Think inside the box

“It’s here, it’s here,” chorus the children, when their much-anticipated catalog order arrives. As the youngsters rip open the parcel, their parents catch sight of a notice proclaiming that all the packaging materials used are 100% recyclable. “How nice,” says Mother to Father. “Eco-friendly packaging.” And they gather up all the wrappings and throw them in the trash.

Therein lies one of many quandaries of environmentally friendly packaging. Just because a particular packaging material can be recycled does not guarantee that it will be. And that is just the beginning of the complexities surrounding the issue.

“It’s complex because everything that’s done has an impact on the environment,” says Susan Selke, Ph.D., interim director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. “What we’re talking about is trying to minimize that impact. It’s often difficult to quantify and compare ecological impacts. Deciding what is ecologically friendly depends on what you give value to.”


The phrase “ecologically friendly” is typically used to describe a single attribute, says Bill Armstrong, technical development manager for Saddle Brook, NJ-based Sealed Air Corporation. “If it’s landfill avoidance, that’s one thing. If it’s depletion of renewable resources, that’s another thing. It’s very complex and it gets to be very emotional.”

Armstrong, who is based in the company’s Danbury, CT, office, was formerly a business representative to Connecticut’s Municipal Solid Waste Advisory Council. He cites two products made by his own company: Jiffy Bags, which are mailing pouches padded with recycled newspapers (the shredded gray material), and Jiffy Light, mailing pouches lined with plastic bubble wrapping material. To a general public taught to suspect plastic, Jiffy Bags might seem the obvious ecologically friendly pick.

“The product was originally developed because newsprint was cheap,” says Armstrong. “The ecological value [of using recycled material] is obvious.” But that, he continues, is only the start of the evaluation process. “The Jiffy Bag’s weight is heavier than that of the plastic padded alternative, so it takes more fuel to haul it,” he explains. The Jiffy Light requires less volume in hauling and in the warehouse, and, if it ends up there, in the landfill. It lacks, however, the easy recyclability of newsprint-based products. Both products are considered good candidates for waste-to-energy incineration, although plastic has a higher energy BTU content. “Very seldom is the issue as clear-cut and straightforward as we’d like it to be,” says Armstrong.

Selke believes that “people often don’t take a systems approach to the issue.” For that, she says, issues like the amount of fossil fuel required to produce a particular kind of package and the amount of water needed to clean a reusable or recyclable package — indeed, the entire life cycle of the product — must be considered, along with the methods used to dispose of it. Then, she says, “the issue is, how do you translate these impacts into criteria for decision-making?”


Disposal is a major factor in whether a packaging material (or any product) can be considered environmentally friendly. Today, the major disposal paths are landfill, waste-to-energy incineration, and recycling. The latter might seem to offer the best solution, as it does not add to landfill sites that are already near or at capacity, or, like waste-to-energy incineration, create carbon dioxide, which some scientists believe contributes to global warming. The problem with relying on recycling is that as a nation, we’re not there yet. While many communities mandate newspaper, bottle, and can recycling, few require — or have the facilities to handle — recycling of packaging materials. And then there’s the issue of consumer compliance.

Selke points to the case of corrugated cardboard, which, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has the highest recycling rate of any packing material at around 70% of the total produced. “While the business community has demonstrated an admirable commitment to recycling its corrugated,” says Selke, “once it gets to the consumer, it’s not nearly as likely to get recycled.”

Betsy Steiner, executive director of the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, based in Crofton, MA, reports similar experiences. Her organization represents the manufacturers of expanded polystyrene, the high-impact-bearing white foam packaging that is used to protect appliances and electronic equipment. The industry reports a 13% recycling rate — high for the plastics market, Steiner says. About two-thirds of the expanded polystyrene foam that gets recycled (it is ground and reformulated into more packaging) comes from the industrial-commercial sector. The alliance’s efforts to encourage recycling by individual consumers have not been very successful.

“People like to think that it’s being recycled, but they don’t necessarily want to take action to recycle it themselves,” says Steiner. The alliance has targeted selected communities during the holiday season — when large numbers of households receive and throw away huge amounts of expanded polystyrene foam — with disappointing results. “Great strides have been made, but much of it is at the corporate and the government level,” Steiner says. “At the consumer level, there’s a long way to go between voicing a concern and acting on the concern.”

