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Sustainable packaging

Sustainable packaging

Sustainable packaging is the development and use of packaging that results in improved sustainability, a reduced environment impact, an ecological footprint, and an increased lifecycle.


Sustainable packaging is any packaging that is considered to be more sustainable or better for the environment. To determine whether packaging is eco-friendly or sustainable, manufacturers have to conduct a lifecycle assessment to determine a product's overall environmental impact, not just what material a package is composed of. Unfortunately, there remains no real framework that is agreed upon for evaluating what options are better than others for the planet. However, despite the complexity, a simple framework for deciding whether a package is sustainable could include certain criteria.

Sustainable criteria

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition suggests that a criteria for identifying sustainable packaging should blend broad sustainable and industrial ecology objectives with business considerations and strategies that address the environmental concerns related to the life cycle of packaging. The criteria relates to the areas in which the Sustainable Packaging Coalition seeks to encourage transformation, innovation, and optimization of packaging, but they also represent a broad understanding of how sustainability in packaging can be understood. The following are suggested criteria for packaging to be considered sustainable:

  • Be beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its lifecycle
  • Meet market criteria for performance and cost
  • Be sourced, manufactured, and transported, and recycled using renewable energy
  • Optimize the use of renewable or recycled source materials
  • Be manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
  • Be made from materials healthy throughout the lifecycle
  • Be physically designed to optimize materials and energy
  • Be effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles
Life cycle assessment

A life cycle assessment is required, regardless of the criteria, in order to best understand if a given packaging choice is sustainable or not. This is a fairly common approach that assesses the environmental impacts associated with every stage of a product's life, beginning with the extraction and manufacturing of the raw material, to the distribution methods, to company and end-consumer use, and finally the disposal. This assessment should consider estimates for emissions across the product life cycle and cover other environmental impacts, such as fossil fuel consumption and water consumption.

Sustainable packaging examples

More companies are designing and developing packaging for recyclability and developing new types of packaging that can be returned to nature without an environmental cost. The following are examples of sustainable packaging:

Lightweight packaging

This includes packaging that conserves natural resources in product design, by using less material to make those products. Light weight packaging offers long-term gain from an environmental and economic perspective, and can be combined with more sustainable materials in order to further decrease its overall environmental impact. This includes optimizing packaging to ensure that it does not have unnecessary elements, is not unnecessarily sized, and can still offer adequate protection for the item it is designed to hold.

Paper and cardboard

Paper and cardboard are widely used and one of the easier materials to recycle. They can be used in packaging different types of products, and most locations globally have access to cardboard recycling facilities. Furthermore, paper and cardboard packaging can include, or be entirely composed of, recycled material. They are also lighter weight materials, reducing the necessary energy it requires to transport paper and cardboard packages.

Inks and dyes

The use of inks and dyes can hinder the recycling process, and certain inks can potentially bleed or discolor during the recycling process, which can impact or ruin the material that can be used as feedstock. There has been work around testing protocols and selecting industry approved labels, inks, and adhesives that can be properly recycled, but they require increased adoption in order to increase the sustainability of packages. Further, there have been inks and dyes using sustainable materials that can be safer both for the environment and human or animal health in the case of accidental ingestion or leaching.

Labels, closures, and adhesives

Similar to inks and dyes, the types of labels, closures, and adhesives used in packaging can impact the sustainability and recyclability of a product. For example, some types of labels cannot be removed from plastic or cardboard during the recycling process, contaminating the potential raw material and making it unsuitable for use to make new products. As a result, the choice in these components is important in the consideration of whether packaging can be considered sustainable. And there are companies working on creating sustainable labels, closures, and adhesives, to reduce their impact on whether packaging material can be reused or recycled. However, if using labels, closures, and adhesives, even made from sustainable materials, that potentially conflict with the main materials of a packaging product, they could reduce the reusability, recyclability, and overall sustainability of a given packaging solution.


A common material used in sustainable packaging, biomaterials include any material derived from otherwise natural materials, which can be used in place of petroleum-based plastics. This includes cornstarch-based packaging, which has seen use in soda bottles or loose-fill packaging material. Polylactic acid, or PLA, is another popular biomaterial plastic, which is made from lactic acid, which typically comes from agricultural waste, including plant starch from corn, sugarcane, or beet pulp. There is also the example of the PlantBottle, developed by Coca-Cola, which uses sugar cane. Or Pepsi's plant-based bottle, which uses switchgrass, pine bark, corn husk, and other natural materials to make a fully recyclable and degradable plastic.

Post-consumer recycled plastics

Although post-consumer recycled plastics are not biodegradable, they can still help create more sustainable packaging by reducing the need to generate new plastics from petroleum, which comes at a high cost in energy, carbon emissions, and greenhouse gases. Further, post-consumer recycled plastic is often an option in areas where biomaterials are not an option.

Mushroom-based packaging and other organic fibers

Mushroom-based packaging has been used and has been proven successful in commercial packaging applications. Mushroom packaging uses agricultural waste held together in a packaging of mycelium, or mushroom roots. It is highly biodegradable and environmentally friendly. Ikea has already begun using mushroom packaging in place of Styrofoam packaging.

Related to mushroom packaging, other organic fibers, such as hemp, flax, recycled cotton, and palm, banana, and pineapple leaves have been used to replace plastic bags and containers. These materials are biodegrade in one hundred days and are considered to be incredibly eco-friendly.

Sustainable design in packaging

Sustainable design in packaging refers to the designing of a product package with the purpose of increasing its usefulness and, in doing so, reducing the possible harm of a packaging to an environment. This can be achieved using recycled material, or any of the other above examples, but more importantly can be achieved by designing a packaging with a secondary purpose in mind.

For example, clothing retailer H&M offered a shopping bag which could be folded into a clothes hanger. These bags were already made from less material than traditional shopping bags offered by the retailer, and were made of 80 percent recycled paper. However, by offering a secondary use for the bag, and increasing the sustainable design, the company was able to further increase the brand loyalty amongst their audience, which is predominantly people between eighteen and thirty-five.

Sustainable design can also include the design of a package that uses less material. Also known as value engineering, the process of redesigning packaging in order to reduce the amount of material used can increase not only the sustainability of the packaging, but can also save the manufacturer money, which in turn can be passed on to a consumer. This can allow a company to market their products both as sustainable, or eco-friendly, in their packaging, and also allows those products to compete in price.

Sustainable packaging companies


Further reading


9 Sustainable Packaging Strategies You Need to Try


May 1, 2020

The drive toward sustainability in packaging--beyond the quick wins

Peter Berg, David Feber, Anna Granskog, Daniel Nordigården, Suku Ponkshe


January 30, 2020

What is Eco-Friendly Packaging? (And Why It's Important for Your Sales) - Rooland


November 14, 2019

What Is Green Packaging | Benefits of Using Green Packaging


September 30, 2019

Documentaries, videos and podcasts



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