If you’ve been paying attention, you already know the tune: The plastic recycling system is broken. But when we try to face the music, cutting ties with plastic can be expensive and complicated.

Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce costs while offering a unique and sustainable unboxing experience.

Replace Styrofoam

There’s no doubt that styrofoam—also known as polystyrene—is cheap, light, and remarkably effective. It allows us to ship large electronics like televisions, microwaves, and computers without worrying about damage. However, out of all plastic, here in the U.S. it’s rarely recycled.

According to the EPA, in 2018 plastic producers manufactured roughly 80 thousand tons of polystyrene. How much of that was recycled? Only 0.9%. That means that 75 thousand tons of toxic polystyrene was sent to landfills, burned, or ended up in waterways. And the polystyrene recycling rate hasn’t improved by much over the past four years.

Many countries, states, and local municipalities are banning polystyrene. Enforcement is difficult though, and industries have become dependent on the material. Thankfully, reliable eco-friendly options are becoming more popular as exciting new materials come to market.

Corrugated Cardboard

If you’ve spent more than 2 minutes on this blog, you’re well aware of cardboard’s versatility. It’s cheap, strong, sustainable, and very recyclable. As a structural support system, corrugated cardboard can provide just as much protection as polystyrene. Structural engineers at experienced packaging companies can design innovative cardboard dielines unique to the product. And cardboard is fully customizable, perfect for artwork and branding inside the box.

Molded Pulp

Like corrugated cardboard, molded pulp provides excellent protection using just water and paper. It can be rough or smooth, natural or dyed, and thrown right into single stream recycling with other paper products. Molded pulp is usually engineered specifically for the product, adding a premium look and feel. Keep in mind that molded pulp is more affordable at higher quantities, but once you spend the money to produce the molds, the per-unit-cost is small compared to the customer experience.

Mushroom Foam

molded pulp made from mushrooms
Mushroom foam looks and functions just like traditional paper molded pulp.

Mycelium-based molded pulp is growing (in a controlled environment) and in popularity. Developed by Evocative, Mushroom Packaging is comprised of hemp hurds and mycelium, the same fungal threads that grow beneath the Earth. The process is simple. Evocative makes a CNC negative mold, and then plants the hemp hurds and mycelium into a thermoformed positive mold. Seven days later the mushroom tray is fully grown. When customers are done with the packaging, they can add it to soil for composting. In 2020, Ikea announced that they would replace all polystyrene packaging with mycelium-based molded pulp.

For additional options, check out our post on eco-friendly bubble wrap alternatives.

Protect Delicate Surfaces with PLA Film

pla film manufacturing plant
PLA biofilm protects just like plastic film, but naturally breaks down in landfills.

When building a packaging strategy, brands need to consider every step of the logistics process. Items like electronics and beauty products may have smooth surfaces that are susceptible to scratches. Interior packaging could rub against the surface, resulting in damaged goods. Solutions include smooth plastic trays and shrink-wrapping the product in plastic. Clear plastic film is now made using PLA, a biodegradable corn-based plastic.  

Seal the Package with Kraft Paper Packing Tape

sealing boxes with kraft paper tape
Kraft paper tape is widely available and costs about the same price as plastic packing tape.

While plastic tape still dominates the market, kraft paper tape gets the job done without gumming up the recycling system. Even major corporations like Amazon have transitioned to kraft paper tape. Plus, it offers another surface for custom branding. Print patterns, graphics, or brand logos to further transform packaging into a work of art.

Find the Hidden Plastic

furniture packaging with plastic bags holding screws
Replace plastic bags with bioplastic or paper.

You’ve probably opened a beautifully designed, sustainable package only to find a bunch of small plastic bags or black plastic ties. Sometimes brands will spend considerable time and money on good design, but skip the details related to fulfillment. Or it may come down to a cost issue. Purchasing thousands of zip ties in bulk saves money compared to investing in a fully sustainable strategy.

We suggest reviewing your packaging plan from top to bottom, identifying the hidden plastic and seeing what’s replaceable. Just a few options to get you started:

Create Refillable Packaging

When you can’t find any more plastic in your shipper, turn to your product package. Or build a plastic-free business model. Cleaning products brands like Blueland and Neat stick to their sustainable roots with refillable containers. Instead of buying a new plastic bottle each time customers run out, Blueland and Neat send plastic-free concentrated refills. Customers mix the concentrate and water in the original bottle.

Completely eliminating plastic from a packaging strategy may seem like an insurmountable task, but it doesn’t have to be. Replace a single plastic item with an eco-friendly alternative, and you’re already headed in the right direction.

If you want to know more about Zenpack’s services


Let our packaging consultants help you turn your idea into reality.

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