She adds that polystyrene foam packaging collected from consumers is also harder for recyclers to handle, as it must be sorted by type. For example, polystyrene foam used as building and construction material is coated with a fire retardant and can’t be remolded. Nor is there unlimited room for more recycling by industrial-commercial sources; the demand for recycled polystyrene is determined by those who use it, and not all industries allow recycled packing materials.

Steiner cautions that recycling statistics for expanded polystyrene foam should not be used to tar it as an environmentally “unfriendly” material. “Environmental decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis,” she says. “Polystyrene does make environmental sense in a lot of ways. It protects against damage.” In the early days of the environmental movement, she says, “some companies moved away from it. Their damage rates increased tremendously. There are environmental impacts in remanufacturing damaged goods.” Not to mention the environmental and financial costs of shipping both the damaged goods and their replacements.


Clearly, there is no single solution to the problematic environmental impacts of packaging. Armstrong and other experts believe that the answer may lie in thoughtful evaluation of each use.

“We invested a long time ago in design and verification services,” says Armstrong. “We bring our customers’ products in and work with them to develop the most efficient package, the most minimal package. One to two million pounds of packaging are eliminated each year through the redesign of the customer’s package.” The objective, he says, is to “verify that the package meets its goal with the least amount of material. ”

Richard Bierman, CEO of Wisconsin Converting in Green Bay, WI, a maker of durable paper shipping bags, agrees. “One of the things that is affecting all of us is over-packaging of everything. How many times have I gotten a brochure in a bubble mailer? There are situations, absolutely, where you have to have a box, but if boxes are used, it is usually a marketing decision for appearance.”

One of the more exciting developments in environmentally friendly packaging is the starch-based “peanut” made from organic starch derived from corn and biodegradable polymers. This material biodegrades quickly when dissolved in water. The technology was developed some 15 years ago and has gone through several stages to become more cost-effective and efficient. The first generation of extruders was large, expensive, messy, and labor-intensive, says Denise Shaffer, a member of the sales and marketing team for StarchTech Inc., based in Golden Valley, MI. “There was a big push for environmental products at that time, but the product became too expensive, because it had to be freighted too far for a few manufacturers,” she explains.

StarchTech refined the process half a dozen years ago and eliminated the mess by reformulating the starch recipe into small resin pellets that can be extruded from smaller extruders. The company now sells these extruders to large-volume users and to a network of distributors, dramatically reducing the cost of shipping the peanuts, which take up lots of room but weigh very little. StarchTech prints cards explaining the biodegradability of the peanuts and circulates them to distributors, in the hope that they will pass on the information to all end-users.

Dean Bartels, another member of the StarchTech sales and marketing team, notes that the product is competitive with traditional polystyrene peanuts both in function, and for volume users, in price. “ It performs like polystyrene,” he says. “Peanuts are still one of the fastest, cheapest ways to pack. We want to be sure the customer looks at our product and says, ‘Why not?’”


But even products that seem like a slam-dunk in favor of the environment should be closely scrutinized, says Selke. She stresses that she has not personally studied the starch-based products, but suggests that a true analysis would have to go beyond the disposal issue. “I’ve never seen an evaluation that attempts to compare the environmental impacts of growing and harvesting the corn,” says Selke, noting that fossil fuels for gasoline, water, and pesticides and fertilizers would be required. Armstrong cautions that if starch-based packing peanuts are mingled with polystyrene packing peanuts in a recycling facility, they will contaminate the whole batch, because they will burn and char rather than melt.

“We’re trying to fix a system where a huge infrastructure exists, and the cost of operating outside the system can be great,” says Armstrong.

Selke notes that changes to one part of the packaging system may require changes to another part, adding to the complexity of the issue.

“Ecologically friendly packaging — there isn’t any such thing,” she says. “Packaging can be more friendly or less friendly, and that’s the best you can hope for. Part of the answer is that you have to keep coming back and looking at how the options change and the impacts change.”

