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13 of the best sustainable packaging products for climate-conscious brands in 2023

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Materials
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Best sustainable packaging

The e-commerce industry is growing and shows no signs of slowing down soon. Left unchecked, this could lead to an increase in packaging waste which is already causing untold damage to the environment and to human health.

Fortunately, there is a more sustainable solution for most packaging needs — it’s just a case of finding the right one for your brand.

So, we’ve put together the following list of more environmentally friendly packaging, according to what they’re best suited for.

More sustainable packaging solutions:

  1. Best for heavier items: shipping boxes
  2. Best for unboxing and gifting: mailer boxes
  3. Best for non-fragile items: paper mailer bags
  4. Best for waterproofing: recycled mailer bags
  5. Best alternative to padded envelopes: honeycomb mailers
  6. Best for void filling and unboxing: shredded paper
  7. Best alternative to plastic tape: gummed tape
  8. Best for protecting against scratches: tissue paper
  9. Best for shock absorption: honeycomb packaging
  10. Best for regifting: furoshiki wraps
  11. Best for flat products: book mailers
  12. Best alternative to plastic inserts: sugarcane pulp
  13. Best for sharing information: QR codes

1. Best for heavier items: shipping boxes

You’re probably familiar with the corrugated cardboard shipping box, which is a great way to transport heavier or bulk goods. It’s versatile, strong and lightweight, making it one of the most popular packaging materials available.

It’s also one of the most sustainable. Firstly, many packaging providers use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified materials in their shipping boxes. This means that any virgin materials have been sourced from responsibly managed forests. Secondly, paper and card are two of the most easily recyclable packaging materials, which keeps waste out of landfills and reduces the need for virgin materials.

Corrugated cardboard’s strength is due to the wavy board sandwiched between two kraft liner sides. This is called fluting. Different fluting thicknesses provide different levels of strength, so you can choose the right protection for your product.

Corrugated cardboard packaging is also highly versatile. You can customise your packaging by size, shape and fluting thickness, which can ensure it's the right size for your product. This means you ship less air in your packaging and can transport more in one go, reducing your carbon emissions.

Ready to start designing your own shipping box? Design online now.

2. Best for unboxing and gifting: mailer boxes

Mailer boxes are used in e-commerce to ship products of all kinds to customers. Like shipping boxes, they’re made from corrugated cardboard, which is often FSC-certified or made from recycled materials. They're easily recycled and can be collected at the kerbside.

But mailer boxes do more than just protect your product. They are fully customisable and are a great opportunity to generate brand awareness. What’s more, by pairing them with a custom insert, you can create an impressive unboxing experience to impress your customers and increase brand loyalty.

You can design your own mailer boxes with Sourceful’s online design studio. And you don’t need any special software or design experience.

3. Best for non-fragile items: paper mailer bags

Paper mailer bags are great for shipping soft, non-fragile items in a more sustainable way. They can also be customised to display your branding and promote brand awareness.

Paper mailer bags can be made from FSC-certified kraft paper and they're easily recycled after use. Our paper mailers are a more sustainable alternative to poly mailers, which are made from virgin plastic and have a higher carbon footprint.

4. Best for waterproofing: recycled mailer bags

Recycled mailer bags are suitable for soft, non-fragile items that require a little more protection than paper mailers provide. And as they’re made with recycled plastic, they offer more resistance to water than paper does.

Recycled mailer bags are more sustainable than conventional poly mailer bags, which are made from virgin, petroleum-based materials. These are non-renewable, take hundreds of years to break down and release harmful greenhouse gases. Instead, recycled mailer bags take plastic that’s already in circulation and give it a second life.

We have two types of recycled mailer bags, one which contains 30% recycled plastic and another that contains 98%. They’re both eligible for custom printing, so you can still display your brand personality whilst reducing your environmental impact. Using either bag also exempts your business from the Plastic Packaging Tax.

5. Best alternative to padded envelopes: honeycomb mailers

For items that need more protection than paper mailer bags and recycled mailer bags, honeycomb mailers are a great solution. The padding is made from kraft paper in a shape inspired by the strong honeycomb structure.

Thanks to their lower carbon footprint, honeycomb mailers are a more sustainable alternative to traditional padded envelopes. Our honeycomb mailers are FSC-certified and 100% recyclable.

6. Best for void filling and unboxing: shredded paper

Shredded paper is a useful void filler. It’s made from paper that's been cut into small pieces and it protects your product from moving around during transit. Using a void filler can actually reduce your carbon footprint in some instances, as damaged products create waste and emissions through the returns process.

As paper is an easily recyclable material, shredded paper is a more sustainable void filler than styrofoam, bubble wrap or plastic air pillows. Ideally, it will be made from post-consumer waste paper in order to save virgin materials.

Shredded paper can do more than just protect your products. It comes in a variety of colours and can be used to create an impressive unboxing experience. And it can also become a part of your garden. Botanical Paperworks offers a post-consumer, seed-lined void filler which can be planted to produce flowers.

Before choosing any void filler we recommend checking that your packaging is the right size for your product, as this can reduce the amount of void filler you need.

7. Best alternative to plastic tape: gummed tape

Gummed tape is a great way to seal your packaging in a more sustainable way. It’s made from kraft paper, which can be FSC-certified, is easily recycled and is widely collected at the kerbside.

