Paper vs. plastic: which is better packaging for your business?
If you find the paper vs. plastic debate confusing, you’re not alone. From how much energy is used in manufacturing to the difference in recyclability, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there. All whilst you’re trying to strike the balance between sustainability and your bottom line.
But armed with the right information, you can settle the paper vs. plastic debate once and for all.
Paper vs. plastic: Which is more sustainable?
74% of paper is recycled in the UK, compared to just 6% of flexible plastic. And sourcing paper from responsibly managed forests is less harmful (environmentally and socially) than extracting the oil needed to make plastic. Although paper does release some methane when breaking down, it breaks down completely in weeks. On the flip side, plastic hangs around for hundreds of years and leaves harmful chemicals behind.
As the debate heats up you’ll need to weigh up these pros and cons so you can make the best decision for your business.
Pros of paper
Paper is the most recycled packaging material in the UK, with a recycling rate of 74%. That’s a stark contrast to plastic, where only 6% of flexible plastic is recycled. That includes things like plastic films, bags and wraps; pretty much anything you can scrunch. And the story’s even worse in the US: only 5-6% of total plastic waste is recycled there.
Paper isn’t infinitely recyclable. But a single paper product can be recycled several times before losing its original quality. This reduces the pressure on forests as fewer virgin materials are needed to create new products.
And that’s not all. The fact that paper is so easily recyclable means less of it goes to landfill. Landfill waste is notorious for releasing methane, a greenhouse gas thirty-four times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide. So, by choosing paper, you’re also diverting waste away from landfill.
“Recycling one tonne of paper can save 17 trees, 7000 gallons of water, 3 cubic yards of landfill space, and 60 pounds of air pollutants.” — Massachusetts Institute of Technology
2. Responsible sourcing
Responsible forestry is real. And it’s surprisingly common. What’s more, sourcing paper from responsibly managed forests has nowhere near the harmful impact that oil extraction for plastic has.
For starters, trees store carbon as part of the short carbon cycle, which can help tackle climate change. Now you would be cutting the trees down to make paper. But because paper is so widely recycled, the carbon stored in paper is kept out of the atmosphere for longer than if, for example, trees were left to rot. In other words, it’ll mostly get put back into new products for as long as it continues to be recycled.
But responsible is the key word here. Because cutting down trees must be done with the wider picture in mind. This means securing the longer-term integrity of the forest and staying clear of ancient or endangered forest.
So when choosing paper as a packaging material, look for certifiers like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). An FSC label on your packaging is proof of your responsible sourcing efforts and shows climate-conscious customers that you care.
By choosing paper from these types of forests, you're supporting responsible practices and promoting better industry standards. With plastic, this isn't possible.
3. An established supply chain
Despite the rise of digitisation, paper packaging isn't going anywhere. Paper is part of an established industry that's been around for centuries. Because of this, it's widely available. And this also makes it one of the cheapest options out there. It can also be cheaper than some novel alternatives that don't necessarily deliver more impact.
Plastic, however, doesn’t have the same supply chain security as paper. One reason is plastic’s dependency on fossil fuels, which means as a packaging material it’s highly vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices as well as geopolitical issues. And as the world continues to learn about plastic pollution, governments are bringing in new regulations against production and usage. In turn, this is also disrupting the plastic supply chain.
When it comes to reliability and deliverability, paper wins this round.
4. Breaks down easily
“Biodegradable” means that a material can be quickly broken down by bacteria or fungus under natural conditions. This includes all organic materials, like food scraps and —you guessed it — paper. Plastic on the other hand is a synthetic material. And unlike paper, it can take hundreds of years to break down, all whilst leaving microplastics behind which are a threat to ecosystems and health.
But biodegrading isn’t the best outcome for paper, or any packaging material really. That’s because whether it’s in landfill, on a compost heap or leaked into the environment, packaging breaks down and releases methane. Recycling is always the better option.
In the unfortunate event that your paper packaging doesn’t get recycled, at least its environmental impact will be less than that of plastic. Another point for paper.
Cons of paper
1. Barrier properties
If you’re using paper as your packaging material, its barrier properties are something you need to think about.
