improvements to expand your current customer base.

Branding not only affects customer perception while making purchasing decisions, but it increases overall confidence that your company is doing right by the environment. Customers who feel good about where their money goes are more likely to trust the brand and become repeat customers.

As you integrate zero-waste materials into your packaging processes, you may discover your expenses are higher. But don’t worry. Consumers are willing to pay more if they know a company uses sustainable solutions in its products and packaging. According to a CGS survey, 47% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable and zero-waste products.

With the proper positioning and branding, you can offset increasing expenses by raising the price of your products.

#6 – Ensure the Entire Supply Chain is Eco-Friendly

Sustainable Packaging: paper, cards, and packages
Photo by Submersible Tees on Unsplash

As a decision maker, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure that the entire supply chain is eco-friendly. That process starts with the materials you use to create your products, packaging solutions, shipping methods, and the consumer.

For starters, check with current manufacturers to see what sustainability strategies they have in place. If they claim their focus is reducing their carbon footprint and using renewable resources, ask for a walkthrough of the facilities and verify what they say is true.

The same holds for shipping carriers and methods. While you may not have access to every facility or warehouse along shipping routes, you should still inquire about their stance and policies on sustainability. The objective of a zero-waste business model is to have no environmental impact. That might not be possible throughout the supply chain. But do your homework and align your business with manufacturers and carriers who share the same commitment to protecting the environment.

Remember, you want the entire process to be eco-friendly, so consider reducing packaging size, planning for product returns from the outset, and making it easy for customers to recycle and return products. Ultimately, you want your packaging to educate and encourage your customers to do their part. By providing them with specific how-to instructions, you can set your company apart from the competition.

#7 – Track Progress and Make Adjustments

Achieving your sustainability objectives will take hard work. Therefore, it is critical to incorporate a review process to track progress closely and adjust accordingly. Just as a business would evaluate sales target performance against actual performance to make necessary adjustments, constant monitoring of sustainability initiatives is also a requirement.

Your review process should include weekly or monthly intervals where you record key performance indicators such as recycling rates, greenhouse gas emissions, energy usage, and water consumption. In addition, calculate the load density of your shipments to maximize efficiency. Ideally, you want to include as many products as possible in one shipment instead of several smaller orders.

Supplement: Laser Marking for Sustainable Packaging

By Aled Ellis, Managing Director at Needham Laser Technologies

As our planet continues to face the dire consequences of climate change, sustainability, ecology and waste management experts are tirelessly seeking innovative solutions to reduce our environmental footprint. One such solution is the adoption of laser marking technology for creating sustainable packaging materials.

In this section, we will explore the benefits of laser marking in the production of eco-friendly packaging, such as biodegradable plastics, and discuss how this technology can help minimise waste generation and contribute to a greener future.

Laser marking: a brief overview

Laser marking is a non-contact, high-speed and precise process that uses focused laser beams to create permanent marks on a variety of materials, including metals, plastics and ceramics. The technology offers several advantages over traditional marking methods, such as inkjet printing or embossing, including reduced waste, lower energy consumption and minimal maintenance requirements.

The process of laser marking involves the use of a laser source, which emits a concentrated beam of light. This beam is focused onto the material’s surface, causing localised heating and resulting in a change of colour, texture or material properties. The type of laser used, as well as the specific parameters, such as wavelength, pulse duration and power, can be adjusted depending on the material being marked and the desired outcome.

Sustainable packaging and biodegradable plastics

The global packaging industry generates a staggering amount of waste each year, with plastics being the primary culprit. Traditional petroleum-based plastics take hundreds of years to decompose, leading to significant environmental concerns, such as pollution and the depletion of natural resources. To address these challenges, researchers and manufacturers have turned their attention to biodegradable plastics – materials that can decompose more quickly, leaving minimal or no harmful residues in the environment.

Biodegradable plastics are made from renewable resources, such as:

  • Cornstarch
  • Sugar cane or cellulose

These materials can be broken down by microorganisms, including:

  • Bacteria
  • Fungi
  • Algae

The biodegradation process depends on several factors, including temperature, humidity and the presence of microorganisms. These factors can be influenced by the specific type of biodegradable plastic used, as well as its formulation and processing conditions.

Laser marking for sustainable packaging

Current marking methods in the packaging industry, such as inkjet printing, flexography and embossing, have several drawbacks that can negatively impact sustainability. These traditional techniques often consume excessive amounts of energy, generate waste, and rely on potentially harmful chemicals.

Laser marking technology plays a crucial role in the production of sustainable packaging materials. Here’s how:

Minimising material waste

Traditional marking methods, such as embossing and flexography, can cause damage to packaging materials, leading to higher levels of material waste. The production and disposal of these wasted materials contribute to the depletion of natural resources and the generation of greenhouse gas emissions, which exacerbate climate change.

One of the most significant benefits of laser marking is its ability to minimise material waste during the packaging production process. As a non-contact method, the material being marked remains undamaged and intact. This allows manufacturers to utilise thinner and lighter packaging materials, ultimately reducing material consumption and waste generation. In addition, the precision of laser marking ensures minimal waste during the production process.

For example, laser marking can be used to create high-resolution images and intricate patterns on packaging materials, which would be difficult or impossible to achieve using traditional printing methods. This level of detail not only enhances the aesthetic appeal of the packaging but also enables manufacturers to convey important information, such as brand identity, product specifications and usage instructions, in a compact and efficient manner.

Reducing the consumption of ink, chemicals, and other consumables

Traditional marking methods, such as inkjet printing, require the use of inks, solvents and other chemicals, which can be harmful to the environment. Inkjet inks often contain heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can contaminate soil and water resources when not properly disposed of. Moreover, the production of inks and solvents consumes a significant amount of energy and generates greenhouse gas emissions.

Laser marking, on the other hand, relies solely on the laser beam to create the desired mark, eliminating the need for hazardous materials and reducing the risk of contamination. By avoiding the use of inks and chemicals, laser marking contributes to a cleaner and safer environment throughout the packaging production process. Without the need for consumables such as inks, chemicals, or pastes, laser marking presents itself as a more environmentally-conscious solution to marking.

Enhancing the biodegradability of plastics

Laser marking can be used to modify the surface properties of biodegradable plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). By changing the surface properties, laser marking can promote the growth of microorganisms responsible for breaking down the plastic, thereby accelerating the degradation process and reducing the environmental impact.

For example, laser marking can create microscale patterns or textures on the surface of biodegradable plastics, increasing their surface area and providing additional sites for microorganisms to colonise. This enhanced surface area facilitates the penetration of water and oxygen, which are essential for microbial growth and the subsequent breakdown of the plastic material. Moreover, laser marking can be used to create specific surface features that promote the attachment of specific microorganisms, further accelerating the biodegradation process.

Traceability and recycling

Traditional marking methods can create difficulties in recycling packaging materials due to the presence of inks, adhesives and other contaminants. These contaminants can complicate the recycling process, reduce the quality of recycled materials, and increase the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Laser marking allows for the creation of permanent high-resolution marks, which can be used for barcodes, QR codes and other unique identifiers. These markings facilitate the tracking of products throughout their lifecycle and enable more efficient recycling processes. As a result, manufacturers can ensure that their products are properly recycled and contribute to the circular economy.

By using laser-marked identifiers, waste management and recycling facilities can easily sort and separate different types of packaging materials, ensuring that they are processed correctly and efficiently. This improved sorting and recycling process not only reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills, but also helps to conserve natural resources and energy by promoting the use of recycled materials in the production of new packaging.

Furthermore, laser-marked identifiers can be used to track the origin of packaging materials, allowing manufacturers and consumers to make more informed decisions about the sustainability of their products. For example, a unique identifier can be used to verify that a particular packaging material has been sourced from a certified sustainable supplier, or that it has been manufactured using eco-friendly processes.

Adopting laser marking to aid sustainable efforts

Laser marking technology offers a viable and environmentally friendly solution to the challenges of sustainable packaging. By minimising waste, reducing the consumption of harmful chemicals, enhancing the biodegradability of plastics, and improving traceability and recycling processes, laser marking helps pave the way for a greener future. As we continue to strive for a more sustainable world, the adoption of laser marking technology in the packaging industry will undoubtedly play a significant role in achieving this goal.

In the coming years, we can expect to see even more advancements in laser marking technology, including the development of new laser sources, materials and processing techniques that further improve the sustainability of packaging materials. By embracing these innovations and working collaboratively across industries and sectors, we can collectively contribute to a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable future for our planet.

Take Action Today

As you can see, implementing a zero-waste strategy will reduce environmental impact and help increase your customer base. By focusing on sustainable practices in product creation, packaging solutions, shipping methods, and consumer engagement, your business can reduce its carbon footprint and become a part of the circular economy.

We encourage you to reference this guide to build the framework you need to attain zero waste. It won’t be easy, but it is achievable.