Sustainability is becoming more and more important. Everyone should try to make better consumption choices to avoid climate and waste problems in the long term. Sustainable packaging is an important aspect of sustainability in the broader sense as we understand it. A few examples could be, reducing the total amount of material used for packaging, using biodegradable and compostable resources for packaging, or by reusing it. There are multiple methods to package your products sustainably, but which category of waste management achieves the most?

7 Zero Waste Steps

We have sorted the different methods of waste management in the 7 categories shown above. This philosophy of waste management is called “Zero Waste Hierarchy.” Shown above is one of the many variants you can find online about this philosophy. Every category will be explained and will have examples of businesses and products that use it. I’ll also give examples of innovations that are being used for each category.

The 7 methods of waste management

1. Refuse & Rethink; is the packaging necessary?

Refuse & Rethink is a method of waste management which mostly questions the need of packaging. Packaging is important to guarantee the products quality and to use it as a marketing tool to transmit information. Of course it makes sense to package fluid, crumbly and breakable products since they’re hard to keep together otherwise.

Besides these there are also a lot of products where packaging is barely needed. Most fruits and vegetables for example already have a natural layer of protection. Bananas and avocados in particular are a good example of this. Shown below is an example of what you absolutely should not do. The refuse & rethink method has obviously not been used by Calavo. The entire packaging could have been avoided if the avocado was kept in its natural shell, like how every other brand does it.

Packacado Source

So basically there are often situations where packaging is invented, where it was in reality completely unnecessary. In the long run the most sustainable thing you can do is to only use packaging when absolutely necessary.

2. Resource: are better materials possible?

Resource is about the use of more sustainable materials. There are sustainable alternatives for a lot of standard packaging materials. Standard plastic can be replaced by biodegradable plastic. It can also be replaced by innovative new materials, like Scoby leather. The Polish company MakeGrowLab is one of the first businesses to use Scoby leather for packaging.

Makegrowlab packaging Source

Scoby leather is a material made from the waste left from fermentation. In the fermentation of kombucha or vinegar a thick layer of bacteria is created, called the Scoby. This can then be dried which results in a strong plastic-like material which can also be printed on with ink. Since this is still a really new material, it’s difficult for companies to use it reliably for their packaging. That’s why you won’t see it often, for now.

Besides these unique materials, there are also sustainable recyclable and recycled materials you can use. Materials that have gone through the process of recycling once and which are also recyclable are great options for packaging. The only downside of recycled materials is that they contain more impurities than completely new materials.

The last practical option in the resource category is making use of mono-materials (the use of 1 single type of material in packaging). It’s a simple but worthwhile option. These days packages often use multiple types of materials at the same time, this makes the barriers between product and atmosphere better, but decreases recyclability. That is why mono-materials are useful, as they keep the packaging recyclable. Shown below is the difference between multilayer and mono-material packaging.

Layer vs monomaterial Source

3. Reuse; why make new packaging?

In my opinion reusing is the most sustainable method of waste management. By reusing materials, you won’t have to waste anything. And because of that, you also won’t have to use any new materials. Typical reuse packaging is made out of strong materials that can endure longer usage. Examples of these materials are glass, metal, and corrugated cardboard.

Pieter pot flessen en potten

Pieter Pot is an online supermarket which solely uses reusable packaging. Everything the supermarket sells is packaged in glass jars and bottles. These glass jars and bottles can then be returned to the person that delivers the products. When returning the glass packaging, you get a small amount of money in return. This money ends up in your Pieter Pot account which you can then use again for new products.

Pieter Pot is the ultimate example of reusable packaging. They create no waste in the form of packaging materials, only water, electricity and sometimes fuel. The water is used to clean the glass jars and bottles after use. The electricity is needed for the electric trucks for delivery, and sometimes fuel is required if only normal trucks are available.

4. Reduce; material required, time to reduce

Reduce is less sustainable than the other categories, because here the waste problem is not eliminated, merely lowered. The idea of reducing is just lowering the amount of material per package. This can be done by lowering the amount of lost space within your packaging. The impact of reduce is often hard to see, as shown in the image below.

Reduced tyrrells bag Normal tyrrells bag Source

The packaging on the left uses less material than the packaging on the right. The difference is very hard to spot, but it still has quite some impact. They save 25% of material in their packaging compared to normal, this consists mostly of plastic. By lowering the material usage they can save 113,000 kilos of plastic per year.

Reduce is hard to spot but can have quite an impact in reality. As they say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

5. Recycle; reusing, but in a different way

Everyone knows this category; it’s often talked about. But is it really the most sustainable option? Recycling is really useful to keep materials in circulation and to keep them from going to waste. However, you can’t recycle materials infinitely. You can see this in paper and cardboard. Paper and cardboard consists of wood fibers. Every time they are recycled, the fibers become shorter. This causes them to be unusable after recycling them about 4-7 times.

