A List of Non-Plastic Packaging Alternatives and the Challenges They Present Operationally

A recent consumer poll reported 82% of respondents would be willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, which was up four points since 2022. Sustainable practices across the supply chain are becoming a must-have for consumer brands, but many brands are finding it a challenge to seek changes that make a notable environmental impact while also matching their customer’s perception of what is earth-friendly.

Because packaging materials are directly in front of the consumer, it’s an easy place for brands to focus their sustainability efforts. Yet choosing packaging that has the least impact on the environment is up for debate. The choice mostly comes down to consumer perception—while some may see decarbonization as the most sustainable option, others might want to see the elimination of single-use plastics.

For brands seeking to eliminate plastic waste, here are some of the newer alternative packaging solutions to consider.

Is Plastic Packaging Better Than Paper Packaging?

As ecommerce businesses make moves to greenify their brand, some may find it challenging to match consumer perception of what materials are the most environmentally friendly.

Historically most brands use light-weight, plastic dunnage like air pockets or polybags to pack their products for shipping. Why are plastic air bags used so widely?

  1. They are more cost-effective.
  2. They are ubiquitous and easier to source at scale.
  3. They keep products more secure in transit, more often.
  4. There is far less needed overall to fill a box compared to other materials

These key features of plastic air pockets naturally reduce manufacturing resources and shipping, which has proven to result in an overall reduced carbon footprint.

The most common alternative to plastic air bags is paper dunnage. The reason some brands and consumers have moved away from plastic bags is that all plastic pollution is widely known to be a burden on landfills—they are single-use, and not able to biodegrade making their end-of life path one that is creating more trash.

Paper materials are now chosen over plastic as it is a biodegradable and compostable packaging material. The disadvantages to paper dunnage are that it is more expensive and less secure for packaging, plus much more paper is needed per box which increases manufacturing resources and shipping, naturally increasing the carbon footprint of the product.

Why Consider Non-Plastic Packaging Alternatives?

While plastic may be ubiquitous, cost-effective, and easy to store and source, it is not the only option. Plastic materials are not always biodegradable and contribute to landfill trash.  

Alternatives to plastic are growing in popularity and availability. This is due to several factors:  

  • Consumer demand—many buyers see plastic as a non-environmentally friendly material because it is not biodegradable. Consumers are looking for brands to match their perception of eco-friendly practices.
  • Regulations—local and federal governments are implementing stricter rules around environmentally friendly business operations.
  • Brand image—many ecommerce businesses want to be seen as progressive and cause-conscious. Dunnage goes directly to the consumer and it’s a more customer-centric choice than making other aspects of your supply chain greener.

If you are looking for alternative packaging to meet consumer expectations, non-plastic materials are a great consideration.    

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A List of Eco-Friendly Packaging and Alternative Packing Materials

  1. Bioplastics. Derived from renewable sources such as corn starch, sugarcane, or algae, bioplastics offer a sustainable alternative to traditional plastics. They are biodegradable or compostable, reducing the burden on landfills and oceans, foam, or packing peanut substitutes. 
  2. Standard Recyclable Materials. Recycled paper, cardboard, or glass can be used to reduce the need for new-raw materials and minimize waste. Many companies are incorporating post-consumer recycled content into their packaging to close the recycling loop. 
  3. Bio-regenerative Materials. Mushroom, also known as mycelium packaging, is created by growing mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms) around agricultural waste. It is biodegradable, lightweight, and can be molded into various shapes to replace traditional foam packaging. Seaweed is also being used in a similar fashion. These materials are abundant and widely available, with seaweed being particularly prevalent. Bioregenerative materials are typically 100% home compostable, although some may still contain a mixture of fossil fuel polymers. 
  4. Reusable Vessels. Reusable containers, bags, or packaging systems can reduce waste generation and resource consumption. Some companies offer refillable packaging options to encourage consumers to return and refill their containers. 
  5. Natural Fibers. Bamboo, palm leaves, jute, cotton, and banana leaves are being used to create packaging that is both biodegradable and renewable. These plant-based alternatives offer a sustainable option for single-use packaging.  
  6. Paper Based Alternatives. Paper-based packaging is a renewable and recyclable option that is widely used as an alternative to plastics. Additionally, advancements in paper packaging technology have led to innovations like water-based coatings and barrier coatings to enhance recyclability and durability. 

