Examples of Unsustainable Packaging to Avoid

In the past, packaging was only a way to send a product from point A to point B. Consumers paid little to no attention to product packaging other than recognizing it on the shelves. Today, people are more aware of where products come from and what their favorite brands are doing to lower their carbon footprint.

Unsustainable packaging has a negative impact on the environment due to excessive waste or harmful materials. These materials are difficult to recycle, take a long time to degrade or contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s explore examples of unsustainable packaging to avoid. We’ll also discuss their environmental impact and sustainable packaging alternatives.

What Is Unsustainable Packaging?

Unsustainable packaging refers to how its process and materials impact the environment. Different factors and characteristics determine whether packaging is harmful in any form.

Some common criteria for unsustainable packaging include:

  • Excessive waste: Packaging generates a large amount of waste that is not easy to get rid of.
  • Non-recyclability: Materials cannot be recycled or require complex and costly processes. 
  • Harmful materials: This refers to packaging materials that are toxic, non-renewable or contribute to pollution.
  • High carbon footprint: Packaging made of renewable and recyclable materials can still be unsustainable when it requires a significant amount of energy or resources in its production, transportation or disposal stage.
  • Excessive packaging: Using more materials than necessary or including bulky and unnecessary components leads to inefficient and wasteful packaging.

In contrast, sustainable packaging minimizes waste and uses environmentally friendly materials. It’s also easily recyclable or biodegradable, thus having a lower carbon footprint.

Environmental Impact of Unsustainable Packaging 

Plastic is the main culprit in single-use packaging, which typically gets thrown away rather than recycled. Currently, of all plastics produced in the world, more than 90% are fossil-based, while the rest comprise bio-based and post-consumer recycled plastic. Because of its slow decomposition rate, plastics have a negative impact when they end up in landfills or in the oceans.

The Effect on Plants and Animals 

Research estimates that more than 75% of all plastics end up in landfills. However, plastic also gets carried by the wind to other areas. Animals often mistake plastic materials for food. Ingested plastic can affect animals’ overall health, disrupt hormones and cause reproductive issues. They can also become trapped or entangled in plastic, preventing them from hunting or making them more vulnerable to prey.

Once in the environment, plastics degrade continuously into smaller fragments and eventually into microplastics and nanoplastics. Microplastics in soil and groundwater have adverse effects on soil properties and plants, such as:

  • Reduced soil aeration
  • Increased erosion
  • Altered soil pH
  • Reduced nutrient availability for plants
  • Lower crop yields

Plant roots can also absorb nanoplastics, leading them to enter the rest of the food chain. 

Social Impact

Unsustainable packaging also has negative effects on people and communities. Littered plastic and packaging waste accumulates around public spaces and neighborhoods, creating an eyesore and decreasing the quality of life for people who frequent these areas. Moreover, the production and disposal of unsustainable packaging materials can affect people’s health. For example, the manufacturing process may release toxic chemicals and disposing of packaging waste improperly contaminates water sources and the soil.

Examples of Unsustainable Packaging

Packaging protects and markets your product, and any part the consumer throws away can be considered packaging waste. Since packaging is the largest market-use plastic, we compiled some examples of unsustainable packaging:

  • Bubble wrap: Bubble wrap is often used to protect fragile items in packages. Although it’s fun to play with by popping the bubbles, it’s difficult to recycle, has an extensive decompose time and gives off irritating vapors when it catches fire.
  • Packing peanuts: Also known as loose fill, packing peanuts are used as cheap void-fill packaging to brace products safely in place. These are non-recyclable, a challenge to dispose of and tend to leave a mess.
  • Single-use plastic: People discard single-use plastic packaging after using it one time, leading to littering and pollution. It also requires substantial amounts of fossil fuels in the manufacturing process, contributing to greenhouse gases and resource depletion.
  • Glass: Glass has both a sustainable and unsustainable side. It’s recyclable and reusable, but carbon emissions are related to glass production, plus it includes natural materials, like sand, which can disrupt ecosystems.
  • Aluminum foil: Aluminum comes from mining bauxite, which emits many greenhouse gases in the extraction process. Additionally, recycling aluminum foil is both challenging and environmentally unfriendly.
  • Oversized boxes: Oversized containers and bulky packaging, no matter what material they’re made of, result in wasteful use of resources and increased transportation costs.
  • Individually wrapped items: Individually wrapped products generate a lot of unnecessary plastic waste. Wrapping things separately leads to higher resource consumption, production costs and environmental impact.
  • Styrofoam: Styrofoam is made from polystyrene, a non-recyclable packaging material with a long landfill life. Its ability to occupy large volumes at low weight means it takes up a lot of landfill space. Polystyrene emits harmful pollutants in the manufacturing and incineration processes.
  • Air cushions: Also commonly known as air pillows or packaging airbags, air cushions are lightweight and versatile e-commerce packaging materials made from polyethylene. However, these require specialized recycling sites with complicated procedures to get rid of.

Sustainable Packaging Alternatives

To help address environmental issues, product manufacturers and sellers can look for sustainable packaging alternatives such as:

  • Corrugated bubble wrap: Instead of plastic, corrugated bubble wrap is composed of recyclable cardboard, making it an environmentally friendly version of the old-school plastic bubble wrap.
  • Packaging paper: Packaging paper easily decomposes and is easy to recycle. It’s a great alternative to packing peanuts and air cushions.
  • Corrugated cardboard: Corrugated cardboard reduces waste and can be easily recovered and recycled.
  • Post-consumer recycled (PCR) packaging: PCR packaging is made of recycled materials that have already been used and disposed of by consumers. It’s a sustainable approach that reduces waste and conserves resources.
  • Custom-sized shipping boxes: A lot of packaging waste has to do with the volume, like an oversized box or excess fillers. You can cut down on how much material you use by using a box size that fits your product.

Get Custom Packaging From Bolt Boxes

Oversized shipping boxes and excessive layers of void fillers can contribute to overpackaging and packaging waste. Creating custom packaging for your products will help your brand contribute to sustainability while saving on material costs and reducing unnecessary packaging. Simply send us your physical product, images, measurements or existing box specifications, and our designers will engineer the best solution. For more information on our box styles, sizes and types, get in touch with our team. We look forward to helping you!