Paper isn’t water-resistant and air can flow through it. Of course, this isn’t a problem for all products. But it could affect those that must stay fresh or protected from external factors. Another caveat is that paper packaging is more easily damaged by moisture or humidity than plastic, which might affect your product’s quality or safety.
Luckily, there are ways to work around these limitations. For example, paper packaging can be coated or lined with other materials to improve its barrier properties. And these linings don’t have to be plastic or contain toxic chemicals. In fact, our HydroTec Paper Pouch has a water-based lining and keeps products fresh for up to 18 months (if you can resist the contents for that long).
These new developments mean even fewer reasons not to switch to paper packaging.
2. Energy efficiency
When it comes to paper manufacturing, the energy needed does indeed result in greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. But the good news is that the paper industry is becoming more energy efficient. Take the UK’s UPM Shotton paper mill, which runs on 100% solar energy during daytime hours.
Another way to reduce energy usage is to use recycled paper in your packaging. Compared with virgin paper, producing recycled paper uses anywhere between 28% and 70% less energy, as well as less water.
So, whilst energy efficiency has traditionally been a concern, progress in paper production is being made. Whereas plastic production still requires a lot of energy.
3. Can contain synthetic components
Paper isn’t resistant to moisture. So, until now, you’d need to line any liquid or oily product’s packaging with something extra. And that’s where PFAS came in.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used to make paper products water and oil-resistant. But they come with a range of health and environmental concerns. In fact, you might know them under their more common name — forever chemicals.
Thanks to better technology, it is possible to limit or avoid the use of PFAS completely. But many suppliers aren’t doing this, so you’ll still see a lot of PFAS-lined products on the market. And PFAS aren’t the only problem. Because producing paper can involve other toxic chemicals like bleach and dyes.
So does that mean giving up on paper? Thankfully, no. Instead, you can limit the use of bleaching and synthetic materials in your paper packaging. To be on the safe side, make sure you work with a reputable supplier that knows their industry and embraces transparency.
Pros of plastic
1. Recycled content
There’s been a fair bit of innovation in response to the plastic packaging waste crisis. Now, plenty of products do contain some recycled plastic content and stricter regulations mean this is increasing.
But the catch is, no plastic is perfectly recyclable. And the production of plastic packaging still creates a demand for virgin plastic — a finite resource.
So if you have to use plastic packaging, use materials with a lot of recycled content. This can reduce the need for virgin plastics as well as your CO2e emissions. In fact, our data shows that recycling just one tonne of plastic can avoid up to 1.4 tonnes of CO2e emissions compared to placing it in general waste. And using recycled content in packaging can reduce whole lifecycle emissions by up to 30% when compared to using virgin plastic.
Remember that not all plastics are created equally. And most don’t get recycled at the same rate as paper. So, pay attention to the specific type of plastic being used and aim for a high level of recycled content.
When it comes to packaging, durability matters. Plastic packaging has a clear advantage in this area. It can withstand multiple uses and exposure to water — ideal for products that need high barriers, protection or waterproofing. In fact, plastic packaging is generally more resistant to damage than paper packaging and is less likely to tear or puncture.
Of course, this all depends on whether your product needs that durability in the first place. Traditional plastic packaging can usually be swapped out for paper packaging that’s just as efficient. For example, clothing will be sufficiently protected by a paper mailer, which can be recycled after use.
So plastic wins on durability. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s a good thing and if you can swap it out for paper packaging instead.
Plastic packaging can be manufactured in large quantities with high-speed processes. That leads to lower production costs and reduces the overall cost of packaging. And plastic typically weighs less than paper too. This can help reduce transportation costs and emissions because you need less fuel to transport the same amount of product.
Of course, the cost savings of plastic packaging come with a huge cost to the environment. Plastic waste and pollution have become a global problem, and businesses must weigh the benefits of cost savings against the potential long-term damage.
If you have to use plastic packaging, make sure it contains recycled content and can be recycled once used.
Cons of plastic
1: High carbon footprint
Plastic’s environmental impact starts at the very beginning: extraction.
Plastic is made from oil — a fossil fuel. At its most basic, oil is just concentrated carbon from plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. To extract oil, you need to burn it. And this burning creates a greenhouse effect around the earth, accelerating global warming.
Then, to produce anything plastic, you need a lot of energy. This process also releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. And the carbon footprint of plastic doesn't stop there. Because once used, any plastic product that isn’t recycled leaks into the environment or landfills and releases methane.
