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Blog / Beginner's handbook / Printful’s Eco-friendly Packaging in the US

Beginner's handbook

Printful’s Eco-friendly Packaging Journey

Printful’s Eco-friendly Packaging Journey
Elizabete Fleismane

By Elizabete Fleismane

6 min read

Our goal as a company is to make on-demand manufacturing the norm for a planet with finite resources and people with infinite ideas. To achieve this ambitious goal, every aspect of our business model needs to be aligned with our sustainability efforts.

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This means we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our eco-friendly packaging worldwide and eliminate any unnecessary layers, and in 2022, we’re introducing a significant change to the eco-friendly packaging we use in North America.

What are the changes with packaging and why?

We’re switching to 90%–100% post-consumer recycled plastic packaging for apparel products in our in-house facilities all over North America. 

Post-consumer recycled plastic (often referred to as PCR) is made from items that consumers use and recycle every day, like plastic bottles, food containers, etc.

We already use eco-friendly packaging that is partially made from PCR plastic in many of our facilities, but the amount of PCR content varies between locations. For example, the plastic bags used for individual items in the order were previously made from only 30% PCR material in our US fulfillment centers. That’s why, to make our sustainable packaging more consistent, we’re switching all our North American apparel orders to packaging with a 90–100% share of PCR plastic content.

We decided to start with North America since it’s our biggest market, and our European locations are already using eco-friendly packaging with 70–100% PCR plastic content. Over time, we’ll continue to introduce gradual changes to packaging across all our locations.

This change brings us one step closer to our sustainability goals since recycled content saves raw materials and requires less energy to produce, which is important to our customers and our team.

Why did we choose PCR plastic? 

When looking for the best solution for apparel orders, we considered several sustainable packaging types: bioplastic, compostable plastic, PCR plastic, and kraft mailers (paper bags). Each option has its benefits, meaning, what works for one product category might not work for another.

Biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging

Biodegradable and compostable plastic might seem like the obvious choice to many since it’s made from plant-based materials, which would make for compostable packaging. While it looks like regular plastic and has similar qualities, it usually has very different sorting and recycling guidelines.

While plant-based packaging solutions have many benefits, certain types can have very complicated recycling journeys. Some products made from biodegradable plastic can be composted at home, some need to be composted industrially, and some can even be disposed of along with regular plastic. This makes the recycling process confusing and brings challenges to customers and recyclers alike. 

biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging
Source: Unsplash

It’s important to acknowledge that, despite this, biodegradable and compostable packaging materials offer some great benefits. They are made from renewable raw materials that don’t require petroleum use, and they don’t add to microplastic pollution. Both of these material types have great potential, but all recycling systems aren’t ready to accommodate them just yet. Improper sorting can ruin an entire recycling batch, which is then sent to a landfill instead. What this means, is that recyclable packaging is only helpful when people can recycle it correctly.

To make sure that our choices actually lead to better outcomes, we want to use sustainable packaging options that aren’t confusing for the end consumer, and that they can dispose of properly.

Paper or kraft packaging

Paper is a renewable and compostable packaging material, and recycling systems are very well equipped to handle it. We already use kraft mailers (the brown material made from chemical pulp that is often used for envelopes) for phone cases in some of our facilities, in addition to the cardboard boxes we use for posters, mugs, and large orders. This year we’re also planning to test out new kraft packaging in California. In the future, we may introduce more kraft mailers to some product categories as an eco-friendly alternative.

kraft cardboard or paper packaging
Source: Unsplash

Despite the many advantages of paper and kraft eco-friendly packaging, it’s not perfect. For example, paper isn’t infinitely recyclable, despite what many people believe. According to The New York Times, paper can be recycled four to six times before the fibers get too short for quality packaging material. There are also several specific reasons why Printful can’t just use kraft mailers for all orders and product categories. 

The biggest challenge is that kraft mailers aren’t suitable for large products and are likely to break during shipping, which would significantly increase damage rates. Kraft or parchment paper bags also don’t work for our automatic packing machines. If we were to use them for multi-item shipments, there would still have to be a layer of plastic (or other flexible packaging material) inside the kraft mailer.

Lastly, we can’t ignore the fact that kraft materials are more expensive than plastic packaging (including PCR plastic). If we were to use recycled kraft mailers, it would increase the price of the packaging up to 10 times, which would affect product pricing for our customers.

Are we ever going to ditch plastic for good?

While compostable and biodegradable materials have huge potential, right now they present too many challenges to customers and recyclers alike. Kraft and paper are also great options, and we’re already using these materials where we can in our sustainable packaging. Having weighed the challenges, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to fully eliminate plastic from our eco-friendly packaging in one fell swoop. Instead, the changes we introduce will be gradual and ever-evolving. 

The new packaging in North America

In addition to improving the packaging materials, we’ve also changed our eco-friendly packaging design. We used to have an informative PCR icon on our eco-friendly packaging, indicating that the material is post-consumer recycled, but we wanted to provide some additional information to make the instructions even clearer. 

Despite the additional information and design improvements, the new sustainable packaging is still completely white label, which means when a customer orders something from your store, they won’t see Printful mentioned at any point.

printful new eco friendly sustainable packaging with recycling instructions
Source: Printful

The new design is meant to be accessible and self-explanatory, featuring the message “Recycle me again.” It communicates two separate ideas: the packaging has been recycled before and you can recycle it again. We hope that this can become a simple and convenient way to draw people’s attention to recycling.

We have also added some more information about what PCR plastic is, and the proper way to dispose of it. In most locations, plastic bags don’t belong in everyday recycling bins and need to be taken to a drop-off point, like your nearest grocery store. The new packaging features a QR code, which directs you to a website with the closest drop-off points in your area. 

The information in the QR code contains guidelines for the US and Canada. If your customers are located in a different region, they can simply follow the local sorting guidelines. The best option is always to ask for advice from their local waste management service provider.

What should sellers be doing?

In short—nothing! We’ve created the new apparel packaging to be its own source of information. This way, you as a store owner don’t have to worry about passing this information on to your customers since everything is right on the package. Your customers will know that they’re receiving recycled packaging that they can then recycle again, but they won’t know that it came from us.

We’re also actively working on improving our custom packaging service. Custom packaging can help showcase your brand identity and make the experience of receiving your products more personal. It’s already possible to stock kraft mailers as your custom packaging, and additional options are being added all the time.

Your packaging has to meet specific guidelines, and we need to approve it before it can be used, so head over to our blog post about custom packaging to learn more about the specifics. You can order your packaging from any supplier, but we’ve also listed and compared our own packaging supplier recommendations to help you pick the right fit for you.

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By Elizabete Fleismane on Apr 14, 2022

Elizabete Fleismane

Blog author

Elizabete is a Content Writer with an affinity for brand building and strategic communication. She's an eager communicator with a mindful approach to adapting content for a diverse range of audiences and platforms.

Elizabete is a Content Writer with an affinity for brand building and strategic communication. She's an eager communicator with a mindful approach to adapting content for a diverse range of audiences and platforms.