Armstrong says that he advises people not to get mired in specifics, but to take a holistic approach, when talking about environmental concerns. “There’s not just one solution. It’s important that we look at this whole area and not plastics or paper or starch, but packaging. Too few people think about it as a bucket full of tools. The key is that the solution should fit the situation.”

Karen Berman is a CT-based writer and editor who specializes in business and lifestyle topics. She is a contributing editor to Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Eco-friendly Packagers

Geëmi Ltd. This Morrisville, NC-based firm makes wrapping and cushioning products from a honeycomb-cut kraft paper and interleaf tissue. The precut paper ships in flat rolls. At the packing station, two rolls are loaded onto a tabletop expander that stretches them and “interleaves” the tissue between them to create 3-D packing material. The system saves space in shipping and warehousing. Geëmi loans the expanders to its clients. For smaller users, pre-expanded rolls require simpler manual dispensers. The product also comes in a pad form that combines the Geëmi paper with plain kraft paper for heavier items. Geëmi paper is made of recycled pre-consumer paper and is recyclable. It can be used for fragile breakables. It is a wrap and void fill in one, and because it interlocks, no tape is needed. The user company’s logo can be imprinted on the interleaf. Says Michael A. Suthard, vice president of sales and marketing, “We offer a system that is environmentally sound, offers storage and shipping savings, can be used for branding and marketing, requires smaller boxes, and results in increased packer throughput.”

National Packaging Corporation This South Kearney, NJ-based company produces the MSP Coex Mailbag, a polyethylene mailer that comes in cushioned or non-cushioned and opaque or translucent models, all with a self-sealing feature made of silicone tape. (The opaque ones come in a variety of colors.) Light in weight, the mailers can be used for fulfillment or returns for nonbreakable products. They are strong, water-resistant, and recyclable once the silicone tape is removed. Says company president Martin Schlesinger, “At National, we are proud to serve our customers and the environment by producing poly-based products, which limit the unnecessary harvesting of trees, the excessive energy required in paper production and delivery, and subsequently the creation of paper waste.”

Polyair Based in Toronto, Canada, this firm is one of the largest manufacturers of protective packaging materials. Its products include the strong but lightweight E-com mailer (a polyethylene film with a bubble liner); the Ecolite mailer (bubble laminated to kraft paper); Airspace polyethylene air pillows and bubble and foam roll stock and pouches. All of these materials are recyclable.“ Most companies are packaging inefficiently,” says Mitchell Solway, Polyair’s director of marketing. “We often find that companies are using a lot of excess material in wrapping and taping when they could be using a pouch instead. We spend a lot of time working with our customers to help them pack more efficiently, not only to save time and materials but provide them with even better protective packaging performance.”

Sealed Air Corporation: The Saddle Brook, NJ-based firm produces a wide variety of packaging products. The Jiffy Padded Mailer is made of heavy kraft paper filled with shredded recycled newsprint. It is recyclable. Jiffylite Mailers are made of kraft paper lined with the company’s patented lightweight polyethylene plastic Bubble Wrap. They are constructed of 100% recycled paper, 10% post-consumer plastic, and 10% recycled plastic. Bubble Wrap, which is recyclable, is sold in rolls. The company also markets Fill-Air RF Inflatable Packaging Systems, polyethylene bags used for void fill, which are shipped flat and inflated to the size needed. Kushion Kraft® and Custom WrapTM cellulose wadding, made of recycled fibers, are used for wrapping a variety of items. The company maintains return programs for those who want to recycle. Says Bill Armstrong, technical development manager, “We bring customers’ products in and work with them to develop the most efficient packaging.”

StarchTech Inc. A starch-based resin is the raw material for this Golden Valley, MI-based firm’s packing peanuts, which are biodegradable in water and compostable. Large-volume users buy the resins and special extruders and fabricate the peanuts on-site as needed, spending less on shipping than they would if they had to ship pre-extruded (higher-volume) peanuts. Distributors also buy resin pellets and extruders and provide product to small users. Denise Shaffer, a member of StarchTech’s sales and marketing team, says that manufacturers and shippers “have an alternative that is reasonable. They don’t have to go with polystyrene or petroleum-based products. Peanuts are still the fastest, cheapest way to pack, and they have an environmental option.”