So choosing plastic packaging means contributing to a colossal carbon footprint and the production of persistent waste. That’s in contrast to paper, which boasts responsible forestry options, better recycling rates and quicker breakdown times.
2. Harmful to the environment
Plastic’s durability can be seen as a strength compared to paper. But in the long term, it’s a major weakness. Plastic waste takes hundreds to thousands of years to degrade, releasing harmful greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change.
And low recycling rates around the world mean that plastic waste is building up in landfills and oceans alarmingly fast. In fact, the current amount of plastic waste in the world is set to triple by 2060.
Why is this a problem? Because animals eat this plastic waste, mistaking it for food. This can build up in their bodies and eventually kill them. Or they can die from entanglement, for example in bags or plastic rings for canned drinks.
Meanwhile, microplastics — manufactured beads or bits of packaging that have broken away — are also increasing. The UN estimates that there are 51 trillion microplastic particles in our seas. That’s 500 times more than stars in the galaxy. These are harmful to tourism and fishing industries, and cause huge damage to marine ecosystems.
So paper wins on the environmental front. Because if it does leak into the environment, at least it breaks down within weeks and doesn’t leave toxic fragments behind.
If you go shopping for new plastic Tupperware or a water bottle, you’ll probably see quite a few “BPA-free” labels. That’s because consumers are becoming increasingly aware of a major health hazard that comes with using plastic: its toxicity.
Many types of plastic packaging contain chemicals that can be toxic to humans and the environment. One major one is BPA (bisphenol A), which is commonly used in plastic production. This is a hormone disruptor that interferes with the normal functioning of our bodies. It’s also known to create developmental problems in children.
There are plenty of paper options that come minimally processed (like natural kraft paper) which can still be splashproof and even leak resistant. So there’s really no reason to settle for this kind of toxic plastic packaging anymore.
4. Recycling challenges
Customers are engaging with recycling like never before. But despite this goodwill, recycling plastic packaging comes with its own set of challenges.
Even when plastic is recycled, it’s usually downcycled. This means its quality and usefulness decrease with each recycling cycle. So there’s a limit on the amount of high-quality recycled plastic products, perpetuating the demand for virgin plastics.
Another major issue is that not all plastics are accepted by recycling programs. So they might end up in general waste after all. This includes bioplastics, which need special industrial processes to break down.
It’s easy to hope that recycling will help us out of the plastic packaging waste crisis, but that’s far from the truth. Whilst recycling is important, it's better to reduce your reliance on plastic and use more sustainable materials instead.
5. Bad for business
There’s no doubt that until now, plastic has had some important applications, like keeping food and medicine safe for use. But in today’s story, plastic is becoming the supervillain. And this has implications for business.
Firstly, the public perception of plastic has shifted. Consumers are aware of the negative impact of excessive plastic use and are seeking out brands with a commitment to sustainability. So using plastic packaging can be seen as a lack of responsibility, which can harm your reputation.
Next, there are initiatives like Plastic Packaging Tax as part of new extended producer responsibilities. These aim to reduce single-use plastics and encourage businesses to use more sustainable alternatives. Failure to do so can result in higher costs to your company.
So by embracing more sustainable alternatives, you ensure your business complies with regulations and avoids increased costs. And as a bonus, you get to boost your brand image whilst meeting the demand for more environmentally responsible products.
Which is better for your business?
In the search for more sustainable packaging solutions, one thing is clear: we need to part ways with single-use plastic. It's damaging to the atmosphere, depleting natural (and finite) resources and harming ecosystems.
Now, as a packaging material, paper isn't without its drawbacks. It may be less durable than plastic, and there are certain products it’s not the best choice for. But paper’s recyclability, renewable nature and lower environmental impact make it a better and more sustainable option for many products.
By choosing paper packaging instead of plastic, you can reduce your carbon footprint, contribute to recycling efforts and divert waste from landfills. And for when you really need plastic properties, opt for recycled over virgin plastic. This way, you’ll also be more aligned with the growing consumer demand for more responsible packaging solutions.
More sustainable packaging from Sourceful
Choosing paper over plastic is a chance to showcase your commitment to the environment and set your brand apart from the competition. And at Sourceful, we offer a wide range of paper packaging options to help you make the switch.
