Eco-friendly Packaging Could Spread Holiday Cheer

Eco-friendly Packaging Could Spread Holiday Cheer

If something looks different about the packages arriving in your mail this holiday season, it might be because a growing number of catalog companies and dot-com retailers are experimenting with shipping materials that are kinder to the planet.

Starting this week, some of the packages that Norm Thompson sends to its customers will be filled with biodegradable paper cubes. The Hillsboro, Ore., catalog retailer is testing ways to reduce the environmental impact of the more than 2 million packages it sends each year.

Norm Thompson already prints its inserts with nontoxic, soy-based ink and on 100 percent recycled paper. Memos are shredded and recycled as packaging material.

Now the company's corporate sustainability manager, Derek Smith, is seeking a substitute for bubble wrap, which is derived from petroleum. He's hoping the new biodegradable cubes will do the job.

"If you're shipping something in what would appear to be a more environmentally friendly option, but the product arrives broken and needs to be returned and replaced, then you've actually increased the impact on the environment," he said.

Retailers making the transition to greener packaging are finding a wide array of new products available. They're also finding that they can save money by cutting waste, reducing shipping weights and reusing materials.

As Amazon.com evolved from a bookseller to an online e-tailer offering everything from books to big-screen televisions, the company has been aware of its environmental footprint.

"We're trying to act in a respon sible manner, constantly fine-tuning our shipping materials," said Patty Smith, a spokeswoman for Seattle-based Amazon.

A Substitute for Foam 'Peanuts'

The company has reduced waste by shrinking the size of its shipping boxes to better fit the product, Smith said. It also substituted air-filled plastic bags for the foam "peanuts" often used to prevent breakage and other damage.

The bags are "very much intended" to be an environmentally friendly alternative to Styrofoam, said Jim Hauck, regional sales representative for Sealed Air Corp., one of several companies selling air-filled shipping bags.

Unlike those ubiquitous foam peanuts, air bags can be deflated and the No. 4 grade plastic bag can then be recycled, Hauck said.

A word of warning: No. 4 plastic bags are not on the list of materials accepted for curbside recycling in the Metro area.

Patagonia, a Ventura, Calif., company that sells outdoor clothing and gear in stores and on the Internet, also sends products in reusable bags made of 25 percent recycled plastic. The customer can use the bag to send the product back if it's unsatisfactory or to mail something else, Lu Setnicka, a Patagonia spokeswoman, said.

Smith & Hawken, a Novato, Calif., company that sells home and garden products through its catalog, in retail stores and on the Internet, switched to water-soluble peanuts made of starch.

"They're great. I throw them in my compost and they disappear," Heather Itzla, a Smith & Hawken spokeswoman, said.

So far, Norm Thompson and others have been reluctant to try starch-based packing materials because of fears that they will melt if the package gets wet.

A Treat for Mice

Itzla said that has not been an issue for Smith & Hawken. The biggest problem with starch peanuts, she said, is that mice love to eat them.

Some companies are finding that, rather than causing problems, environmentally friendly packaging saves money.

Two years ago, United Postal Service found that it could save about $1 million a year by switching to 80 percent recycled paper content in its overnight mailing envelopes, by eliminating bleached paper in its express packaging and by introducing a reusable overnight mailing envelope.

Nike saw "tremendous savings" when it reduced the amount of paper wrapping used inside its shoeboxes from an average of five sheets to just one sheet, said Darcy Winslow, general manager of environmental business opportunities for the Beaverton-based company.

Seven years ago, Nike quietly began working to make its products and its processes more environmentally responsible.

Winslow said Nike made sure that its boxes were 100 percent recycled content, which is becoming standard among many direct-mail companies. Nike also cut box weights by 10 percent, eliminated adhesives and switched to soy-based inks.

As part of its effort to reduce paper stuffing, Nike developed an egg cartonlike insert to protect a shoe's shape. What makes it environmentally friendly? The insert is designed to be composted.

Nike would like someday to step beyond the shoebox. The company is exploring the packaging potential of cloth bags or bags made of beets, cornstarch or other dissolvable organic substances.

It recently began sending shoes in corrugated paper tubes to customers who order personalized sneakers online via Nikeid.com. Ideally, Winslow said, customers will reuse the tubes to send old shoes back to Nike for recycling.

Story by Michelle Cole of The Oregonian staff. Copyright 2000 Oregon Live. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.

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RELATED LINKS:

Government Gateway: Extended Product Responsibility

GreenBiz Essentials: Green Product Design

Reports: Preferred Packaging: Accelerating Environmental Leadership in the Overnight Shipping Industry

Tools: Concise Self-Assessment Guide to Environmentally Sustainable Commerce

Tools: Waste Efficiency Business Kit