The natural products industry has many great brands dedicated to sustainability and decreasing their carbon footprints. How they package their products helps demonstrate this commitment. While current options cannot eliminate waste entirely, they are continually improving and new technology is driving packaging to become greener and even compostable. This matters because as people have become more conscious of what they put in their bodies, they are also becoming more mindful of their environment and what’s ravaging it.

According to a 2015 report by Nielsen, sales of consumer brands demonstrating a commitment to sustainability grew more than 4% over the previous year (1). Compare this with just 1% growth from brands not demonstrating sustainability (1). For that matter, according to the study, 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands, up from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013 (1). Now, brands can be sustainable in a variety of ways that consumers find compelling. Often, brands will market themselves as organic or fair trade to get this across, but packaging also plays a fairly significant role in consumer purchasing decisions.

Nielsen polled 30,000 people from 60 different countries about what influenced their decisions to purchase a product. Forty-one percent of respondents said that environmentally friendly packaging played a role in their buying decisions.

Packaging MaterialsGlass.Glass is an oldie, but a goodie. For the most part, many have moved away from glass to plastic or cartons, but it is making a comeback of sorts, as more young people identify glass with quality and enjoy its artisanal aesthetic. “With the rise of local and ‘craft’ in nearly every beverage category, the desire for smaller format containers, and more focus on natural, simple luxury has given new attention to glass containers,” says Lynn Bragg, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, Arlington, VA. “To respond, glass manufacturers have become nimbler to quickly meet this emerging customer base of smaller, more local producers.”

More than style, however, consumers also feel secure about glass packaging. Citing a 2013 EcoFocus Survey, Bragg says 75% of consumers prefer glass because it best preserves the flavor of the beverage or food it contains. “On the store shelf, glass offers 360-degree product protection, and an inherently longer shelf life than any other packaging material,” she says.

Bragg adds that 53% of those same consumers preferred glass when asked about the health impacts of packaging. “Glass, unlike cans, requires no plastic liner that can interact with food or beverages to affect taste or product integrity,” Bragg explains. It is also the only form of packaging to receive GRAS status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

From a sustainability perspective, glass is also reliable. According to Bragg, glass is 100% and endlessly recyclable, made from inert and sustainable raw materials such as recycled glass, limestone, soda ash and silica sand, which are sourced from within North America, reducing energy demands and making a smaller carbon footprint. With recycling being a consistent part of people’s routines, as more glass enters the market, a good proportion of that will be recycled and returned to the shelves in a continuous loop. “On average, new glass bottles contain 33% recycled glass—with some made of 96% recycled glass,” explains Bragg.

Of course, because recycling relies on people and people can be unreliable, in the instance that litter occurs and should it reach waterways, its inert properties mean it won’t degrade, leach chemicals or interact negatively with the environment, unlike plastics.

Also, while glass may not be associated with portability as much as plastic or aluminum, it continues to improve, particularly its weight, which Bragg says has fallen 40% in the last 20 years.

Cartons.An increasingly popular form of packaging is the carton, no longer sequestered in the dairy aisle. This material has come a long way since the ubiquitous milk carton, giving consumers a highly portable, functional, renewable and aesthetically pleasing packaging solution. “The store shelf is the perfect opportunity for brands to tell consumers their story,” says Elisabeth Comere, director of environment and government affairs for Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada, Denton, TX. Echoing the Nielsen research stated earlier, she explains, “We’ve found that consumers often look to the package itself to learn about its environmental attributes, so we see brands taking this into consideration and using the package to communicate sustainability and other messages.”
We’ve found that consumers often look to the package itself to learn about its environmental attributes. — Elisabeth Comere, Tetra Pak
Cartons from manufacturers like Tetra Pak are particularly conducive to communicating this message. To start with, as a receptacle, it must protect the quality of the product it’s holding. Similar to what makes glass ideal (i.e., sans plastic liner), consumer-friendly cartons must provide “multiple layers of protection that block light, oxygen and other external contaminants that degrade product quality, eliminating the need for added preservatives,” says Comere. This makes it ideal for manufacturers packaging the product and consumers purchasing it.