Other articles you might be interested in
Why the full life cycle matters
Data is the foundation of sustainability. It shows us the extent that our climate is changing. It’s the vital information that combats greenwashing, which nearly half of all green claims in the EU are guilty of . It’s the backbone of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports (e.g. ). And it’s the foundation of every Life Cycle Assessment.
Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) are a powerful, science-based tool for estimating the potential environmental impact of products, processes, or services throughout their life cycle . For a full LCA, teams will typically look at data from five life cycle stages:
- Raw materials extraction
- Secondary packaging & transport
- Product use
- Final disposal
Missing one or more life cycle stages, however, directly affects the quality of the assessment. Leading organisations are on the same page. For example, The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) , the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)  in the UK and the European Commission for the EU all underline the need for high-quality data across the full life cycle to avoid making misleading environmental claims.
To quantify the impact of not assessing the full life cycle, we ran our own tests using our proprietary LCA engine. Here’s what we found: focusing only on a product’s raw ingredients can conceal between 25-70% of the product’s emissions. Put another way, selective reporting on a product’s emissions will never lead to accurate claims. The full life cycle matters.
Third parties: an extra layer of security
We’ve seen how LCAs rely heavily on the quality and completeness of data. But to ensure the highest standards of accuracy and consistency, third parties offer an extra layer of security. These include standards like ISO 14040 and 14044 and methodologies like the Product Environmental Footprint created by the European Commission.
A proprietary methodology
To go one step further, we developed our own LCA methodology. This allowed us to go beyond the static nature of a normal LCA and instead build an engine that could assess billions of product variants from different suppliers, giving results in real time whilst not compromising on accuracy. After building our engine, we commissioned an external panel of LCA experts and academics to review it to verify that our model conformed to the leading ISO standards.
It’s this rigorous homegrown approach that’s allowed us to develop a catalogue of science-backed products that in turn empower brands to make measurable progress. And it’s allowed us to support those brands in communicating that progress confidently with their customers.
What does the data say?
Our approach to LCA allows us to pinpoint both a product’s carbon hotspots and the biggest opportunities to reduce its carbon footprint.
We’ve found that the production of packaging components, international transport and disposal represent the majority of a packaging product's footprint. Let's dive deeper:
1. Production of packaging components
This stage, which includes the extraction, transport, and refinement of materials, typically accounts for the majority of the life cycle impact (for example, c.70% of our Eco Mailer Box’s total carbon footprint). An example of how we’ve reduced these emissions is custom sizing. By making custom sizing available for our packaging boxes, we’ve empowered brands to remove the empty and wasteful space that has become standard in the packaging industry. We estimate that this can reduce the total carbon footprint of a mailer box by around 8%.
Freight is carbon intensive, especially international air shipping which can represent up to 90% of the life cycle of packaging. But opting for sea freight instead can lower that number by 60%, which is the case with our recycled mailer bag. Whilst this is the best situation, we know that time is a significant constraint for brands, making sea freight often unfeasible.
We launched split delivery as a solution; a freight option where brands can choose how much of their order to send via air and sea. This allows brands to meet short-term demand whilst benefiting from sea freight’s significantly lower emissions. If a brand ordered 20,000 units and sent 10% by air freight, they could reduce their carbon footprint by up to 50% compared to sending the entire shipment via air.
3. End of life
End of life (also known as disposal) is an often overlooked but significant life cycle stage. Even for a cardboard box that can be easily recycled (71%, 2021 UK data, ), disposal still accounts for c.15% of its total carbon footprint. Disposal also varies dramatically between materials, making it a crucial part of any comparison. For example, whilst cardboard’s recycling rate in the UK is 71%, flexible plastic’s is unfortunately only 6% . This pushes disposal to account for c.21% of our recycled LDPE mailer bag’s emissions.
Always consider the full life cycle
For an accurate account of a product’s emissions, the full life cycle is essential. This is why authorities like the CMA and ASA require businesses to be clear on which stages of the life cycle they’ve included when making claims about a product’s environmental impact. Gold standard claims will always look at the full life cycle and selectively reporting on emissions will result in unreliable and dubious claims. This will put you at risk in a world that is demanding action and clarity.
