Rising demand for eco-friendly and environmentally ethical businesses demonstrates a major shift in the market towards conscious consumerism. Terms like eco-friendly, green, and sustainable may seem appealing, but realistically mean nothing without full transparency. In turn, “sustainability” has become a major buzzword in recent years— but what does that actually mean?
The truth is, it depends. True sustainability varies based on the industry and application. In a general sense, the UN has defined it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Environmental sustainability is a major pillar for sustainable packaging, and there are a ton of aspects to consider: material type, place of origin/production, transportation methods, end-of-life care— the list goes on.
Consumer goods, especially beauty products, are overwhelmingly packaged in plastic: the bottle itself, the pump that dispenses it, the tamper film that seals it, and even the bubble wrap that protects it on its way to the buyer’s doorstep. Unfortunately, these plastics often aren’t recyclable. And if they are, the average consumer may not have access to the recycling infrastructure needed for proper disposal, or just might not know how to properly dispose of it in the first place due to confusing labels.
Sourcing packaging that’s better for the environment doesn’t just mean to eliminate plastic altogether— at least not immediately. Brands must consider costs, logistics, and availability, which can be a major headache, especially if they’re new to the space. Plus, switching to better materials (e.g. from a plastic bottle to an aluminum bottle) isn’t the only option to make products more sustainable.
Before diving into the ins-and-outs of packaging, read through the list of terms most commonly used in the industry.
Refers to materials that are made in whole or partially from renewable biological resources, such as sugarcane, bamboo, wheat straw, etc. Often used to denote non-petroleum derived plastic (also known as “bioplastic”).
“Bio-based” can be confusing; because the material is derived from organic origins, it’s often assumed that any bioplastic is automatically biodegradable or compostable— which isn’t necessarily true.
However, bio-based plastics don’t rely on fossil fuels, which makes them a better plastic alternative to their synthetic counterparts derived from crude oil, natural gas, or coal.
Refers to substances that can be broken down naturally by organisms in an ecosystem.
Don’t confuse “biodegradable” with “compostable,” though. Biodegradable packaging can be made from a combination of plant-based materials and other synthetic substances that eventually break down into benign matter.
This is a tricky term; technically, everything is biodegradable. What’s important to consider is the type of conditions and how much time it takes for something to degrade— and realistically speaking, plastic isn’t really biodegradable under these considerations. In fact, in California, making degradable claims for items that do not completely decompose within a year after disposal is considered deceptive and illegal, according to the FTC’s Green Guides (§ 260.8 Degradable claims).
Refers to materials in their end-of-life stage that go back into the supply chain instead of a landfill.
For example, aluminum is known as a circular material: aluminum soda cans are cleaned and recycled to make new soda cans. Circularity is key to sustainability, as less resources are used to make new products.
Indicates that the material can be placed in a home or industrial compost bin to decompose into nutrient-rich soil within a certain period of time.
Unlike biodegradable materials, compostable materials refer exclusively to organic elements. In short, all compostables are biodegradable, but not all biodegradables are compostable.
Refers to items that can be discarded in a standard curbside recycling bin, which is then picked up by a waste collection service and sorted at a facility.
Each facility has different guidelines for what is considered curbside recyclable, so it’s important to stay informed on your local facility. Paper/cardboard, glass, and metals are generally recyclable at most facilities. Plastics are trickier, and it takes some understanding of their classification system to understand how to recycle them.
Refers to items that are recycled in a way that the resulting product is of lower value than the original item. Many plastic items are downcycled, because plastic loses its quality over time.
For example, old clothes can be cut up and downcycled into stuffing for a pillow. Or at a larger scale, some plastic water bottles are downcycled into fiber and wood replacements rather than new bottles.
Refers to items that can be discarded at designated recycling facilities, often made from mixed materials or other hard-to-recycle items. Drop-off programs are highly variable by location.
One common example is e-waste collection events. Special equipment is needed to separate and properly dispose of the myriad of materials that are used to make computers and other electronic items, which is why they can’t be thrown into curbside bins that go to general facilities. There are numerous other drop-off programs available in the US, like ones for plastic grocery bags.
Another word for raw or unprocessed material.
In packaging, a plastic bottle’s feedstock may be PP, PET, or another type of plastic. A typical soda can’s feedstock is aluminum.
Refers to the amount of time that passes from the start to end of a process; when placing an order for packaging, this means from the time of order placed to the time of getting the product in-hand.
