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Top 5 Recyclable Materials Shaping E-Commerce Packaging in 2024

Feb. 7, 2024
As more customers demand sustainable e-commerce packaging, companies must adapt and find feasible solutions. Here are five to consider.

What you’ll learn:

  • Why e-commerce brands must strongly consider recyclable packaging
  • Which recyclable options will emerge as strong contenders in 2024

Getting orders through the mail is convenient. People can get what they need without leaving the house or scheduling store visits. However, the booming e-commerce industry generates tremendous amounts of waste. Many companies have introduced more sustainable e-commerce packaging, prioritizing recyclable or compostable options. Some suppliers help clients explore eco-friendly packaging for small business customers, too, allowing them to order smaller quantities to meet their needs.

Sustainable E-Commerce Packaging with Less Plastic

Numerous researchers and startups are working on better types of plastic, such as those made from everything ranging from vegetable fats to straw. However, many analysts agree that while these bioplastics represent progress, they won’t be the sole solvers of the world’s excessive plastic problem.

Many e-commerce companies are considering recyclable options that contain less or no plastic. For example, Amazon uses lightweight paper mailers sized to fit the contents, so these packages require no padding. These options save an average of 26 grams of packaging per shipment and are 90% lighter than similarly sized cardboard boxes.

Walmart has also invested in paper mailers within its e-commerce business. Estimates suggest this transition will eliminate 65 million plastic mailers—or the equivalent of 2,000 tons of plastic—from the U.S. supply chain. Additionally, when customers pick up items purchased online by going to local stores, they can opt out of having those products put into single-use plastic bags.

People can also get real-world examples of what’s possible for eco-friendly packaging for small business customers by focusing on shops selling sustainable goods. Many use shredded paper instead of bubble wrap and always reuse cardboard when possible. Some even seal their boxes with tape primarily made of paper, which is easily recyclable.

On-Demand Cardboard Boxes

Cardboard boxes are popular shipping options, but it’s even better if the company uses suppliers that offer those containers on demand. Then, warehouses have less overall storage space taken up by containers the business may not use for months. Suppliers of on-demand cardboard boxes may also have right-sized options, addressing the common issue of customers receiving small items in giant boxes.

Some companies also rely on specialized, in-house equipment to create boxes as needed. In one example, leaders from a Virginia-based sound equipment company wanted to address issues with outdated warehouse equipment preventing the business from meeting its e-commerce goals. They partnered with a packaging equipment provider to install the world’s first fully automated box-erecting system. This investment enables warehouse workers to pack more than 450 boxes hourly while using less filler material.

The company’s decision-makers say the equipment improves the quality of life for the workers while making operations more efficient. This focus on sustainable e-commerce packaging helps the business prepare for a greener future.

Reusable Bags and Boxes

People who understand the challenges of eco-friendly packaging for small business operations know how cost-saving it can be if organizations reuse packages rather than purchasing new ones. A 2023 survey found 63% of respondents were less likely to buy products in unsustainable packaging.

Companies can attract people’s interest by offering eco-friendly products, but it’s arguably even better if they also ship the goods in recyclable packaging. Some businesses also budget for custom packaging, which can differentiate products in crowded marketplaces.

Research indicates 72% of customers say packaging design influences their purchasing decisions. With so many people trying to make responsible choices that affect the Earth’s future, some would undoubtedly be interested in reusable shipping boxes.

Gwenyth Paltrow’s goop brand recently made a sustainable e-commerce packaging change by using products from Boox, a packaging company offering recyclable bags and other shipping containers. Customers send the shipping bags and boxes to a return point, allowing these items to get reused numerous times before the materials get made into new Boox items. The brand’s shipping bag withstands up to 15 uses in each life span.

LimeLoop is another company to watch. It provides reusable mailers made from upcycled plastics. LimeLoop has two types—one for business-facing needs and the other for customers’ e-commerce orders. The latter tolerates at least 100 uses. They also have collapsible designs, making them easier to ship back.

Improved Inflatable Air Pillows

Air-filled pillows can provide excellent protection during shipment, but people have become interested in how to make them into more sustainable e-commerce packaging. One example comes from a design featuring 40% post-industrial recycled and 55% post-consumer recycled plastic. These pillows feature a 20-micron film with approximately 20% less plastic than 25-micron-film versions.

Other companies produce air pillows from paper, further reducing plastic dependence. Some versions significantly reduce the cushioning needed to ensure the packaged goods arrive safely. Many options are either recyclable or biodegradable, making them Earth-friendly possibilities.

Bubble Wrap Alternatives

As supply chain professionals continue looking for options that let them use less plastic, many begin exploring things to use in place of bubble wrap.

In one instance, a German bicycle manufacturer began using paper-based handlebar protectors instead of bubble wrap when shipping its products. Besides being easy to recycle, the paper wrapping gets delivered on a pallet, making it easier to stack, store and transport compared to bubble wrap reels. Estimates suggest this swap will allow the bicycle maker to slash its plastic use by 85%, equaling 16 metric tons.

Another example comes from an Estonian company using wool to replace bubble wrap. Representatives want to take advantage of the 200,000 tons of wool that gets burned or buried in Europe each year due to its unsuitability for the textile industry.

Elsewhere in Europe, a frozen meals company uses layers of wool to insulate its shipments while providing shock absorption. Customers in certain areas can return the wool to the company for reuse.

Eco-Friendly Packaging for Small Business Clients and Beyond

People should expect these recyclable materials to feature prominently in packaging during 2024 and for the foreseeable future. These options will also become more in demand since some countries’ legislators have passed laws to minimize single-use products and push for reusable packaging.

Such trends emphasize the viability of eco-friendly packaging for small business organizations as well as larger ones. Many customers strongly prefer recyclable packaging and want to support e-commerce merchants offering it.

In addition to staying abreast of the materials mentioned above, supply chain specialists should stay current about emerging research in this area. Better packaging sustainability is an in-demand study area, with many talented and skilled people working on possible solutions.

About the Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton has eight years of creating logistics and supply chain articles under her belt. She loves helping people stay informed about industry trends. Her work in Supply Chain Connect, Global Trade Magazine and Parcel, showcases her ability to identify newsworthy stories. When Emily isn't writing, she enjoys building lego sets with her husband.

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