Zero Waste Packaging Ideas

Zero waste packaging is good for the environment and for your company’s bottom line. These creative ideas can help your business get closer to zero waste packaging

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Zero waste packaging refers to packaging which is entirely reusable or recyclable. If consumers reuse or recycle every part of their packaging, there is no new waste being generated. 


To achieve zero waste packaging, your company may need to get creative. With strategic packaging design and a willingness to embrace new ideas, sustainable packaging may be closer than you think.


What Are the Benefits of Zero Waste Packaging? 

There are a variety of reasons why companies may strive to produce zero waste packaging. Some major benefits include: 

  • Better sustainability performance: The latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 82.2 million tonnes of packaging is generated in the United States each year. While paper packaging can be recycled fairly easily, the recycling rate of plastic packaging remains low. By using sustainable materials, you can greatly cut back on your packaging waste. 
  • Lower packaging costs: If you design packaging that is able to be reused, zero waste packaging can save you money by reducing how much you spend on producing packaging. This may include using the same transport packaging from the factory to the distribution center and then onto the retail store, instead of repacking products at the warehouse. 
  • Improved customer perception: According to an Ipsos survey, 84% of American adults are concerned about plastic and packaging waste. By implementing a zero waste packaging model, you can show your commitment to sustainability and align with eco-minded consumers. 

Reducing packaging waste begins with an audit of existing packaging. Once you have an understanding of how much waste your packaging is producing, you can uncover opportunities to make your packaging more sustainable. In most cases, this will come down to encouraging packaging reuse and switching to eco-friendly materials. 


Encourage Packaging Reuse 

Ultimately, reusing packaging is better for the environment than recycling, since the packaging does not need to be broken down and remanufactured. If your packaging is strong enough to withstand multiple uses, there are a few zero waste packaging ideas you may want to consider.

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Communicating ideas for how your customers can reuse boxes and containers is essential for extending the life of your packaging. But if your packaging is large or irregularly shaped, thinking of alternative uses for packaging may be a bit tricky. 


One creative example comes from Traeger, who teamed up with Billerud Managed Packaging to revamp their grill packaging. The new packaging design was made from sustainable materials and included features that impressed customers. There were beverage holders built into the packaging, and once the grill was set up, the packaging could be assembled into a playhouse for kids. Not only was this a great way to reduce packaging waste—it also left a memorable impression on customers. 

Plan ahead for product returns 

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When your products are returned to you in packaging that is damaged, you’ll need to replace both the product and the packaging before sending a new order to the customer. 


One way to limit packaging waste associated with returns is to ensure that your packaging is sturdy enough for customers to reuse the same box when sending back returns. The returned box should be able to reach your distribution center without damage, so that it can then be reused again for a future shipment.


Ecommerce footwear brand KURU implemented this strategy by designing packaging with tear and adhesive strips that allowed for easy returns. 


Not sure if your packaging will hold up? Compression testing and other performance tests—such as those measuring shock, vibration and atmospheric conditions—can be conducted to ensure your packaging is strong enough to be used multiple times.

Allow customers to drop off packaging 

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Another zero waste packaging idea is to implement a program that incentivises customers to return empty packaging and containers back to your company. If you have brick and mortar stores, you could allow customers to drop off packaging from past purchases.


Consider creating some sort of reward for customers who take the time to return the packaging—such as discounts on future purchases or exclusive offers. Ecommerce brands can implement similar programs by including return labels and instructions with their packaging.


This type of return program can be especially beneficial if your packaging contains elements that cannot be easily recycled in curbside bins. 


Switch to Eco-Friendly Materials 

Hoping that your packaging will be reused is not always enough, as some packaging is still going to wind up being tossed out. To truly achieve zero waste packaging, you need to make sure that your material use is efficient and thoughtful. 


To start, make an effort to reduce any unnecessary and excessive materials from your packaging. This may involve right-sizing your packaging so that there is less empty space. As you go through the process of creating a packaging design that is fitted to your specific products, consider how you can replace any difficult-to-recycle materials. 

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If your company has traditionally used plastics and foam to protect your products and provide structural integrity to your packaging, you may be hesitant to switch to paper-based materials. However, corrugated materials can fulfill many of the same uses when the packaging is designed strategically.


For example, Wilson Sporting Goods originally used a pressurised, transparent plastic canister for their tennis ball packaging. When they created their Triniti ball, they saw an opportunity to make the packaging more environmentally friendly. Their new packaging design from Billerud used cartonboard containers made from 100% natural primary fibres. The cartonboard provided the necessary strength and durability, and eliminated the need for single-use plastic. 

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You may want to take your zero waste packaging a step further and use materials that can be composted. Many packaging manufacturers have created compostable alternatives to packaging products that used to be made from plastic or foam.


Some examples of compostable packaging materials that exist today include: 

  • Bags
  • Cushioning 
  • Tape
  • Mailers
  • Shipping labels

Compostable packaging can be misleading in some instances, since most materials will only break down under specific conditions that are not always achievable. If you do decide to source compostable packaging, be sure to clearly communicate to your customers how they should dispose of the product. One option is to print a How2Recycle or How2Compost label on your packaging that provides clear instructions to end users. Keep in mind that some materials may be compostable but not recyclable. 

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Plastic polybags are widely used in the apparel industry to keep garments pristine during transport. Most polybags are made from LDPE, a type of plastic that is technically recyclable but more often than not winds up in landfills.


Improving the sustainability of your apparel packaging may take some trial and error. Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia conducted several tests in hopes of reducing their plastic packaging waste. In the end, they found that polybags were necessary in order to prevent damage, but they were able to reduce the size of polybags used by folding products into smaller shapes. 


Another apparel brand, prAna, was able to eliminate polybags by folding their garments and tying them with raffia ribbons. The first year after implementing this change, the company was able to save 1,650 pounds of polybags. 


Reduce Packaging Waste With Managed Packaging 

Implementing zero waste packaging may seem daunting, but taking additional steps to reduce your packaging waste will be worthwhile in the long run. Zero waste packaging is better for the planet and preferred by customers. Plus, since you’re eliminating excess materials and reusing packaging wherever possible, zero waste packaging tends to be more cost effective, too. 


Billerud Managed Packaging works with organisations to create sustainable packaging solutions that are aligned with your business needs. If you need help identifying specific packaging optimisations that will get you closer to your goal of zero waste packaging, contact our team today.


To learn more about sustainable packaging and its impact, download our free guide, “How Packaging Contributes to a More Sustainable Future.”

Any questions, ideas or something you'd like to tell us? Don't hesitate to contact us. 

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