For example, to get a sample of a plastic bottle, the supplier provides a lead time of 7 days. If the brand wants decoration on the bottle, like a screen-printed logo, that may increase the lead time to 10 days.
It can be difficult and sometimes frustrating to incorporate lead times in your launch, especially when vetting different packaging and ingredient suppliers. Knowing lead times is crucial in the product development process, as they can make or break a brand’s product launch timeline. It’s important to work with trusted suppliers that properly communicate timelines, particularly when it comes to delays.
Lightweight products are designed to be a more efficient version of a particular package, where the end result is a lighter version of the original product. This allows for reduced package mass during transportation, helping decrease emissions across the distribution chain.
Refers to plastics that are less than 5mm in size.
Ever seen sun-exposed plastic that looks chalky and brittle? UV exposure degrades plastic, causing it to break and flake into smaller pieces. Microplastics can come from other non-brittle sources too, such as the dust that comes off of polyester fabric used in clothes.
Microplastics are everywhere: in our waterways, oceans, and even food– which is why it’s important to take steps to minimize our use of plastic in all areas of our lives, especially at a systemic level.
Refers to items made from a single type of material or feedstock.
Because they only consist of a single type of material, monomaterial packaging is typically easier to recycle than products made from different materials, especially if they’re fused together.
Stands for minimum order quantity, which is the fewest number of units that a customer can buy at once from a particular seller.
MOQs are a significant factor of packaging selection. For more innovative and sustainable products, lower MOQs (and thus lower cost) can sometimes be hard to find. Thankfully, most suppliers offer price breaks at higher quantities. So before placing an order, it’s important to sample the packaging to see that it fits everything your formula or product needs.
Stands for materials recovery facility or materials recycling facility.
MRFs separate and prepare recycling materials to be sold to end buyers. What can and can't be recycled at each facility varies by location, which is why it's important to stay informed on what your own local municipality accepts.
Stands for Post Consumer Recycled materials, which are made from items that consumers recycle everyday: aluminum cans, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, and others. Using PCR materials limits excess pollution and wasted resources, while manufacturers are able to still produce viable, durable packaging products.
PCR content is typically expressed in a percentage (e.g. 75% PCR) by weight. There isn’t an exact methodology from the packaging industry to determine this percentage, nor a compliance tracking tool that can measure its accuracy— however, it’s a “best practice” that’s generally agreed upon by those in the industry.
Stands for Post Industrial Recycled materials, which are made from leftover or scrap materials produced during the manufacturing process. PIR scrap is cleaned and molded to form new containers, preventing it from reaching our landfills and becoming waste.
Refers to packaging designed to be used multiple times, negating the need to dispose of it.
Refers to items that are recycled in a way that the resulting product is of higher value than the original item. Upcycled materials are materials diverted away from the waste or pollution stream and repurposed to create a new product.
For example, plastic collected from the ocean can be upcycled, used to make plastic eyeshadow palettes.
When considering options for sustainable packaging, every level matters– even the levels that the regular consumer doesn’t come into contact with. So, what kind of planet-friendly opportunities are available for each level of packaging?
Primary packaging is designed to hold a product, protecting and preserving the formulation from contamination or oxidization. Also known as consumer or retail packaging, this is the central piece of packaging that customers interact with in order to use a product.
Some examples of primary packaging include jars, bottles, and tubes, as well as their lids, caps, and pumps. Any tamper seals, like plastic films, safety tabs, or stickers that protect the product when it’s first opened are also part of this first packaging tier.
Many design factors go into primary packaging: material type, aesthetics, functionality, accessibility, and others. This tier is often the main focus for most brands and retailers, because primary components present the most challenges in terms of sustainability.
Secondary packaging is designed to safely move product so it’s ready to be shipped and sold. Also known as shelf-ready packaging, it organizes and groups individual units to simplify transportation from the manufacturer to a retailer’s shelves. It must be durable enough to protect the individual units from damage during travel, and should be easy to unpack and sell in-store or online.
The most common forms of secondary packaging include boxes and cartons, or void fills like cardboard inserts and tissue paper. Unlike primary packaging, secondary packaging does not immediately change the quality of the product when it’s removed.
This area is an opportunity for brands to scale their commitment to sustainability across the supply chain. Some brands are moving away from using virgin fibers and opting for recycled cartons, boxes, and box inserts. Others adopt different strategies, such as reducing and eventually eliminating secondary packaging altogether.