With the full life cycle in hand, however, you can measure and track real progress, identify the best opportunities and communicate confidently with customers.
- Abnett, K. (2023). EU proposes clampdown on companies using fake ‘green’ claims. Reuters. Available here [https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/eu-proposes-clampdown-companies-using-fake-green-claims-2023-03-22/#:~:text=EU proposes clampdown on companies using fake 'green' claims,-By Kate Abnett&text=To use such labels%2C a,under an environmental labelling scheme]. (Accessed: 21 Aug. 2023).
- IPCC (2023). Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. doi: 10.59327/IPCC/AR6-9789291691647.
- PRé Sustainability (2020). Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) explained. Available here [https://pre-sustainability.com/articles/life-cycle-assessment-lca-basics/] (Accessed: 21 Aug. 2023).
- Competition & Markets Authority (2021). CMA guidance on environmental claims on goods and services. Available here [https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/green-claims-code-making-environmental-claims] (Accessed: 21 Aug. 2023).
- Committee of Advertising Practice (2021). The CAP Code. Available here [https://www.asa.org.uk/static/47eb51e7-028d-4509-ab3c0f4822c9a3c4/The-Cap-code.pdf] (Accessed: 21 Aug. 2023).
- DEFRA (2023). UK statistics on waste. Available here [https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-waste-data/uk-statistics-on-waste]
- WRAP (2021). Recycling your customers’ plastic bags and wrapping. Available here [https://wrap.org.uk/resources/guide/recycling-your-customers-plastic-bags-and-wrapping]
To achieve net zero and limit the worst of climate change, we have to rethink our reliance on plastic.
This statement is more urgent than ever, but the problem with plastics is unfortunately much bigger than just climate change. In reality, plastics also directly threaten human health and endanger habitats when leaked into the natural environment. Paradoxically, one of the main culprits of this damage is also claimed by some as the next green solution — compostable plastics.
To unpack this new material, we conducted a study on the environmental impact of compostable plastic bags, to find out if they truly offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional materials like paper, fossil plastics and recycled plastic. In this article, we’ll focus on one part of the study: the damage that leaked compostable plastics have on our ecosystems.
The consensus on compostable packaging is unclear
The biodegradable plastics market is projected to expand 2-3x between 2021 and 2026 . And at Sourceful, we’ve seen firsthand the escalating demand for compostable packaging. But whilst many brands are running towards compostable plastics, the consensus is still murky, with other companies (like Tesco and Abel & Cole) publicly distancing themselves from them. We wanted to use our research to help fill the vital knowledge gap and build consensus.
Compostable plastics are often considered a green alternative because they degrade and so are often (incorrectly) assumed to effectively disappear in the natural environment. The theory is that this reduces the amount of plastic in the ocean and the risk of microplastics. But as with most things — it’s not that simple. Life cycle assessments (LCAs) have historically struggled to account for leaked waste and microplastics because of a lack of data, even though both play a major part in a material’s overall environmental impact.
To tackle this, we partnered with the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub at the University of Manchester. This gave us access to the latest labs, data on new and innovative materials and their in-house expertise — all invaluable to our study. Together, we investigated how traditional fossil fuels and compostable plastics behave when leaked. Here’s what we found.
The impact of leaked waste is twofold
One of the major environmental impacts of plastics (fossil and compostable), besides their carbon footprint, is their effect on the natural environment when leaked.
Leaked plastic waste generates both physical (e.g. animals ingesting microplastics or being entangled in larger pieces) and chemical risks (e.g. the leaching of toxic additives like plasticisers and flame retardants) to wildlife from the breakdown of plastic into microplastics and nano-plastics. Not only does the breakdown of plastics directly leach toxic elements but they can also act as a magnet for other environmentally harmful pollutants.
To make matters worse, leaked plastic waste has also been found to be directly connected to climate change. Researchers at the Ocean University of China found that microplastics reduced the growth of microalgae and the efficiency of photosynthesis, in turn degrading plankton’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere . The knock-on effect is that the ocean itself cannot capture carbon as efficiently; an essential resource in our fight against climate change, given that it sequesters 30-50% of total CO2 emissions from human activity.
