Plastic Free Packaging – What Are Your Sustainability Goals For Going Plastic Free?
The days are numbered for plastic packaging, but for independent ecommerce retailers this shift is more of an earthquake than a jolt. SMEs are being forced to re-think strategies, budgets, and the shape of their unboxing experiences. Behind the scenes, engineers and innovators are engaged in a flurry of creativity, and new packaging options are appearing almost every week. All of this is fuelled by political, cultural, and economic pressure, so the heat is up, and change is happening.
This guide, which is intended for any company that uses plastic packaging as part of its business model, follows on from our free Sustainable Packaging Guide that we released in January 2022. It contains information about the new Plastic Packaging Tax, as well as some updates to the plastic-free alternatives that are both available and affordable. The guide also features a ‘how-to’ action plan section with advice about how to successfully navigate the shift to more plastic-free alternatives to traditional packaging materials.
If you’d like to know more or discuss your own requirements with one of our sustainable packaging design team, please call 01923 220055 today.
Why is plastic packaging a problem?
Few inventions have had such a dramatic and enduring environmental impact as plastic waste. Lightweight, hygienic, durable, waterproof, and easy to manufacture, this marvel of human ingenuity makes complete economic sense. However, as synthetic substances, plastic cannot easily be biodegraded by bacteria. Instead, it requires UV photodegradation, a lengthy process that can take centuries to complete. Consequently, there are thought to be at least 150 million metric tonnes of waste plastic circulating the earth’s oceans, disrupting marine lifecycles and entering the human food chain. The responsibility for plastic pollution is jointly shared between governments, consumers, and the companies that use plastic packaging. The UK government is targeting organisations directly via a controversial plastic packaging tax.
Plastic Packaging Tax
From April 1st 2022, packaging must have a minimum of 30% recycled content to avoid a tax of £200 per metric tonne. Any business that places over 10 tonnes of plastic onto the UK market is liable for the tax. The responsibility for paying the tax rests with any company that imports either filled or unfilled plastic packaging, meaning ecommerce providers are particularly targeted.
What is the purpose of the tax?
The primary aim of the plastic packaging tax is to reduce the volume of plastic waste that enters oceans and landfills every year. Additionally, it should increase the demand for plastic-free packaging options. This in turn should invigorate innovation within the packaging industry, increasing the number of options available for businesses.
Is Gift Packaging included in the tax?
Yes. Any packaging used for the containment, protection, handling, presentation, or delivery of a product will be considered for the tax. As such, many types of gift packaging are included, such as bubble wrap, air pockets, and decorative foils. It also includes the plastic in the display packet itself, which is important to consider when importing from overseas.
What Can Ecommerce Retailers Do To Go Plastic Free?
Going plastic free may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. In this section, we take a look at some of the most innovative plastic-free alternatives.
Renewable, lightweight, and fully recyclable, paper is one of the oldest packaging substrates and is now making a popular comeback. The paper used for packaging tends to be heavy-duty, water-resistant, and is usually treated with natural materials such as chalk or kaolin clay to increase its rip-resistance. Due to its comparatively low weight, paper packaging generates fewer emissions during transport than some plastics, further lowering the cost of an already affordable packaging option. The result is a reliable packaging solution that boasts a healthy sustainability profile.
It’s worth knowing that...
Paper packaging has some limitations. Firstly, there is less flexibility regarding factors such as texture, although the paper substrate can be coated in a variety of eco-friendly finishes. Secondly, although it is reasonably water-resistant, paper will eventually dissolve, so its reusability is limited. The same is true for rip-resistance, as both water and frequent bending or crumpling lead to the breaking of the cellulose molecules. Companies also need to be aware that paper is frequently bleached with Titanium oxide (Ti02), which can cause considerable harm to the environment, both during manufacture and the biodegradation process.
Caution: paper and deforestation
Ideally, paper packaging should be titanium oxide free – and harvested from sustainable sources. It takes 24 trees to produce 1 tonne of paper, and the replacement of native forests with intensive ‘paper plantations’ in Southeast Asia and South America is often detrimental to local ecosystems and communities. To improve the sustainability of paper packaging, opt for recycled paper wherever possible. Paper can be recycled 5 to 7 times, potentially saving 17 trees in the process. If recycled paper is impractical or unavailable, try to source your substrates from a Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) approved supplier.
Manufactured to a spectrum of robustness options, cardboard is already the go-to choice for organisations wanting to improve the sustainability of their packaging. Like paper, cardboard is relatively lightweight, and therefore cheap to transport, which is one of the many reasons it is already widely in use throughout ecommerce. Cardboard is fully biodegradable, renewable, and reusable. Cardboard also has some natural water resistance, reducing the need for additional coatings, and therefore reducing the cost. Helpfully, cardboard packaging also has widely established recycling streams, making it refreshingly familiar for consumers.
It’s helpful to know that…
Calculating the precise carbon footprint of cardboard is almost impossible. Several researchers have tried, but there are so many variables that the overall conclusion is a shrug. However, cardboard requires a greater volume of wood pulp to manufacture than paper, making it slightly less environmentally friendly. Additionally, when burned, cardboard releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than paper. As such, reminding consumers to reuse and recycle is central to its sustainability profile.
Did you know…?