For innovative package manufacturers, recyclable simply doesn’t cut it as the be all and end all of sustainability. That means changing the way one makes packaging materials. Plastics, for example, are petroleum-based. So while they are recyclable, they are not made from renewable resources, a more desirable feature as people attempt to pull away from fossil fuels. Cartons allow for the use of alternative materials such as wood fiber sourced from well-managed forests. The real challenge is to create packaging that is fully renewable, although Tetra Pak has managed to accomplish this with its Tetra Rex Bio-Based carton.

The package itself is made from traceable paperboard derived from Forest Stewardship Council-certified and controlled sources, while the low-density polyethylene used to make the laminate film coating on the carton and the neck opening, as well as the high-density polyethylene for the cap are derived from sugarcane. Plastics derived from biological sources like sugarcane are called bioplastics. The film, neck opening and cap have the highest OK biobased certification by Vincotte, meaning that they are made from more than 80% renewable raw materials.

Bioplastics.“New and leading-edge sustainable brands have moved beyond recyclable plastics, as recent innovations in bioplastics allow for compostable packaging that performs and functions competitively against petroleum-based plastic solutions,” says Richard Cohen, founder and president of Elevate Packaging, Inc. and Pure Labels, Chicago, IL. Bioplastics, derived from sources like sugarcane, wood cellulose and cornstarch are ideal because they are renewable and reduce carbon emissions by avoiding petroleum. Sugarcane polyethylene, for example, replaces more that 30% of petroleum that otherwise would be used to manufacture plastic and each metric ton produced avoids up to 2.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions (2).

While some bioplastics are compostable, you definitely should not be encouraging customers to toss just any bioplastic into their compost bin. Labels must be read correctly because many bioplastics are recyclable but not compostable, and compostable bioplastics are better suited for an industrial composting facility, not someone’s backyard. “Confirm the packaging is ‘Certified’ Compostable or at a minimum, the bioplastic composts according to ASTM D6400 or D6868,” advises Cohen. This can be a problem because what is otherwise a very positive step toward environmental sustainability becomes a setback by misunderstanding, illustrated by the misconceptions around biodegradability.

MisconceptionsBiodegradable ≠ compostable.“Many plastic packaging items marketed as ‘biodegradable’ plastics and oxo-biodegradable plastics do not biodegrade as expected and often leave behind persistent synthetic or toxic residue,” says Cohen. “As expected” are the key words here because for many uninformed consumers, the term “biodegradable” brings to mind the deterioration of an item into organic matter that can be reclaimed by the earth. That, however, is compostability, which the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) defines as a “material’s ability to successfully undergo a managed process that controls biological decomposition and transformation into a stabilized organic matter within a specified period of time” (3).

Petroleum-based plastics with biodegradability additives, unfortunately, do not decompose in this fashion. In its statement against biodegradability additives, SPC explained that while additives “are designed to fragment petroleum-based plastics into small pieces in order to make it sufficiently available to the microorganisms that perform biodegradation…their effects as microlitter can be detrimental” (3). Although it may reduce the volume of plastics that pollute the environment, the leftover fragments still impact the environment negatively. Think of the recent initiatives to remove microbeads from cosmetics because they get into waterways where they are ingested by marine life.

Additionally, litter on the ground is likely to migrate into waterways and many biodegradable additives are not designed to degrade in both terrestrial and marine environments. This is important to understand because the fear is that plastics marketed as biodegradable and categorized as “litter-friendly” will result in improper disposal. In fact, a 2006 study by the American Chemistry Council found that 80% of consumers believed that biodegradable plastics will fully decompose regardless of the environment (3). Therefore, any plastic, biodegradable or not, would be better-served recycled.WF

References1. Nielsen, “The Sustainability Imperative: New Insights on Consumer Expectations,” October 2015. 2. “Bio Plastics,”, accessed Aug., 25, 2016. 3. Sustainable Packaging Coalition, “The SPC Position against Biodegradability Additives for Petroleum-Based Plastics.”

Published in WholeFoods Magazine October 2016