Compostable plastics and leaked waste
The longer a plastic takes to break down, the more likely it will be ingested or cause entanglement. Put another way, the risk of adverse effects increases the longer a plastic persists. To account for this, we assessed each material for its degradation time in freshwater, marine, and soil environments, and used that data to identify a leaked waste impact rating for each material.
Our study found that whilst compostable plastics do reduce the risk of some adverse effects (less risk of entanglement and a shorter period of microplastics), they are not a cure-all for plastic pollution. Compostable plastics can persist in the natural environment for over half a century, which puts into question the popular claim that these plastics are the next green solution. This matches up with the conclusions that Narancic et al. made in their study . Here’s an overview of degradation times for fossil plastics and common compostable plastics:
- Fossil plastics take around 4-5,500 years to degrade in soil (with some studies suggesting this is even higher, at around 10,000 years); the worst and longest degradation time amongst all plastics. This is made worse by the common use of harmful additives .
- Compostable plastics like PLA take on average 1-63 years in soil to degrade completely. In water, PLA does not degrade at all.
- Other compostable plastics like TPS and PHB take on average 4-6 months to degrade completely.
So compostable plastics do have a tighter degradation window than fossil plastics, and they also typically contain fewer toxic additives (such as flame retardants and stabilisers). But they still can have a significant degradation window, especially and unfortunately PLA, one of the most common materials used in compostable packaging (including coffee lids and bags).
Admittedly, it is still hard to know the exact time it takes for a plastic to decay; the field of estimating polymer lifetimes is still relatively new. But we do have enough comparative data to give us an indicative hierarchy of materials that we can use to assess performance and inform decisions.
Compostable plastics do slightly reduce the risk of microplastics because of their shorter degradation times. But our larger study showed that compostable bags emit 1.5-2x more greenhouse gas emissions over their full life cycle than virgin fossil plastics. In addition, given they are still relatively new, there are uncertainties about the unintended consequences that could come from their use. ****This begs the question: are the reduced risks from leaked waste enough to offset the increase in carbon footprint? For now, we don’t think so.
What does this mean for my packaging?
It’s clear that we need to move away from fossil plastics. And in their current state, compostable plastics are not the next green solution. So, what’s the answer?
First, brands should follow the waste hierarchy. Can this packaging component be removed? Can we use less materials without compromising function? How can I design this product so it’s easy to recycle?
Second, brands should prioritise responsibly sourced paper if possible, which typically has the lowest impact of any material. Its full life cycle emissions are low, and there’s no risk of microplastics if leaked. That’s not to say it’s perfect; forests are often mismanaged and producing and recycling paper still generates emissions, uses large amounts of water and potentially also harmful chemicals. This is why certifications like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) are so important.
Paper isn’t also appropriate for every use-case and product, like liquids. This is why we stress prioritising paper if possible. Packaging should always be carefully matched with the product, and blanket rules rarely result in success.
For more information about this study, email email@example.com
Thanks to Dr. Guilhem de Hoe and Dr. Chloe Loveless from the University of Manchester for leading the collaboration.
Our study focused on the typical compostable plastics currently seen on the market (PLA, PBAT, PHA and TPS). Our study did not include a nascent group of materials classed as unmodified natural polymers, which we’re interested in exploring in the future.
- MarketsandMarkets. (2021). Biodegradable Plastics Market - Global Forecast to 2026.
- Zhang, C., Chen, X., Wang, J., & Tan, L. (2017). Toxic effects of microplastic on marine microalgae Skeletonema costatum: Interactions between microplastic and algae. Environmental Pollution, 220(B), 1282-1288. [Link] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2016.11.005
- Narancic, T., Verstichel, S., Chaganti, S. R., Morales-Gamez, L., Kenny, S. T., De Wilde, B., Padamati, R. B., & O’Connor, K. E. (2018). Biodegradable Plastic Blends Create New Possibilities for End-of-Life Management of Plastics but They Are Not a Panacea for Plastic Pollution. Environmental Science & Technology, 52(18), 10441-10452. [Link] https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.8b02963
- Chamas, A., Moon, H., Zheng, J., Qiu, Y., Tabassum, T., Jang, J. H., Abu-Omar, M., Scott, S. L., & Suh, S. (2020). Degradation Rates of Plastics in the Environment. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, 8(9), 3494-3511. [Link] https://doi.org/10.1021/acssuschemeng.9b06635
Right-sized packaging is the opposite of shipping small products in big boxes. It’s packaging that minimises the empty space around your product — whilst not comprising its safety or your branding. Or put another way, right-sized packaging is the most effective, and most efficient, size packaging for your product.
