a bird swimming in water

Packaging Report: Exploring New Materials

Seaweed fibers, corn-based plastics and more: Packaging companies test viability of eco-friendlier options in own brand packaging.
Zachary Russell
Associate Editor
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In recent years, companies have shifted their focus toward a future of sustainability in an effort to mitigate climate change and pollution. The packaging industry is no exception. There is an urgency to meet both consumer demands and environmental benchmarks, shown in a move away from traditional plastics and in sourcing more alternative materials for both branded and private label products.

And there are a range of material options that retailers with private label brands and suppliers of private label products are looking to test — some of which are as creative as sourcing material from seaweed, hemp and corn. However, as companies test packaging with these more eco-friendly options, the industry is learning what could be a realistic fit or not.

“We see biodegradable plastics made out of corn or seaweed, recycled plastics mixed with biodegradable elements, aluminum, cardboard and glass options,” said Jordan Erskine, president and co-founder of Dynamic Blending Specialists. “There are pros and cons to each material, and not every sustainable packaging solution is a good fit for every product."

Currently, biodegradable plastics are still expensive and the options are limited. It’s still a kind of niche industry, but as more and more brands adopt these kinds of solutions, you will see prices start to drop and options increase.”

Erskine said that Dynamic Blending, a Vineyard, Utah- based manufacturing company that creates both private label and contract manufactured personal care products, is look- ing to move away from traditional plastic, and toward new solutions for its customers.

“This is one reason we are investing heavily in aluminum packaging equipment and offering price breaks on aluminum packaging,” said Erskine. “The cosmetics and beauty industry uses primarily plastic packaging. This needs to change. When we have clients ask for sustainable packaging, we first ask, ‘Why are you doing it? Why do you need it? Why would it matter? Is it important to you or your customers? The answers to these questions make a difference in how we move forward.”

plastic packaging
Jamestown Plastics' Clamtainer packaging

Though companies may crave sustainable packaging materials right away, it may be easier said than done for companies to revamp their packaging toward being eco- friendly right off the bat.

“One piece of advice never changes,” Erskine said. “Always progress instead of digress. Start with packaging you can afford, and improve the quality as the brand grows. If you digress in packaging quality, that key part of your brand image can be irreparably damaged.”

Jamestown Plastics, a Brocton, N.Y.-based manufacturer which has been a producer of thermo-formal plastic pack- aging for over 50 years, recently unveiled its newest prod- uct, the “Clamtainer,” featuring a new “Click It” closure technology designed to use less material than traditional clamshells. The Clamtainer differs from traditional hinged containers by only using one lock instead of two. The product is made from durable, recycled plastics.

“What we are currently using today is rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) — both a combination of industrial and reclaimed plastic,” said Jay Baker, president of Jamestown Plastics. “We can make this product out of any thermo-formal material.”

Baker said the new design has been successful among its clients, but that isn’t stopping Jamestown Plastics from looking to the future with the materials they use. Baker said that the company is looking at the use of starch and corn-based plastics for its future products, a shift away from traditional plastic materials.

“We are taking a look at some of the starch-based, corn- based plastics that have come onto the market,” he said. “The development of these plant-based plastics has been go- ing on for some time, but there have been some real challenges from the chemistry side of getting the performance out of these materials up to the expected standards of the consumer and the manufacturer. They’ve come a long way, and we’re greatly hoping that they get to the point where they become a viable alternative. If that’s something the market would like to see, we’re all for it. They have a little bit to go as far as performance. That’s not unusual when going toward something new. It takes time to figure these challenges out.”

Michael Duffy, global creative director, Equator Design, Chicago, said a move away from plastics and alternative materials will impact the design of packages as well. He cited premium tier packaging with glitter and foils are being increasingly replaced by more sustainable options, while explorations are underway to improve standard packaging formats for easier post-consumer recycling.

“This could include the removal of plastic elements, or where visibility is essential to sales, replacing plastic panes with biodegradable transparent/translucent substrates,” he said. “Brands will continue to respond in myriad ways to public concerns over plastics pollution and climate change — often returning to traditional cans and boxes — and these ‘low tech’ adjustments will go hand in hand with modern, digital advances,” Duffy said. “Tech platforms and AI-enabled tools that reduce waste in production and distribution phases are being bookended on the opposite end of the consumer journey by technological propositions that support the efficiency of post-consumer recycling, including digital watermarking.”


DS Smith's ECO bowl

Seaweed Fibers
International packaging company DS Smith, based in Lon- don, is one company that has taken concrete steps toward a plastic-free, renewable future. As part of the company’s five- year, $140 million circular economy research and development plan, DS Smith is in the early stages of developing packaging alternatives using seaweed fibers.

If successful, seaweed could be the latest material that would serve as a clean and renewable packaging alternative. The commercial seaweed market was valued at an estimated $40 billion in 2020, and is expected to rise by nearly 10% by 2027.

“The focus of the research and development is on materials and processes that we can innovate to help us accelerate our goals,” said Mindy Myrick, head of corporate affairs at DS Smith. “We’re at the early stages of looking at seaweed fibers for packaging. For us and our customers, it starts with the consumers. We are starting to see this demand for sustain- ability. Just like people want to know where their food comes from, people want to know where their packaging comes from. A key focus for us as a packaging provider is bringing these innovations to the market.”

While the seaweed fibers may still be in its development stage, DS Smith already has two green packaging alternatives under its belt. Greencoat is a coated, water-resistant packaging solution that provides the same performance characteristics as wax-coated boxes, but is 100% recyclable.

“Wax boxes don’t break down well in a landfill,” said Myrick. “We want to provide alternative solutions for companies who need water-resistant packaging before going to wax. We developed this proprietary Greencoat coating and have started supplying it across our footprint, offering the same performance but in a product that can now be recycled and save that material from a landfill. Once uncoated pa- per gets wet when stacked, product can get damaged in the process. This product allows for the same products to be shipped while withstanding the weather.”

In DS Smith’s European market, the Eco Bowl is a plastic replacement option that can be used in place of microwavable plastic containers. The product is paper based, and can be frozen as well as microwaved. The company hopes to soon bring the product to the U.S.

Sana Packing for a concentrated cannabis wax.

It’s clear that the food and beverage industry is looking to a more sustainable future with its products and packaging, but even in more niche markets, sustainability is becoming increasingly in demand. Sana Packaging is a Wheat Ridge, Colo.-based cannabis packaging company that produces white label and branded packaging for its clients. Instead of traditional plastics, Sana uses reclaimed ocean plastic and plant-based hemp plastics for its containers.

“Our goals as a business are different because we only sell sustainable packaging instead of whatever product has the highest profit margin,” said Ron Basak-Smith, co-founder and CEO of Sana. “We started this company as disgruntled cannabis consumers and now the market is growing for sustainable cannabis packaging four years later.”

While packaging for both private label and branded products is trending toward sustainability, Basak-Smith says that it’s important to consider both sides of sustainability— both upstream, what goes into the packaging, and downstream, what happens to the product after the consumer has interacted with it.

“This is kind of the missing piece in how people think about packaging,” he said. “What might be sustainable up- stream might not be sustainable downstream. A lot of com- panies will make products out of hemp-based plastic, but mix it with petroleum based polymer. That reduces the amount of traditional plastic used, but downstream, it may not be able to be recycled and will end up in a landfill. The materials need to match at both ends of the process.”

As companies continue to brainstorm new ways to create sustainable packaging for private label clients, eco-friendly disposal will be just as important as what the product is made out of.