Tertiary packaging is designed to protect any secondary packaging as it ships, and is most commonly found in warehouses. This packaging can range from pallets, plastic wrap that secures stacks, and corrugated pads.
It’s a tier that consumers don’t come into contact with, because it’s strictly about utility. However, changes to this tier greatly reflect a company’s overall commitment to sustainability, playing a part in building out a traceable supply chain.
Familiar with the number enclosed in a chasing arrows triangle at the bottom of some plastic packaging components? These symbols are known as the Resin Identification Code (RIC), which was developed in 1988 by the US Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). This system was not designed as a consumer-facing educational tool. Rather, SPI created the numeric system to make plastic manufacturing and recycled plastics reprocessing easier.
Plastics with RICs aren’t automatically recyclable, either (even with the chasing arrows!). Each number (from 1 to 7) classifies what type of plastic the item is made from, which is why it’s important to understand each category for proper disposal.
Note that recycling capabilities are highly varied. What’s considered curbside recyclable in one municipality may not be in another. Additionally, there are a few general conditions that a plastic must meet in order to be recycled:
With these general guidelines in mind, let’s dive into each category!
Polyethylene terephthalate is a highly durable material and can be recycled without losing consistency. PET has a wide range of applications: shampoo and conditioner bottles, hand soap bottles, soft drink bottles, and more.
Of all plastic types, PET is one of the best options for two primary reasons: first, most recycling and/or waste management facilities in the US accommodate #1 plastics. Second, PET is widely available in PCR, or post-consumer recycled materials.
High-density polyethylene has high durability and can also be recycled repeatedly without losing its consistency. Some common applications of HDPE include hair care products, cleaning supplies, and milk jugs.
Like PET, HDPE is accepted by most recycling facilities across the US. The same conditions apply for HDPE to be recycled:
Polyvinyl chloride is most commonly used for pipes, wiring insulation, inflatable tubes, and credit cards.
While highly durable, PVC takes an extremely long time to break down and is thus generally not recyclable. If it is recycled, it must be downcycled, which means that the resulting product is of lower value and/or quality than the original material.
Low-density polyethylene is a highly pliable and flexible plastic. Some common examples of LDPE use include food cling wrap, squeezable bottles, and plastic tamper seals.
Unlike its cousin HDPE, it is unlikely to be recycled in most curbside programs, because they can clog up sorting machines. Facilities that accept #4 plastics are often isolated and not widely accessible, but they’re becoming increasingly common. For example, some grocery stores offer drop-off programs for their disposable grocery bags.
It isn’t all black-and-white— in fact, more brands are choosing flexible pouches for their sustainability needs.
Polypropylene is semi-rigid and used in a wide variety of applications: plastic food containers, water bottles, medical components, toys, and more.
PP is a bit of a Catch-22. While it’s highly recyclable and should have a lower environmental impact, it’s often mixed with other materials, making it hard to recycle. Plus, the manufacturing process produces runoff, and the greywater can cause significant environmental harm.
While large-scale curbside recycling infrastructure for #5 plastic is small, it’s slowly growing. Better PP options are becoming more widely available as well. So when it comes to choosing PP, it’s best to go for a mono-material component when choosing PP— even better if it’s PCR.
Polystyrene is one of the most environmentally harmful plastic types. It is not recyclable and has an intensive manufacturing process.
PS is most commonly used for plastic cutlery, medical tubes, and styrofoam materials. Its brittle nature means that it breaks down and “flakes” into microplastic very quickly, which ends up in waterways and eventually the ocean, where it causes extreme harm to marine wildlife.
This category is a “catch-all” for all other plastics, including mixed-material types.
Plastic tubes, like the ones used for toothpaste and other beauty products, is a common example of a mixed-material #7 plastic. Multiple layers are often fused together to create the component, which makes it impossible to recycle— whether it’s curbside or at a drop-off location.
The super durable and lightweight polycarbonate, which is used for things like eyeglass lenses and some reusable water bottles, also falls into this category. Unfortunately, polycarbonates are often manufactured with BPA (Bisphenol A), a toxic chemical that has been shown to break down and leach into liquids. Ingesting BPA can throw off the endocrine system, which leads to a wide range of serious health problems including prostate and breast cancer, miscarriage, infertility, and other endocrine disorders.