Storopack Inc. The Cincinnati, OH-based company produces a variety of packaging products, including PAPERplus cushioning, a patented wrapping system that combines two sheets of kraft paper to form a lightweight, protective “mattress” for products during shipment. The strength of the mattress is determined by the weight of the kraft paper, and strengths and sizes can be customized for the user. Airplus is a system of air-filled tubular films made of polyethylene. It is recyclable and reusable. The company also produces loose fill, popularly known as peanuts. These are made of reusable polystyrene and come in several varieties, including Pelaspan-Pac® Recycled. RENATURE is a starch-based loose fill (peanut) material that dissolves in water. The company also converts and recycles expanded polystyrene. “Storopack is dedicated to using our diverse line of ecologically friendly protective packaging products to provide our customers with fit-for-purpose packaging,” says Jim Foley, director of marketing.

Wisconsin Converting Inc. The Green Bay, WI-based firm’s primary mission is to convert roll stock to shipping bags and merchandise bags. Among its products are the Eco-Shipper, a white, unpadded shipping bag, and the Illuminations line of colored unpadded shipping bags. Both are made of 50% recycled content, and both are recyclable. The bags are made of liner board, the material used for the top sheet of corrugated cardboard, and come in 15 sizes, including six that are gusseted and can be imprinted with the customer’s logo. They are water-resistant and suitable for fulfillment operations that handle soft durable goods such as apparel. “These are an alternative to corrugated boxes,” says CEO Richard Bierman. “There’s no void to fill, so customers use less packaging overall.”

The Right Stuff

CORRUGATED FIBERBOARD: The great majority of products are shipped in what consumers call corrugated cardboard, a cost-effective and reliable material. It is recyclable, and recycling programs for it are in place. In waste-to-energy incineration it is considered a clean fuel. It takes up room in landfill, but, says MSU’s Selke, “I don’t see that it’s particularly more of a problem than any other shipping material.” It is biodegradable, although the rate of degradation is not fast enough to reclaim landfill space.

POLYETHYLENE FILM: Known to consumers as transparent plastic, it is derived from hydrocarbon feed stocks, including oil and natural gas. Among the many forms of polyethylene, transparent films are often used in packaging as bubble wrapping, shrink/stretch wrapping, and air bag void fillers. The material can be reused; the resins are melted and remolded or reformed to make a variety of products. “It’s quite recyclable — if the systems are in place to make it happen,” says Selke. Mitchell Solway, director of marketing at Toronto-based Polyair, notes that recycled polyethylene can be a bit more brittle than the newly fabricated plastic and therefore might not be appropriate for use in shipping products, although highly suitable for other uses. In waste-to-energy incineration polyethylene is considered a clean fuel, and it has a high energy content, which promotes efficient combustion. It has a low-volume presence in landfill and is inert (meaning that it has no toxic leachate to pollute ground water).

PADDED PAPER MAILING BAGS: These are made of recycled paper. They can be recycled by breaking down the fibers in a slurry and then cleaning and refabricating them, but, says Selke, “I don’t know of any place that collects them.” In waste-to-energy incineration, they are a good fuel but not as high in energy content as plastic. The bags take up room in landfill, where they are biodegradable.

KRAFT PAPER MAILERS AND WRAPPERS: They can be recycled by the same process as other papers, can be incinerated in waste-to-energy operations, and are biodegradable in landfill.

POLYSTYRENE FOAM: The ubiquitous white foam is recyclable (it is crushed and remolded). The loose fill (“peanuts”) segment of the industry sponsors a collection and reuse program with participating mail shops. In waste-to-energy incineration, it is considered a clean fuel and has a high energy content. In the landfill, it packs down and becomes smaller in volume than when it was used for packing. “There’s a popular misconception that foams take up all kinds of landfill space, and it’s just not true,” says Selke.

CELLULOSE WADDING: This soft, fibrous wrapping material is used for furniture and other items. It is made of recycled fibers that are not considered clean for municipal solid waste recycling because of their potential for contaminant content.

STARCH-BASED PACKING PEANUTS: This lightweight material is made of organic starch derived from corn and quickly dissolves in water. At least one company sells it as compact resin pellets that take up less room in shipping and storage.

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