Recycle symbol

It is also the only category in this blog with an internationally recognized logo. It is definitely not a bad category, especially if you think about the recyclability of metal. In my article from October 2022 I talked in depth about the recycling process of metals. In short, the magnetic properties of metals makes them incredible easy to sort out of waste streams. This makes them nearly 100% recyclable.

The weaknesses of recycling are mostly caused by laminates (the usage of multiple materials on top of each other, as shown in the Resource category), varied recycling processes and the recycling limit of some materials. Recyclability also depends a lot on whether the recycling process has been standardized in countries and regions.

6. Recover; creating energy and ash

Recover is one of the worst methods of waste management. It’s basically the incineration of materials which then results in electricity. The advantages of the incinerator are the steel, aluminum, ash, and electricity that remain after the process. But the incinerator does create chemical gasses which can in turn influence the atmosphere. Shown below is the lifecycle of the remaining ash in the Netherlands.

Bodemas uitleg overheid Source

The ash is used as material in roads, elevations, sound- and sight walls at highways and support- and cover layers at dumps. It is mostly used as a building material, but when applied in a bad way, it can negatively affect you and the environment. This is because ash from the incinerator contains dangerous chemicals.

7. Dispose; the final and worst category

Dispose is by far the worst and most polluting category of waste management. This category is mostly about dumps, where materials can wither away for literally thousands of years. It is always useful and necessary for businesses and people to make sure that your product’s packaging doesn’t end up in dumps.

You can do this by contacting professionals about your packaging at KIDV (Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging). You can also use the many tools available at the KIDV website, like the recycle check. By using tools like these you can come to know what happens to your packaging after the consumer throws it away, and how you can improve the life cycle of your packaging.

How can you take part?

Obviously a lot of these categories are mostly the responsibility of businesses and brands. They choose which materials, which products and which types of transport will be used to profit. Some businesses take more pride in sustainability than others, which reflects in their chosen category for waste management.

But what can you personally do to improve the waste management of packaging? Even as an individual, you can have quite some influence on what businesses do. If a product does not sell well, it will be obvious that change is needed. This is where your influence lies.

When possible, make sure that the products you buy contain no unnecessary packaging. For example, make sure that your fruit and vegetables use no or barely any packaging (refuse & rethink). Try to make more use of reusable packaging. Buying your groceries at Pieter Pot instead of traditional supermarkets can make this quite easy (reuse).

Pieter pot vs appie

But sometimes packaging is just necessary. If packaging is required, try to buy products packaged with more sustainable materials. Try to avoid laminated packaging as much as possible and buy packaging made of mono-materials (resource). This keeps the packaging well recyclable and avoids it landing in incinerators or dumps.

You can also buy products with certificates that show that the packaging is sustainable. If you choose to do this, make sure the certificates are official (in my blog from October 2022 I gave some tips on how to avoid fake certificates.) Therefore even for a product like tea for which lamination or sealed plastic packaging is required to guarantee the quality, a reduction in amount of material to make the packaging ist the best option.

Conclusion

  1. What methods are there for packaging and waste management? There are 7 methods of waste management. These are rethink, resource, re-use, reduce, recycle, recover, and dispose. These are often placed in different orders by people in terms of sustainability since there isn’t a clear answer to our sustainability problems yet.

  2. Is packaging necessary? Sometimes packaging is not required for your products. Think twice before applying packaging to your products to avoid unnecessary waste of materials. Avocados and bananas for example do not require packaging, other loose, liquid or crumbly products do of course.

  3. What is Scoby leather? Scoby leather is a fairly new packaging material made by drying the Scoby in the process of fermentation. A Scoby is a thick layer of bacteria and carbohydrates which is made when fermenting kombucha and vinegar. Right now Scoby is mostly seen as a waste product, but some scientists at MakeGrowLab have made a plastic-like packaging material from it.

  4. What is mono material? Mono material is the usage of a single type and variant of packaging material, which in turn makes recycling a lot easier. Most packaging these days is made out of multiple layers of different materials. This increases the shelf life of the product within but makes the recycling process difficult.

  5. Why should I re-use? Re-using is the most sustainable type of waste management. By doing so no new packaging materials are required and no materials go to waste. Some companies have taken this principle to new heights, like Pieter Pot. Pieter Pot is an online supermarket which makes use of solely re- usable packaging.

  6. What is bad for recycling? Laminates, the usage of multiple layers of different materials in packaging, makes recycling awfully difficult. This is mostly due to laminates being nearly inseparable after creation. Food scraps are also very unwelcome in recycling. If you want to recycle materials, make sure they are fairly clean.

  7. How can I avoid having my product’s packaging incinerated or dumped? There are multiple ways to avoid incineration and dumping of your packaging. Make sure the entirety of the packaging is necessary, if not, rethink the packaging concept. Make sure the packaging is made of sustainable materials and not of multiple types of materials. You can also go to the KIDV website and use one of many tools, like the recycle check (https://kidv.nl/recyclecheck).