It gets its stickiness from a water-activated, starch-based adhesive. This means that every component of gummed tape is made from a natural, renewable resource. Gummed tape is a more sustainable alternative to plastic tape, which is made from non-renewable resources and is difficult to recycle.

And the benefits don’t stop there. Gummed tape can also be printed on, creating an additional branding opportunity for your business.

Sourceful’s gummed tape is fully recyclable, customisable and can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 50%.

8. Best for protecting against scratches: tissue paper

When your customer receives their order, they expect it to arrive in perfect condition. But because e-commerce items are handled twenty times more than those headed for retail stores, there’s a higher risk of your product being damaged before it reaches the customer.

Tissue paper is great for protecting your items against scuffs and scratches. As it’s thin and flexible, it can be wrapped around delicate items of any size, from jewellery to picture frames. Tissue paper can also be dyed and printed on, another opportunity to generate brand awareness.

Using tissue paper can reduce your environmental impact by ensuring your items aren’t returned as a result of damage during transit. And it’s a more sustainable alternative to single-use plastic wrapping and void fillers as it’s lightweight, can be FSC-certified and widely recycled.

9. Best for shock absorption: honeycomb packaging

Honeycomb packaging is a relatively new yet promising design. It’s similar to corrugated cardboard, in that there is a shock-absorbing paper structure sandwiched between two sheets of kraft paper. But instead of the fluting we find in corrugated cardboard, we find a honeycomb paper structure.

Imagine the typical image of the honeycomb found in a beehive. That shape is what you’d see if you removed one of the sandwiching kraft liners. This structure makes it even stronger than corrugated cardboard, so it does a great job protecting fragile items from knocks and bumps.

Honeycomb packaging is also made using renewable resources and can be recycled after use.

10. Best for regifting: furoshiki wraps

Furoshiki refers to a traditional Japanese practice in which gifts are wrapped using fabric. Once the gift has been unwrapped, the receiver can keep the Furoshiki wrap or give it back to the gift giver. It can be used again for another gift, or for any instance where you might need a square of fabric, from bandanas to placemats.

The fabric can be any design you like, which adds a personal touch to the packaging. This reduces the need for single-use paper or plastic wrapping and helps to reduce waste.

You can buy premade Furoshiki wraps or reuse any fabric you have at home.

11. Best for flat products: book mailers

Book mailers are a great way to transport flat products like books and magazines in a more sustainable way. They’re made from corrugated cardboard, so they can be sourced from FSC-certified forests and are easily recycled at the kerbside.

Our book mailers can be folded to fit any size, so you only need to order one size and it will fit a variety of products. This means your packaging will fit your product more snugly so you can avoid shipping air.

12. Best alternative to plastic inserts: sugarcane pulp

Sugarcane pulp is a paper-like product that can be moulded to create a snug-fitting packaging insert. It’s made from sugarcane fibres, a byproduct of the sugar industry. This repurposes waste which would otherwise be incinerated or sent to landfill. It also means reduced dependence on traditional plastic inserts.

Our sugarcane pulp inserts can be custom moulded to fit any product and mailer box, in turn helping to create an impressive unboxing experience.

13. Best for sharing information: QR codes

One of the most impactful ways to make your packaging more sustainable is to help your customers dispose of it more sustainably.

QR codes are codes printed on your packaging, which customers can scan using a smart device, such as a phone or tablet. The code directs them to a website where you can provide recycling instructions, promotional information and anything else you want your customer to know.

Printing QR codes can be made even more sustainable by using water-based and vegetable-based inks. These are more sustainable than solvent-based ones.

How to choose the most sustainable packaging for your business

1. Consider your product’s needs

The level of protection your product requires will inform which type of packaging is right for you. For example, if you’re transporting fragile items, such as glass vases, a paper mailer won't provide the level of protection needed to keep the product from breaking. Instead, you may need a shipping box with box dividers to keep the items from moving around.

2. Make small changes to what you’re already using

Rather than choosing a new type of packaging, making changes to your existing packaging might be the most sustainable option. For example, the average box is 40% too big for its contents, which can mean that you’re shipping more air and using excess packaging materials. This increases your carbon footprint.

But reducing your packaging’s size can make your shipping more efficient, allowing you to transport more products in one go. It can also reduce your need for void fillers, decreasing your environmental impact even further.

3. Make more sustainable switches

You might find that you’re already using the most environmentally friendly packaging design. Or, you might be able to replace it with more sustainable options. For example, if you need the waterproof qualities of a plastic poly mailer, use one with recycled content. In this way, you’ll be keeping plastic out of the environment, instead of adding to it.

You can also check whether your packaging provider uses sustainably sourced materials. Here at Sourceful, all of our card and paper products are FSC-certified, so you can be sure that your packaging comes from responsibly managed forests.

Get started with sustainable packaging

Whether it’s due to sustainable values, or to stay ahead of extended producer regulations, e-commerce businesses around the world are finding ways to reduce their environmental impact. The good news is that there are plenty of more sustainable options to choose from.

If you need to ship heavier or bulk items, you can use an FSC-certified shipping box. Or, if you’re looking for waterproof protection for a non-fragile item, choose a recycled mailer bag to avoid single-use virgin plastic. Whatever your need, there’s a more sustainable packaging solution out there for your business.

Here at Sourceful, we’re passionate about more sustainable packaging. If you’d like more advice, get in touch and we’d be happy to help you.

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