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On Packaging - Part 1, Sustainability

Who has ever given product packaging a second thought? I didn’t use to. Most of my packages always come in plain brown boxes or drab grey bags, which get the job done, but are rather boring.

So now that you’re thinking about it, which would you rather receive in the mail? A fancy package with a bold design that gets you excited to open it as soon as you see it? With packaging that good, you can’t wait to see what’s inside. Or a plain grey bag, which could be either those batteries you ordered on Amazon or your new pair of pants? You open it (eventually), and ohhh yeah, it is those pants after all.

I’d rather have the fancy packaging, so that’s what I did for Waxwing Labs. And it turns out that there’s as much work that goes into packaging as there is for the product.

First of all, I wanted my packaging to be as sustainable as possible – I enjoy hiking and nature and the last thing I ever want to see is my packaging floating down a stream or worse, tangled up with a sea turtle. But, being sustainable is complicated. At first I thought I wanted a custom branded, tab-locking corrugated cardboard box, which would open up like a pizza box for a sophisticated reveal. A cardboard box is sustainable, right? Maybe.


Me being me, I go down the rabbit hole of what is truly “sustainable packaging”. Sometimes cardboard is sustainable – if the paper is sourced from trees that are sustainably harvested (products certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative are a good start). Even better if the cardboard is made of recycled paper. But then I started looking at shipping those boxes – from the packaging company, to me, and then to my customers. Cardboard boxes take up more space and are heavier than mailer bags, so they use up more resources to transport, like gasoline, which means they emit more greenhouse gases during transportation. Think of it this way – if you filled up one truck with only flat, empty plastic mailer bags, it would take at least two trucks of the same size to carry the equivalent number of flat, empty, cardboard boxes.

So, I eliminated boxes from my packaging options. I couldn’t justify using packaging that would needlessly take up more room and resources to transport, just for a fancy box. Mailer bags it was, then.

Mailer bags might be even more complicated than boxes, as far as figuring out their sustainability. There’s plastic mailer bags, which are the lightest and smallest to transport, and surprisingly don’t use too many resources to produce (once petroleum has been extracted, at least). If customers reused and recycled the plastic bags after receiving their product, that might not be a bad option. But, recycling plastic bags takes effort – you have to take the extra trip to a plastic bag recycling receptacle, usually at a grocery store. Which means you also have to remember to take your plastic bags with you to the grocery store. Which means, if you’re like me, you forget all the time, end up with a hoard of plastic bags, and then have to face the shame of shoving all those bags into the bin in front of the grocery store... That might not be a good option after all.


With a little more research, I found that there are plastic bags that are biodegradable – intriguing. These bags are usually made of cornstarch, which sounds on the surface to be completely eco-friendly. Ah, but there’s always a catch – is it ethical to use corn in packaging, instead of feeding the hungry? Maybe it’s made with corn that would never make it into the food industry, but then the question is, shouldn’t we focus our farming resources to be more efficient to feed the world, instead of perpetuating a throw-away culture? On top of this ethical dilemma, many biodegradable plastic bags still use petroleum, so they’re still really not that “green”. To make matters worse, biodegradable plastic bags absolutely cannot be recycled, and if they accidentally were to be recycled, they would mess up and contaminate the recycling stream.


Ok, deeper I go. I find a start-up packaging company in Australia that offers biodegradable bags made of limestone quarry waste – no ethical food dilemma, no petroleum. Perfect. I even ordered a sample, and on top of being durable and sustainable, they had a neat texture that almost felt like rubber. It was different from the texture of plastic bags, in a good way. I liked the idea that my packaging could be a tactile experience in addition to a visual one. But there’s that catch again – their branding minimum order was out of reach for me, which meant I would have to use their standard bags, which were covered in their company’s own branding. I’m not opposed to this for personal use, but when you’re a new company just starting out, you don’t want to serve as a billboard for a different company, even if you do admire what they’re doing. It’s confusing for the customer – they thought they ordered from Waxwing Labs, so why would they get their pants in a package from “Other Company XYZ”?

 Well, how about kraft paper mailer bags? They have all the benefits of the recycled cardboard boxes, but are lighter and thinner, which means that they would use less in transportation resources. Kraft mailers are still not as light and thin as plastic mailers, but they are easier to recycle and will eventually biodegrade. There’s still a caveat to this, though – if packaging is going to make its way into a landfill, it’s actually better for it to be as small as possible and to not biodegrade, because this process releases methane, a greenhouse gas. If you look at it this way, plastic mailer bags are looking better again.


Now I’m left with pretty much one option – reusable mailer bags. This is an interesting concept: a third party packaging company supplies heavy-duty plastic bags (made of a material similar to a plastic tarp) to a retailer. The retailer ships their product in the bags to the customer, and then the customer can bring the bag to a drop-off location. The bag is sent back to the third party packaging company, and is then redistributed to the retailers again. It’s a circular system, but it only works if the customer returns the bag. If not, these bags are the worst option as they use the most resources to produce than any other type of bag, and are the bulkiest to transport.

By now it’s clear that there is no easy answer to what packaging is the most sustainable. They all have their pros and cons, and what may work for some companies and customers does not necessarily work for all. After weighing the options, I eventually landed on using the kraft paper mailers – they don’t use transportation resources in excess like boxes; they’re easy for customers to recycle, reuse, or compost at home; they use sustainable raw materials (if SFI certified or recycled); and if improperly disposed of, won’t cause too much harm to the environment other than a bit of methane in landfills (that’s better than tangling up sea turtles, right? Maybe??).


All in all, if I learned one thing through this process, it’s that the more times you can use an item, the less its environmental impact – and when an item has reached the end of it’s life, dispose of it properly!

Now, choosing the packaging material is finally done, but that was just Step 1 - there’s still the branding to do and supplier to find! While you’re eagerly awaiting Part 2 of the packaging saga, enjoy the below resources that I used to learn more about sustainable packaging: