The Sustainable Office – Part 5: Packaging

If you look at the waste in your office’s trash bin, I would bet the vast majority of it, aside from paper, is packaging: disposable coffee cups, yogurt containers, single serving food wrapping, cardboard boxes, etc. A friend of mine once spent a year in Africa, and when he came back the first thing he noticed was how much waste we generate in America. The big difference, he said, was that the people in the village where he was staying did not buy anything that came in packaging. In general, they grew their own food and bought nothing at all, so the only waste they had was food waste.

Packaging can be anything from palettes, boxes, and packing peanuts used in transporting products to water bottles, candy wrappers, and toy boxes. Among many other purposes, packaging is used to protect items from damage and contamination, to make dangerous substances child-resistant, and to aid in storing and stacking.

All the packaging-related waste we generate adds up and fills up our landfills and recycling centers. Fortunately there are some steps you can take to reduce the amount of packaging you use and the negative effects of that packaging.

1.Reduce the amount of packaging you consume

Buy in bulk: Buying in bulk means there are fewer single-serving sized items that each require their own packaging. To cut down on your employees’ consumption of disposable water bottles, provide a water cooler with reusable 5 gallon jugs in the office. For coffee and tea, instead of buying hundreds of individually-wrapped sugar servings, buy one large bag of sugar that can be shared.

Request less packaging from your suppliers: Ask your suppliers to use fewer boxes, less wrapping, less bubble wrap, or fewer packing peanuts. As long as the product gets to you safely, there is no reason to use more packaging.

Choose suppliers who make efforts to reduce packaging: You can reduce the impacts of your organization by ensuring that you are doing business with people who are on the same page as you. If your suppliers are not willing to help you reduce your environmental impacts, it may be time to find new suppliers.

2. Reduce the amount of packaging you use for your products

Sell in bulk: Just like buying in bulk, this reduces the amount of packaging necessary per unit of merchandise. If you sell chips, consider selling them in large, one pound bag instead of in little, single-serving bags.

Reduce packaging size and layers: Consider different styles of packaging for your products. Maybe you can get away with using a smaller container, less wrapping, or less padding.

3. Make your packaging reusable

Currently, all of the glasses in my apartment are either old Nutella containers or Dijon mustard containers. What better way to ensure that your packaging does not end up in landfills than to make it serve a useful purpose after the product is gone? Another pertinent and pressing question here is why do they sell mustard in wine glasses in France? I don’t know, but I like it.

4. Use sustainable materials

When you can’t reduce the amount of materials you use or make the packaging reusable, the next best option is to use materials that are less harmful to the environment. Consider using recyclable, compostable, or reusable materials to package your merchandise.

NatureWorks makes a compostable and recyclable plastic from sustainable feedstock-based cellulose. This is a good option over traditional oil-based plastics.

Instead of harmful styrafoam packing peanuts, biodegradable packing peanuts are becoming widespread. Another padding option that uses fewer resources and less harmful materials is air-filled bags.

5. Provide information on your packaging

If your product requires packaging and is not Smell the Glove by Spinal Tap, you might as well write something on it. Why not include instructions on how the consumer can recycle the packaging and the product? If you do this, you just may have consumers saying to themselves, « It’s like, how much more recyclable could this be? And the answer is none. None more recyclable. »

You could also include information about the environmental impacts of the product itself. Whitelines, for instance, provides the carbon dioxide emissions of each of their notebooks right on the cover. This educates the consumer, encouraging them to make more sustainable purchasing decisions and makes your practices more transparent, which is a good thing for consumer loyalty.

For more information check out these sources:

http://thisgreenlife.wordpress.com/2007/07/11/buying-to-cut-back-on-packaging/

http://www.actel.com/documents/GreenPib.pdf