The benefits of right-sized packaging are many. As a business, you reduce your material usage, which means fewer costs across procurement and production. And smaller, lighter packaging also means fewer costs across transport and storage. All of this means a smaller carbon footprint, less waste and a better, less frustrating customer experience.
Whilst right-sized packaging seems a logical choice, businesses are notorious for using oversized packaging. According to DHL, the average box is 40% too big for its contents. In part, this is because businesses often buy large volumes of stock packaging to reduce unit costs. As a result, they have just a few packaging options for all their products. Products are then shipped in the nearest fitting packaging, regardless of their size. In practice, this means companies end up shipping the product and all of the air around it, which is expensive and wasteful. To put the scale of this waste into context, eliminating the 40% excess volume DHL cite would mean 24 million fewer truckloads annually — in the USA alone.
Another catalyst of oversized packaging is e-commerce. Unlike traditional retail, e-commerce is more complex and more people are involved across fulfilment, freight and last mile delivery — with up to four times as many touch-points. And with more touch-points, the risk of damage increases. According to one study, the average package is dropped 17 times in transit. Businesses use oversized packaging and void fill to minimise this risk and avoid breakage costs. Reducing breakage is important, but many companies don’t realise that with right-sized packaging they can both minimise risk and reduce costs, all whilst being more sustainable.
Let’s dive deeper into why your business needs right-sized packaging.
1. Slash costs across your business
Right-sized packaging is an ideal strategy to reduce costs for any business. In fact, choosing right-sized packaging can have a fortunate snowball effect across your business. Smaller packaging means fewer material costs, which then means fewer production costs and handling fees. And it means fewer transport costs as more packages can fit on a pallet. Or if you’re sending single products via a courier or Royal Mail, your package may fit into a cheaper parcel bracket. And finally, you can store more products for less, which also increases your buffer stock — a useful way to build a more resilient supply chain.
One famous example of right-sized packaging is IKEA’s Ektorp sofa. IKEA’s engineers worked out that instead of shipping the sofa as one piece, they could break it down and ship it as parts. This allowed them to eliminate the air they were shipping (and paying for) and reduce the packaging size by 50%. For IKEA, the result was an annual saving of €1.2 million and 7,477 fewer trucks on the road every year.
2. Reduce your carbon footprint
Whilst IKEA reduced their packaging costs, they also reduced their carbon footprint. Fewer materials meant fewer resources and less energy used to produce those materials. And it meant significantly fewer transport emissions as well as less waste. Although there are exceptions, the rule of thumb is when you use less, your carbon footprint falls, and right-sized packaging is an opportunity to use less. It’s important to remember that right-sized packaging is about removing redundant materials and keeping those that serve a purpose. This makes it a simple way to create more sustainable packaging without jeopardising your product.
3. Create frustration-free packaging and empower your customers
Consumers are tired of bad packaging, so much so that they’ve started Reddit threads to showcase the worst examples. Youtube too is full of consumers venting their anger about oversized packaging.
Their irritation is twofold. First, oversized packaging is often frustrating to open, with unnecessary materials creating a more complex, sometimes overwhelming experience. And second, oversized packaging is wasteful. At a time when research is showing that consumers want to be more sustainable, using excessive packaging hinders their efforts and doesn’t reflect their values. Right-sized packaging, however, addresses both parts of their annoyance. By keeping material usage down, it creates a frustration-free packaging experience and empowers your customers to play a part in reducing waste. A win-win for them and you.
Managing right-sized packaging is hard, but Sourceful can help
As great as right-sized packaging is, it isn’t perfect. Problems often arise because right-sized packaging is only right for one product, which means you may end up with a lot of packaging SKUs. Managing this can be tricky, but with the right tools, it doesn’t have to be. With Sourceful, you can use smart tools like Auto-Stock to manage, track and replenish your packaging in one place. You can also store everything in Sourceful’s warehouse. Fast-growing brands like Zoe and Floom already use Auto-Stock to easily manage their packaging, no matter how much they have. Want to learn more? Contact us.
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