Is it easy for brands to switch to a more recyclable material? It truly depends. “Harmful” plastics are often cheaper, so making the switch is a cost transition as well as a sustainability shift. Plus, compatibility testing needs to be done to make sure the formulation can be safely held in the container chosen. This is why one of the first questions a packaging supplier will ask is, “What is the product being formulated?”
Sampling better components is the first step in committing to sustainability. And good news: as more retailers are now requiring brands to shift their packaging to be curbside recyclable, the cost of such components should go down.
Packaging holds and protects a product, but it also plays a key storytelling role for a brand. Design choices in packaging can affect how a product travels from the manufacturer to a consumer’s bathroom shelf, as well as deliver an experience to its user.
Building a product with the goal of maximizing sustainability and recyclability requires brands to make many considerations during the product design process. Feedstock material and component size greatly impact the end-of-life streams for products, but even if all of the right decisions are made from a design perspective, the product’s decoration can ultimately render it completely unrecyclable.
Deco encompasses many aspects of packaging, including color, labels, inks, metallization, stamping, and more.
A few major retailers have already created their own packaging standards and RSLs (restricted substances lists)— even Amazon and Walmart.
Whether you’re developing products to adhere to these retailer policies, or just curious about how some retailers define sustainable packaging, we’ve compiled a list of some of their packaging guidelines below. Please note that these descriptions are summaries of larger requirements set by the retailers; to see a retailer’s more specific guidelines, please visit their website and/or contact them directly.
Credo’s SPG is outlined in four phases, of which the first two are actively in progress. As of June 2021, Credo has eliminated the use of single-use packaging for all products by their 130+ brand partners. Phase 2 calls for better materials, and the deadline to meet these requirements is June 1, 2024.
Grove Collaborative applies their packaging standards to all products on their site, and they strive to utilize the best available packaging solutions at the time.
Additionally, Grove Co. is currently working on a pilot initiative, Beyond Plastic, which aims to be 100% plastic-free by 2025. Here are its definitions, which incorporate some of the general standards listed above:
Lastly, Grove also offers a mail-back collection service for plastic packaging, pouches, and tubes. See more details in their FAQ.
Target’s sustainability strategy, Target Forward, incorporates packaging requirements that can be best summarized in three major points: eliminate/reduce where possible, drive a circular market, and encourage good habits. By 2025, Target intends to have 100% of their owned brand plastic packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable. On March 2022, Target announced their Target Zero program, which designates products that feature packaging under the specific guidelines.
Ulta Beauty’s Conscious Beauty policy provides guidelines for product formulations as well as packaging.
By 2025, all packaging must be:
Many retailers incorporate other third-party certifications in their own packaging standards; brands and suppliers may pursue these certifications as well, depending on the policy. While they can be costly, third-party policies can provide further credibility for any environmental claims made.
In addition to policies, there are numerous resources available for sourcing, disposal, and further education on packaging.
The Ancient Forest Friendly™ designation by Canopy represents “the highest ecological qualities in the paper industry.” Ancient Forest Friendly pulp and paper is free of ancient or endangered forest fiber, made with 100% recycled or straw paper, and is whitened without chlorine.
BPI is a science-driven organization that supports a shift to the circular economy by promoting the production, use, and appropriate end of lives for materials and products that are designed to fully biodegrade in specific biologically active environments.
Their certification mark indicates third-party verification of compostability for manufacturers and brands to use on products and packaging.
See Ecocert’s full list of certifications.
FSC certification ensures that products (usually paper, cardboard, wood, etc.) come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits. They own three registered trademarks:
How2Recycle (H2R) is a standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public.
Sourcing new components can be difficult, especially when it comes to verifying numerous claims. At Novi, our packaging experts will help you source, sample, and order verified components– whether you’re looking for something that’s compostable, curbside recyclable, 75% PCR, or more.
Pact is a nonprofit collective committed to action and education surrounding beauty recycling. They offer in-store drop-off and mail back collection programs for hard-to-recycle beauty packaging, and share other information on packaging production, material claims, recycling rates, and more.
Additionally, Novi Connect has partnered with Pact to create our Sustainable Packaging Tool, where users can learn about the end-of-life implications about their packaging choices, as well as how to optimize for recyclability. (Note: Only accessible for Novi and Pact users/members.)
TUV Austria offers numerous certifications for compostable, biodegradable, and bio-based products, with TUV Austria Compostable being the most common. See their full list and details of certifications and labeling requirements.