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Thinking Outside the Box: Seven Promising Packaging Innovations

Image credit: Chill Can

The holiday season is over, and the garbage trucks have cleared away the curbside remnants that accompany the feasting and gift-giving. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day household waste increases by more than 25 percent, adding an additional million tons a week to landfill waste. As much as half of the 85 million tons of paper products America consumes every year goes toward packaging, wrapping and decorating consumer goods.

Clearly, there is a sustainability crisis in the world of packaging, but don’t go canceling Christmas just yet — a growing number of innovations promise to help lessen the burden on landfills, increase long-term profitability and promote a more prosperous future.

Here are seven promising packaging innovations with the potential to do just that:

  • Banana Fiber Paper — The banana agro-industry produces 42 million tons of bananas every year. One of the by-products of pulling apart banana bunches from the main stem is a type of fiber fit for manufacturing paper that is 100 percent compostable. Although currently most enterprises in the banana fiber business, such as TNF Ecopapers, focus mostly on producing paper for writing and artistic purposes, the material could also be used for producing shipping paper, cardboard boxes and wrapping paper for holiday gifts.
  • Recycled Film — Even though more than 25 million tons of plastic packaging is sold in the US every year, less than five percent gets recycled. A company called SmartCycle has found a way to process recycled content from beverage bottles to make clear, aesthetically pleasing and secure packages for food, box or thermoformed applications. By creating a use for recycled bottles, the company is also stimulating recycling efforts while utilizing a less energy-intensive manufacturing process than traditional methods.
  • Edible Packaging — Yes, you read that correctly: packaging you can safely swallow. An innovative company called WikiCell has created an edible form of packaging that encloses food or drinks in ways similar to how nature protects a coconut or an orange. Their technology can be applied to just about anything you can stomach yogurt, juice, fruit, ice cream  all wrapped in natural edible packaging. If burgers are more your thing, a Brazilian burger joint recently launched a marketing campaign offering its burgers wrapped with edible rice paper. Although this was more of a marketing stunt than a long-term sustainability decision, mainstream fast food restaurants could eventually adopt the practice.
  • Bamboo Cushioning — If there is one thing that can make any sustainability-minded person cringe, it is Styrofoam. Besides the obvious issues of being a petroleum-based product, styrene, a foundational ingredient used to make Styrofoam, has been identified as a possible carcinogen. Styrofoam also literally lasts forever  it is not biodegradable and is even resistant to photolysis, or the breaking down of materials by protons originating from a light source.

In 2009 Dell became one of the first technology companies to use sustainable bamboo cushioning as an alternative to Styrofoam in many of its products and today uses it when shipping tablets and phones to customers. As a natural product, bamboo is completely biodegradable and grows close to Dell’s manufacturing facilities, further reducing its supply chain’s carbon footprint. As other companies follow suit, Styrofoam could soon become a thing of the past.

  • Resealable Packaging — Americans alone waste 33 million tons of food each year and resealable packaging helps to reduce waste by maintaining food quality longer both in store and at home. Zip-Pak, a leading producer of resealable packaging, uses lightweight plastic films with resealable closures designed with strict package-to-product ratios and cube utilization in mind to minimize waste. This results in significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions when compared to rigid packaging alternatives.
  • Poly-Bag Packaging — Rather than seeking to redesign traditional cardboard packaging, innovative enterprises such as the Global Tissue Group are trying to do away with them altogether by producing “boxless” tissue packages. Similar to the pocket tissue packs already common in the marketplace, these tissue packages are available in a larger family size meant for the home. Although the product ended up falling flat in the marketplace, the poly-bags were seven cents cheaper per pack to produce and also led to savings in shipping over traditional packaging.
  • Self-Cooling Technology — Imagine a soda can that remains cold even outside of the refrigerator. Although this might seem like something out of science fiction, there have been many attempts over the past few years to make it a reality. One such attempt has been spearheaded by the aptly named company Chill Can, which produces beverage cans with built in heat exchanger units, using a carbon dioxide adsorbent-desorption system to cool the beverage in the can. While at first glance this might seem to be a technology of convenience rather than of sustainability, if further explored it could eventually reduce or even eliminate the need for energy-intensive refrigeration systems currently used to keep beverages cold at the store and at home.

It’s clear the potential for sustainable packaging innovation runs the industrial gamut, providing opportunities for better business solutions across the board. As the saying goes, it’s always better to think outside the box.

@mikehower is a freelance writer interested in telling the stories of companies and organizations engaged in sustainability, clean technology and social entrepreneurship. He also blogs about sustainable business and politics at SustySavvy.com.


Currently based in Washington, D.C, Mike Hower is a writer and strategic communicator helping to drive the conversation at the intersection of sustainable business and public policy. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and History from University of California,… [Read more about Mike Hower]


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