What do you think of when you hear the phrase sustainable packaging? From new innovations in bio technologies, to cardboard six-pack rings designed to protect vulnerable wildlife, to tamales wrapped in corn husks, sustainable packaging comes in many forms, with our options seemingly increasing by the day.

A 2018 Nielsen survey found that 48 percent of consumers in the United States said that they were “likely to change what they buy to meet environmental standards.” The survey also found that “Millennial consumers have driven the shift—younger shoppers are more than twice as likely [than older shoppers] to make choices based on environmental impact.”

It is becoming increasingly important for companies to understand the impact their products have on the environment and how they can minimize this impact. Consumers are becoming more vocal about how important it is for companies to have a sustainability focus to the products that they generate and sell in the marketplace. More consumers, especially Millennials and Generation Z, are willing to switch to different brands based on a given company’s commitment to the environment. For these companies, then, it is clear that how sustainable your packaging is can have a direct impact, positively or negatively, on your brand loyalty.

In this article I’m going to look at what sustainable packaging is (and what it isn’t), as well as looking at some specific examples of sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging.

What is Sustainable Packaging?

Sustainable packaging is any packaging that provides a reduced environmental impact over using less sustainable options. While sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging are not considered to be one and the same, the use of sustainable materials in creating new packaging options is thought to have a positive impact on the environment.

With any sustainable packaging initiative, there are four key variables at play: cost, sustainability (recyclability, compostability, and reusability), performance (does this new, more sustainable packaging do the job of protecting and conserving the products it was designed to carry as effectively as previous, potentially less sustainable packaging options), and sortability (can this packaging be accurately sorted at its closest materials recovery facility (MRF), and is there an end-market for this material once it’s been recycled).

It is a challenge for companies to align all four simultaneously, which is why progress is relatively slow in this area, with many coffee shops still serving their hot drinks in waxed-paper cups, despite the recycling options for these cups being limited, for example.

Over the long term, companies are going to see the benefits of investing in sustainable packaging, both for themselves and for the planet. In the near-term, however, it may take policy approaches, such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which holds companies accountable for making hard-to-recycle containers, to incentivize the production and use of more environmentally responsible packaging.

What Types of Packaging is Recyclable?

In an article by my colleague Nick McCulloch on what makes something recyclable, Nick noted that almost anything is recyclable, so long as there is an end-buyer for it.

This is true, but when it comes to curbside recycling (that is, the recycling that you place out at your home address or place of work), there are a mixture of factors that can stop certain types of packaging from being recyclable:

  1. Can your local recycling processing centers accurately sort your packaging for recycling? This factor is of greater importance if you do single-stream recycling;
  2. Is the packaging large enough to not fall through the cracks at your local MRF?
  3. Does the packaging contain multiple materials, such as different types of plastics, paper, and even metals.
  4. If the packaging contains plastic film-type materials, or other flimsy plastic, these plastics likely cannot be recycled curbside.
  5. What color is the plastic? The sorting machines at MRFs typically cannot tell the difference between black plastics/cartons and paper.

Sustainable Packaging Examples

More and more companies are taking the additional time needed to design their packaging for recyclability so that the current recycling infrastructure can properly process these items and the raw material can be used to manufacture new products. This trend will continue to be successful but it takes diligence and collaboration from companies to follow industry guidelines and protocols to ensure their products can be recycled in the current infrastructure.

There are constantly new products being added to the marketplace, some of which haven’t been tested for recyclability. Very small sized items and multi-material packages (ones that contain plastic and metal, or different types of plastic in one package) can fall into this camp of being more difficult to recycle. We need to continue to have discussions from all recycling stakeholders on how these products impact the entire recycling supply chain.

Some good examples of sustainable packaging include:

Light-Weight Packaging

Over the years there has been a trend to conserve natural resources in product design by using less material overall to make those products.

This light weighting of packaging is a long-term gain both from an economic and environmental perspective. We’ve all had the experience of ordering an item online only for it to arrive in a box that is significantly larger than it needs to be to hold its contents; an experience that leaves us shaking our heads and wondering how such a wasteful mistake could have happened. While sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging needs to address a large number of issues, most notably the materials from which it is made, one area that shouldn’t be forgotten is the size of this packaging, and ensuring that it is sized proportionately to the items it is designed to hold.


Cardboard is one of the staple materials to recycle overall. It continues to be a material type that is consistently used in packaging different types of products that consumers and businesses order. Additionally, most locations across the United States generally have options and access to recycle cardboard which is an important component in recycling. Other material types have more challenges in offering ample access for recycling. Overall cardboard is a good packaging material, but this depends on what your definition of good would be. You would need to consider a full life cycle analysis of products and how they are disposed of to truly understand all of the impacts.

Evaluating the environmental costs and benefits of cardboard is more than how many times and where it can be recycled. You’d also have to look at its weight (the lighter it is, the less energy it takes to transport), how effectively it protects items. It’s not perfectly circular; it has to be amended every time it’s recycled. These are complex questions.

Inks and Dyes

Selected inks used for packaging require testing to make sure they are compatible with the current recycling process. Certain inks used in a label can potentially bleed or discolor the plastic during the recycling process which greatly impacts if the plastic can be used as a feedstock for making new products.

There has been a lot of work around testing protocols and selecting industry approved labels, inks, and adhesives that have already been tested and approved for the recycling process.

Labels, Closures, and Adhesives

Labels, closures, and adhesives used in a product can also impact the recyclability of an item. For example, some types of labels are unable to be liberated from the plastic during the wash cycle of the recycling process which causes the plastic to become contaminated and can’t be used as a raw material to make new products. As a result, these types of choices in the components of a product are very important. The physical label on a product can affect how the item is sorted at an MRF. For example, if a container has a label that covers most of the surface area of a product then it’s possible for the automatic sorters to read the label instead of the actual product. This means the items will be sorted incorrectly which can contaminate other loads of materials.

Reusable Containers

Returning to the reuse vs. recycling argument for a moment; if you’re looking for an alternative to the ubiquitous polystyrene (Styrofoam) takeout container, a material that while recyclable in large quantities, typically cannot be recycled curbside, consider bringing a reusable container with you whenever you pick up your takeout, or know there’s a good chance that you’ll have leftovers at your favorite restaurant.

There are alternatives to Styrofoam such as biodegradable packaging and different types of plastics, but those can pose their own challenges as well.


Packaging that is made from bio materials can typically be recycled or composted. Untreated paper and cardboard are natural biomaterials, but human innovations have stepped into to create biodegradable plastics, among other materials.

A common example of a bioplastic being used in packaging is plastics made from corn starch, which makes them perfect for food packaging, though it can be used across a wide range of packaging items. Biodegradable plastics, including biodegradable bubble wrap, is also in production.

As was touched upon in Rubicon’s inaugural environmental, social, and governance (ESG) report, environmental innovation in areas such as sustainable packaging helps companies to not only reduce their impact on the environment, it also increases customer loyalty, as individuals look to reward companies that are doing their part for the environment.

If you have any questions, or you are interested in learning more about Rubicon’s sustainability services, please contact us today.

Meredith Leahy is a Waste Diversion Manager at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.