Exploring the Benefits of Fiber-Based Packaging: A Sustainable Solution for the Future
What’s your favorite quick candy to grab? Mine is definitely Skittles. The original red pack is an obvious classic, but there are new flavors to try seemingly monthly. Currently, as I write this, I am enjoying the pink Smoothies pack- terrible for my teeth, but absolutely delicious! As I eat them, I cannot help but think about the packaging. The bright colors are truly enticing, but what is its environmental impact? Packaging is a big part of our daily lives, but it is extremely wasteful. In fact, 400 million tons of packaging are thrown away each year. If it helps, that is the equivalent of almost 80 adult elephants. Simply put, too much packaging is being thrown away. From the energy we use to create the packaging to the time it takes to break down in a landfill, the entire lifecycle of most packaging is negatively affecting our environment. While this is true, we still need packaging. I can’t just walk around holding skittles in my hand! I know from experience, they will melt and turn my hand different colors. We need a better solution.
Sustainable Shopping Made Simple
Depending on the item, there are many options for packaging available. Some of the most popular being paper, plastic, and cardboard, companies have created new ways to package their products- some more environmentally friendly, but most just more cost-effective. There has been a lot of innovation, but not all innovation has been sustainable. Fortunately, an exciting option that has been around for a while has started to draw more attention in the past decade. A viable competitor to the ever-popular plastic packaging, fiber-based packaging is a fresh, safe, and natural option. Fiber-based packing can be made in several ways- wheat, straw, bamboo, bagasse, and others- but the most common way is using urban pulpwood. You would recognize fiber-based packaging in its most common forms: film, sacks, and boxes. Fiber-based packaging has also begun to expand to other forms of packaging making it more functional for various kinds of companies.
With active forest management, retrieving the fiber can be a natural part of the circular environment supporting the absorption of carbon dioxide; however, there are some potential downsides to the use of fresh fibers. If they are not harvested correctly, they can possibly do more harm than good. Currently, there are sustainable forest operations all over the world that are legally verified sources of pulpwood, but pulpwood that is harvested outside of these areas has the potential to negatively affect biodiversity, social balance, water quality, and the level of greenhouse gas emissions. As pulpwood grows in popularity, companies may be tempted to explore other sources of fresh pulpwood outside of the approved sources. It is important to hold companies accountable. As consumers, we have to ensure the pulpwood is being harvested correctly and protect the forests globally.
Fiber-based packaging is especially exciting because fresh fibers are not the only way to create the packaging. Fibers to create new packaging can also be acquired from used and recycled fibers. While more sustainable, recycled fibers are not as strong as fresh fibers, but they are still viable. While 76% of plastic packaging is not recycled, 80% of all fiber materials are recycled making it the most recycled packaging material currently available on the market. In some cases, fibers can be recycled up to seven times!
Fiber-based packaging is truly the future of sustainable packaging. It is already the most recycled packaging material on the market. With more time and innovation, fiber-based packaging will truly change the packaging industry for years to come. Fiber-based packaging is especially popular in the food and beverage industry (AHEM Mars Wrigley, manufacturer of skittles), but the applications span all industries. The future of packaging is literally growing on trees!
Milagros de Souza (Mila) has always had a commitment to sustainability, but it was not until she began an in-depth study of intersectional sustainability within her major in college that she realized how much the world needs sustainability. Mila has held roles at a number of sustainability-aligned organizations, but she is now stepping out as CEO and Founder of her own company, The Clothing Library, a clothing rental model that makes sustainable fashion more accessible.