Last updated on October 9, 2022.
In my multi-part series about the packaging industry, I’ve written about many types of packaging, packaging problems, and packaging solutions. Today I’m going to explore companies that already incorporate sustainability into their business model and those that are designing innovative and creative packaging.
But first, I wanted to exhibit my newest finding. In my post about packaging and Amazon, I wrote that Amazon does not currently reclaim any of its shipping packagings. Since then, I stumbled upon this compelling concept from Finland company Repack, a reusable and returnable packaging service.1 Check out this short video:
Companies with recycling built into their business model
Dr. Bronner’s brand of organic liquid soaps has been around since 1948 and is a familiar brand in most healthy grocery stores. The company reuses and recycles within its facilities. They have been exclusively using 100% post-consumer recycled polyethylene (PET) plastic bottles for their soaps for the past 10 years. Approximately half of their post-consumer recycled plastic bottles are made from plastic sourced from curbside pick-ups in the state of California.
“‘Bottle-to-bottle’ recycling, the recycling of plastic bottles into new bottles, is also uncommon. Most times the plastic picked up on curbsides is ‘downcycled,’ shipped to countries like China, where it’s used to create synthetic fabrics for carpets and clothes, then shipped back to the United States for sale. Bottle-to-bottle recycling helps to close the loop and results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”2
Despite owning brands that use single-use disposable packaging, Unilever has been building sustainability efforts into their company for a decade. They set a goal to reduce pre-consumer waste which is the waste that is created during the manufacturing process. This is something we don’t normally consider but is a part of the packaging waste stream. The company applied a Zero-waste-to-landfill (ZWTL) concept where all non-hazardous solid waste “is not landfilled but instead reused, recycled, composted, or disposed of via some other outlet,” wrote Tony Dunnage in The Future of Packaging. “Today Unilever sees no landfill waste in its factories, has proud and inspired employees, has achieved $234 million in annual savings and cost avoided (to reinvest back into the business), and has created 1,000 jobs in the wider economy.”
Unilever also set a goal of using 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. They feature a lot of goals related to plastic packaging and recycling on their website.3 While I appreciate the effort that they are putting toward building sustainability into their business, we all know that recycling will not fix the problem of plastic waste. They need to move away from plastic packaging as much as possible.
This company owns dozens of brands of products you’re familiar with: Vaseline, Axe for men, Breyers ice cream, Dove, Hellman’s mayonnaise, Lipton Tea, Klondike bars, Q-tips, Pond’s beauty products, and many more. Many items could be packaged without plastic. Hellman’s mayonnaise could be returned to the glass jars in which they were once sold. I recently used up a tube of Vaseline lip therapy and when I went to dispose of it, I found no recycling symbol or number. So I saved it to recycle through TerraCycle, but Unilever’s intent for the tube’s end of life was the landfill. Some companies are using #5 plastic for tubes like these, which is still hard to recycle, but at least it is an attempt. Unilever can do better.
Unilever packages Q-tips in a plastic-covered box, and while recyclable, it’s just not necessary and fuels the plastic waste stream. These could easily be sold in a cardboard box. Environmental writers often suggest contacting companies directly about packaging changes. Most of the time I just stop buying products that have plastic packaging, but I decided I’d write to Unilever. I used their ‘Contact us’ page and simply asked if they’d consider moving away from plastic and selling Q-tips in cardboard packaging.
The response I got was more of a programmed response rather than a tailored customer service representative response. Only in the first paragraph did they indicate that “packaging is regularly evaluated” and that “the container could change at some time in the future.” The focus of the email was on sending me a replacement coupon so that I can buy more Q-tips. Thanks but no thanks, Unilever. I’ve switched to a brand of cotton swabs that comes in cardboard packaging. The most interesting part of this email was that next to the logo was the slogan, “Make Sustainable Living Commonplace.” Will this company live up to its own marketing?
