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How small businesses can help tackle the e-commerce packaging crisis from the ground up

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100 percent compostable Sendle mailers.

Elin Bandmann Photography

This article is sponsored by Sendle.

The thrill of online shopping usually kicks in the moment the package arrives on your doorstep. From a simple grocery delivery to a shipment of your favorite jeans, the unboxing experience is full of anticipation and excitement. 

But as online shopping grows in popularity, so does the pile of packaging waste it generates from shipping. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that plastic and other packaging make up about 30 percent of the country’s annual waste. After the biggest 18 months of e-commerce growth in history, this figure is only expected to rise. 

In the early days of e-commerce, retailers invested in appealing packaging to engage consumers who weren’t going into a physical store. Research now shows consumers are becoming more aware of the packaging waste problem, and it turns out that what they care about isn’t how beautiful the packaging is — it’s how they feel when they sort it into the bin.

You might ask, "Why is a parcel delivery service writing about the e-commerce packaging crisis?" Well, as the first 100 percent carbon neutral shipping carrier in the United States, Sendle cares deeply about the environment. Sendle provides small businesses with a sustainable approach to shipping that can save them money and drive loyalty among their environmentally conscious customers. 

Consumer attitudes are shifting on packaging

In the lead-up to launching Sendle’s compostable mailer store in 2020, at the height of the coronavirus-induced e-commerce boom, we conducted a consumer survey (to non-Sendle customers) focused on packaging. The results clearly revealed that people are thinking about the environmental impact of their purchases.

  • 56 percent of respondents said that climate change had somewhat or fully caused them to reassess their purchasing habits, and nearly 70 percent said they’d set goals to purchase more sustainable products.
  • 46 percent said packaging doesn’t factor into their purchase decisions, while 57 percent said they get frustrated with the amount of packaging the products they order come in.
  • 64 percent of consumers said they’d be more likely to make a purchase from a retailer that offered compostable packaging, especially if it didn’t cost more.
  • 52 percent said they’d be more willing to make repeat purchases or sign up for a subscription from a retailer who offered more sustainable packaging or shipping options.

While big retailers often get blamed for the packaging waste, small businesses contribute to this plastic, paper and polystyrene crisis too. It’s easy for small businesses to say that eco-friendly packaging options are just too expensive and hurt their bottom line. But with consumer awareness increasing and a proliferation of small businesses and side hustlers selling online, tackling the e-commerce packaging crisis is mission-critical no matter what size your business is.

The good news is we can all take action to reduce our environmental impact. There are so many simple solutions to the packaging crisis, many of which can be found at the humble fruit and vegetable stand.

The lesser-known alternatives to plastic packaging 

Here are five examples of materials that small businesses can research for use in their sustainable packaging mix.

1. Pineapple 

The Philippines is the second-largest pineapple producer in the world. To make use of the industry’s excess pineapple leaves, Filipino researchers created "pinyapel," a treeless paper made from discarded pineapple leaves.  

The word pinyapel plays on the prickly fruit and the Filipino word for paper, papel, and it’s being used to create everything from coffee cups to shopping bags. 

Pineapple leaves are naturally water-resistant, so there’s no need for a plastic bag or wrap, making the Pinyapel product ideal for food packaging.

Pineapples decompose faster than other paper products, and certainly plastic, and the process of making them doesn’t require cutting down any trees. 

2. Mushrooms

Mushrooms are an ideal replacement for plastic because they mimic the material in so many ways. They have a springy texture and are often used in shipping boxes as an alternative to packing filler and styrofoam, which takes thousands of years to decompose.

Mushroom materials have great diversity and are completely biodegradable. This means once your "shroom" packaging has served its purpose, it can be tossed into the garden or compost where it can biodegrade within weeks, unlike polystyrene.

Ecovative Design in New York is one small business using mycelium, a thread-like structure that grows below mushrooms, to provide a natural alternative to packaging materials made out of styrofoam.

3.  Coconut 

Coconut husks have been on the hot list of sustainable materials for a while. You will commonly find this thick, natural non-toxic and 100 percent biodegradable material in mattresses, futons and upholstery.

But they can also be molded together with an organic adhesive to form cartons for eggs and other fresh produce, or cushioning material for use in packaging systems. 

A number of companies such as Compadre and Whole Tree Inc. are trialing coconut husk material to make packaging that goes inside boxes and fits around products such as glass to protect them during transportation.

4. Corn 

The polylactic particles that are extracted from corn are called corn plastic. This substance is increasingly being used in packaging and textiles. Cornstarch can be used to make biodegradable packing peanuts and compostable mailers that look and feel like plastic.  

The mailers Sendle offers to small business customers are made from corn starch, PLA (made from corn) and PBAT (Polybutyrate Adipate Terephthalate) and break down in the compost or worm farm within 90 days.

They are an ideal packaging solution because they are waterproof, stretchy, stickable tear-resistant, tough and durable. 

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100 percent compostable mailers made from cornstarch.

Elin Bandmann Photography

5. Prickly Pear Cactus

Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a research professor from the University of Valle de Atemajac in Zapopan, Mexico, has created a biodegradable plastic from the juice of the nopal — or prickly pear cactus.

The chemical properties of the nopal allowed Ortiz to develop a non-toxic biodegradable plastic when mixing it with other natural substances.

The material breaks down after one month in soil and a matter of days in water. So if it makes its way to the ocean, it will simply dissolve there, instead of being discovered 50 years later on the ocean floor.

While experimentation is still underway, Ortiz says a number of companies have expressed interest in using the new material.

How opting for sustainable packaging will help win customers 

With consumers becoming more educated about the impact of plastic waste and looking for a guilt-free online shopping experience, it’s a great time for small businesses to explore eco-friendly packaging. Instead of wrapping products in excessive amounts of old-fashioned materials, all it takes is some research and commitment to make the switch to recyclable, biodegradable or compostable packaging.

The U.S. hit a record 44 percent e-commerce growth in 2020 — that’s nearly triple the rate of increase seen in 2019. At Sendle, we shipped the equivalent of holiday parcel volumes every month from April to December in 2020. While it’s great for the economy and small business success, all that extra plastic, coated cardboard and polystyrene has been dire for the environment.

Thankfully, cost-effective and eco-friendly alternatives are out there, and the day is coming when consumers will expect it as part of their unboxing experience, so they can feel good about their purchases without feeling guilty about the environment. 

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