Cardboard is thought to be the only sustainable material that can be bent or folded into any shape without it losing its structural integrity. Packaging innovators are using this to their advantage – more on that below!
When complete water or contamination barriers are required, plastics such as Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are sometimes the only option. PVC does not biodegrade, which is why the plastic tax has been introduced. However, it can be recycled. Recycled Polyvinyl chloride (rPVC) performs just like its predecessor. It is strong, lightweight, reusable, and recyclable. It also looks and feels just like plastic, making it easier for companies to make the shift without requiring an interruption to branding.
It’s worth knowing that…
No plastic is ideal, and that includes rPVC. Although made from a percentage of recycled materials, it is not itself biodegradable. As such, rPVC does little to help the oceanic plastic pollution crisis. One of rPVC’s primary sustainability credentials is its re-usability, but consumers still widely disregard this advice, effectively defeating the purpose. Furthermore, the manufacture of rPVC is energy-hungry, and its incineration releases the harmful acidic gas hydrogen chloride (HCl).
Did you know…?
The manufacture of plastic uses around 12% of the worldwide oil supply. By 2050, this is predicted to rise to 50% of a global supply that could run out by 2070.
Quick-growing, widely available, and highly versatile in its applications, bamboo is an excellent compostable packaging option. All it needs to biodegrade is an oxygen-free environment, meaning it doesn’t really matter whether consumers regard recycling advice or not. As a packaging material, bamboo has some admirable credentials. Its compressive strength is twice that of concrete, and its tensile strength of 28,000 PSI is similar to steel, making it one of the strongest and most durable natural materials on earth. Its natural anti-bacterial properties make bamboo an excellent choice for a range of ecommerce requirements, and its functionalities include heat deflection and impact resistance. Additionally, bamboo’s rapid growth requires 96% less water than a tree of the same height, and produces 35% more oxygen, further enhancing its green credentials.
It’s worth knowing that…
The only downside to bamboo is its cost. It is currently more expensive than paper or cardboard. However, this is a temporary situation, because with its growth rate of 3ft per day it can be harvested every five years. As such, bamboo is predicted to be a viable price competitor with paper and cardboard within the next few years.
Did you know…?
Bamboo isn’t a tree, it’s actually a type of grass, with familial connections to the Nile grass used to make Papyrus – an ancient material from which we get our modern word ‘paper’. Papyrus made over 4,500 years ago still survives, showing how durable it is.
Steps To Switching To Plastic-Free Packaging
All major changes take planning to implement effectively while avoiding disruption. The following roadmap will help you set clear brand-centred project management goals as your business transitions to plastic-free packaging.
1) Set clear and measurable outcomes for the transition
Knowing what you’re aiming for is central to change management. Many companies understand that packaging has to evolve, but don’t have a clear idea about what that will look like. If in doubt, start with a critical review of your current packaging strategy, and identify key areas of concern.
In our experience, the main plastic packaging vulnerabilities are:
- Packaging ‘noodles’
- Bubble wrap
- Air pockets
- Hygienic food and drink containers
There are sustainable solutions available for all of these packaging red-flags.
2) Work out your budget
Work out how much your plastic packaging is costing, taking into account the new tax. Kudos can help you with this if required. Once you know how much you are currently spending, you can set a realistic budget for making the shift.
3) Think about your brand
Packaging is the primary touchpoint of your brand in ecommerce transactions. It communicates the identity, culture, and ethos of your vision, and speaks directly to the consumer. Elements such as the texture, finish, size, and shape of the packaging matter when making the transition – as does ensuring consistency between the unboxing experience before and following the change. Rather than opting for the easiest or cheapest sustainable packaging solution, keep your brand and customer experience at the heart of your decision-making.
4) Conduct market research
If you’re still using plastic packaging, you may already have experienced some negative feedback from customers. Listening to what they want can help to shape the planning process. Consumer-led change is one of the Holy Grails of increasing sales, so let your audience do the talking.
5) Work with a supplier who places sustainability at the heart of their agenda
Some packaging manufacturers are engaging in the shift to sustainable packaging with reluctance, and some ‘sustainable’ packaging sources - such as intensively farmed paper - is not as sustainable as it may first appear. This lack of standardisation over what is meant by ‘sustainable’ creates a confused marketplace for companies who are either keen to make the change, or who need support in doing so. Look for an organisation that is actively investing in a range of packaging solutions and who is transparent about the materials they use, how they are processed, and from where they are sourced.
What is Kudos Giftwrap doing?
At Kudos, we’re relieved that the government is finally taking action against harmful plastic packaging and are excited about the new solutions that are arriving. We are currently focusing our investment on making the most successful of these innovations available to our clients. For instance, we are an approved distributor of Protega paper cushioning and Hexcel paper, to replace plastic air pockets and bubble wrap. Both of which are fully made and manufactured in the UK for added sustainability benefits with zero travel miles.
Both are helping our customers successfully reduce returns, and tackle transit damage which is one of the major areas of plastic use within luxury packaging. The feedback from our clients in terms of the quality, performance, and cost of these solutions has been excellent.
We also listen to our customers, so if you have any concerns about plastic in your gift packaging, just ask, and we will help you find an answer that meets the needs of your business and its customers..
We’re enjoying watching the packaging revolution unfolding, and we look forward to supporting our clients moving towards a more sustainable future.
For more information about the options available, please call 01923 220055 today.