The first thing that often comes to mind when wanting to make a package more sustainable is the question of whether the materials used are recycled or recyclable. But the reality, as we are all realizing, is what makes a package sustainable is much more than just the materials with which it is made. In fact, sometimes, using a "more" sustainable substrate is a worse answer for the earth.
As Wendy Jedlicka writes on worldchanging.com, "...In theory, picking an eco material is better than a non-eco one. But in many cases, if you don't know why it's eco, or how to apply its use correctly, the eco material can be far worse than the thing it's replacing. A great example is PLA, a plant based plastic that can be used instead of PET/PETE (recycling number 1). If applied to products in a market that has PLA collection and sorting systems in place, it's a fantastic substrate that offers a huge list of eco-benefits. BUT -- when used in markets without proper systems in place to handle it, just a small amount of this material mixed in with PET/PETE can contaminate the entire batch -- making the plastic unsuitable for recycling. The now contaminated and unrecyclable PET/PETE in many markets is burned, adding to the pollution load caused by incinerating petroleum based plastics, as well as wasting a full batch of really good material that could have been used to make a wide variety of durable goods."
In most cases, the best way of supporting our packaging client's sustainability efforts is by collaborating early and cohesively with their print and co-packing manufacturers. Once we understand their current system, we can suggest ideas for improvement if we see the opportunity, and optimize design (graphic and form) to work most efficiently within their current (or changing) systems.