Disadvantages to Using Non-Plastic Packaging for Ecommerce

Making changes to your product or packaging, however small they may seem, can have big consequences throughout your business. Your product profile, fulfillment flow, and stage of business may not be a good candidate to add these alternative materials.

Here are a few big disadvantages to consider when using new packing materials.

Higher Cost Implications

Alternative packaging materials often come at a higher cost compared to traditional packaging materials. This causes increased packaging expenses for businesses, which at the parcel level may seem small, but added up over thousands of packages sent makes a big impact on overall budget. This is especially critical for small parcel shipments that are lighter in weight and have tight profit margins to begin with.

Costs also increase upstream with new and alternative packing materials. Investing in new equipment to process alternative materials can be expensive for fulfillment providers, who will then pass this higher cost to the businesses they support.

Prices might drop as the supply of alternative packaging materials grow, demand rises, and the capacity to meet this demand becomes more consistent.

Causes More Waste or Increases Carbon Footprint 

Consider the comparison between air pockets and paper dunnage. Despite a significant portion of air pockets being made from plastic, achieving equivalent product protection might necessitate substantially more paper dunnage. This excess can lead to more waste and notably increase the package’s weight, thereby elevating the carbon footprint associated with transportation.

Many materials marketed as biodegradable might still take a very long time to decompose or require more energy and green house gas emissions to produce. While a material might have a more eco-friendly downstream life, the overall net improvement on environmental factors may not actually supersede those of plastic materials.

It’s important to do full due diligence on any new materials. A lot of recycled or biodegradable material may have components that cannot be recycled. For example, ink is petroleum based—if your paper dunnage is branded or has any designs to it, that unit itself can’t be recycled without harm.

Supply Chain Complexity 

Switching to sustainable packaging may require sourcing materials from different suppliers or regions, which can introduce complexities into the supply chain.  

  • Materials may need to be transported a longer distance, adding to their carbon footprint 
  • If sourced from overseas, import fees may change 
  • Procuring newer materials at scale may not be available  
  • Ordering lead time may change and affect forecasting, sales and promotional cycles  
  • Materials may need different storage conditions to ensure contaminants, rodents, temperature, or humidity do not negatively affect their viability.  

Packaging Performance Declines  

Newer packaging materials may not always offer the same level of protection or durability as traditional packaging materials. Product protection during transit is critical to prevent damage or returns, which can impact customer satisfaction and increase costs for businesses.

Consumer Perception and Acceptance  

Despite the growing demand for sustainable products, consumer preferences and expectations regarding packaging materials may vary. Some consumers may perceive certain sustainable packaging materials as less attractive or less convenient compared to traditional options.

Educating consumers about the benefits of sustainable packaging and addressing any concerns or misconceptions is essential for widespread acceptance. This is a costly endeavor that also affects branding and your business’ reputation. One widely adopted way to educate customers about your packaging is to include a barcode that leads the customer to further end-of-life instruction.

Operational Limitations and Infrastructure Issues 

Existing packaging infrastructure, such as sorting and recycling facilities, may not be equipped to handle certain types of sustainable packaging materials. This can limit the recyclability or composability of packaging materials and contribute to waste management challenges.

If you rely heavily on automated operations, some newer materials may not fit well into your existing infrastructure. Moving to manual processes may increase errors, higher order cycle time, increased labor costs, and lead to poor customer experience.

Logistical Challenges  

Changing your packaging materials will have a ripple effect on other aspects of your supply chain. A new material may have different weight, volume, or handling characteristics compared to traditional materials, affecting transportation and storage logistics.

Optimizing packaging design and transportation routes to minimize environmental impact while maintaining efficiency requires careful planning and coordination.

Bottom Line 

The decision to consider renewable resources and compostable materials in your ecommerce packaging needs can be a big endeavor. Much research is needed to ensure you choose a viable alternative that fits into your supply chain, your fulfillment, and makes sense for your product and business.

One important tip is to look for packaging that is accredited by the The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This represents a gold standard in environmental stewardship within the packaging industry and ensures that the materials used in your product packaging are created from responsibly managed materials.

Some brands allow the customer to decide on the mailer type or packaging during the checkout process. It helps nurture the sustainable focused customer without adopting a universal sustainable practice that is often costly. Whatever your sustainability initiatives, keeping your customer in mind will often be a good driving factor.

Author Bio

This post was written by Maureen Walsh, Marketing Manager at DCL Logistics. A writer and blogging specialist for over 15 years, she helps create quality resources for ecommerce brands looking to optimize their business.

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