Creative Packaging as Part of the Product
Toys are the best examples of creative packaging. The first example is Disney’s Moana doll. The packaging had instructions to separate the paperboard and plastic for proper recycling, and also encouraged children to use the Moana packaging in their play! Part of the packaging turns into a boat for the doll to go “exploring.” Here’s a quick video showing how it worked:
Last year, my son got a remote-controlled Monster Jam Grave Digger Truck whose cardboard packaging turned into a scaled ramp. While this is very cool, I will say that the toy broke within a couple of months, which only added to the plastic waste stream.
A third toy, Educational Insights Design & Drill Bolt Buddies, also transforms the packaging into a corresponding setting for the toy:
Here’s one more example in a pack of boys’ underwear. For some reason, it is difficult to find children’s underwear that isn’t prepackaged in plastic. But this particular brand used innovative packaging. The plastic package is also a pencil pouch, and the paper insert has a coloring sheet on the back side of it. Though this is not the reason to purchase a specific product, it certainly is an improvement.
I’m really excited to see such innovations with packaging, as it is typically very wasteful. I think there are lots of opportunities for dual-purpose packaging in all types of products and I hope more companies explore the concept.
This is my absolute favorite because those of us who are striving for zero waste don’t want packaging. Lush Cosmetics is a good example of this, and I mentioned Lush in my post about shampoo bars. Around 35% of Lush Cosmetics’ products are sold without packaging, or “naked.” The overall impact of 35% is astounding: “Since 2005, we’ve sold more than 41 million shampoo bars, saving 124 million plastic bottles from ever being produced,” according to Lush.4
Products from Lush use recycled and recyclable materials. They also have a take-back program for items sold in their black plastic pots, such as body lotions and masks. They’ll even reward customers with a free face mask after returning a certain number of their pots. They use a closed-loop system for these – they send the pots back to their recycler who molds them into new pots for Lush.
“When it comes to packaging, less is more.” – Lush Cosmetics
I hope that more retailers start doing this when there’s no need for packaging. Many small businesses and Etsy shops will ship without extra packaging or plastic packaging upon request, so make sure to ask! Aquarian bath does not use plastic at all, and they can ship their bar soap and shampoo bars without packaging, or naked.5 So be sure to ask about this option when buying!
This company’s soaps and shampoo bars are naked or package-free. We started buying this brand because it was a moderately priced package-free soap available locally at Whole Foods and the late Earthfare. But they will ship package-free as well. It’s a very mild soap and it has never irritated my dry, sensitive skin. They prevent over 9 tons of packaging from going into the landfill every year by not individually wrapping their soaps. They also have a near Zero-Waste facility.6
Nourish Natural Bath Products
This company7 makes my absolute favorite bar soaps with safe ingredients and sells them with a simple paper wrapper that I put in the compost. Additionally, they ship with all paper packaging:
They still sell some products in #1 plastic bottles, such as lotions and body washes. But they’ve recently come out with a refillable option for their liquid soaps. The next post in this series will be about refillable options to reduce packaging.
Ethique sells shampoo, conditioner, body and facial soap, and moisturizers, all in the form of bars.8 This reduces emissions from the shipping of heavier liquid products. All packaging and shipping materials are plastic-free. They use cruelty-free, vegan, plant-based, and sustainably produced ingredients. I am interested in trying their products!
Truthfully, if you ask a retailer to use less packaging or plastic packaging, they often will comply to keep you a satisfied customer. This works especially well with smaller companies and Etsy shops. So if you’re buying, speak up! I do this all the time and I often get complimented, not judged, for being so eco-conscious. Additionally, less packaging usually saves the company money! If you’re ordering online, you can put this request in the notes section on the order page. If there isn’t one, feel free to send the company a quick email either through their ‘Contact Us’ form or by replying to the confirmation order email.
There are many companies I did not mention and many packaging innovations that I may not have included, so feel free to share those. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe. In my next post, I will explore refillable packaging options, which may be another great solution in solving the waste and packaging crises.
“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky
This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.
Article, “Bar Soap & Why It’s Better than Liquid Soap,” Because Turtles Eat Plastic Bags website, November 9, 2018.
Article, “Shampoo Bars Eliminate the Need for Plastic Packaging,” Because Turtles Eat Plastic Bags website, October 9, 2019.