Sustainable Packaging Matters. Here's Why.

10 January 2022

CL Croft

Humans need material things. Less than we think we do, and yet, evolution has not solved the problem of having “stuff.”

In 2020, online shopping became the new normal —thanks to the convergence of market trends and a worldwide pandemic. So did a massive increase in the amount of packaging flooding into homes (and in turn, the land, air, and waters that support the wildlife and ecosystems we rely on).

This marked a dramatic shift in the way we consume, and came with real environmental costs; research firm Technavio estimates that the market for air cushion packaging (those disposable bubble pillows that seem to stretch out forever) will grow by $1.16 billion between 2020 and 2024. A majority of that waste will end up polluting landfills and ecosystems.

We can laugh all we want at the absurdity of Amazon packaging fails ; and yet, there are operational complexities that lead to events like these, and those must be solved at the level of collective industry. To create ecologically sound packaging standards at a global scale, partnership from companies and legislators, at all levels of industry and policy, is critical.

As long as we live inside a material reality at a global economic scale, the things we need will have to travel to us safely. Simply put, packaging serves an important purpose. So what will it take to resolve the need for packaging with planet-safe materials?

The answer: less materials, recycled and recyclable, and compostable wherever possible. Here’s how we’re going about it.

What’s the problem with packaging?

Conventional packaging comes with loads of baggage (literally) for the planet.

In 1960, the U.S. generated 120 tons of plastic waste from containers and packaging (yes, only 120). In 2018, we made 14,530 tons of plastic waste , and recycled only 1,980; 2,460 was combusted for energy, and 10,090 was landfilled and sent into ecosystems. That means that in 60 years, we increased our plastic waste from packaging alone by 12008%.

Paper waste has seen a similar increase, and although much more of it is recycled, paper packaging isn’t harmless: it costs 3 billion trees per year (according to Vox ), which leads to deforestation and habitat loss.

On a global scale, less than 14% of the 86 million tons of single-use plastic packaging produced globally each year is recycled. The rest is sent to landfill, incinerator, or left to pollute waterways.

What’s the challenge with recycling?

Most people are generally confused about what happens to recycling, how to go about it correctly, and exactly why it’s important. In an interview with Fast Company , systems designer Don Norman put it eloquently, “As director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego, a former executive at Apple and HP, and the author of several books on human-centered design, I’m an expert in complex design systems. Yet I’m mystified by what should be the most basic forms of recycling, like whether or not I can recycle a milk carton.”

The complexity of the recycling infrastructure can feel like an impossible labyrinth of rules, and they’re not necessarily exciting to learn or remember. It can feel easier to opt out, or to recycle based on what we suspect the rules might be. What materials can and cannot be recycled is heavily dependent on where you live, and what recycling infrastructure exists in your area—and these complexities can limit recycling behavior.

While we at LifeLabs can’t solve for infrastructure, we are setting new precedents for packaging—and making it much easier to compost and recycle.

Our circular packaging strategy

Our sustainability team saw an opportunity to solve the packaging problem by doing what we do best: merging design with science.

Create less packaging altogether

“We’re focused on right-sizing our packaging so that we’re decreasing total material consumption, and maximizing the use of the packaging itself,” said Nicole Kenney, our Head of Sustainability.

When you order the MegaWarm Jacket, it will arrive at your door in a recyclable cardboard box, inside a reusable garment bag made from recycled materials that you can use for off-season storage. Other items ship in compostable garment bags and mailers that biodegrade like organic matter. These are made from PLA (polylactic acid corn polymer) that breaks down in residential green waste with yard clippings within several weeks.

Our sustainability team considered every option regarding the choice of packaging material; there are pros and cons to each one. A box is recyclable, and there’s infrastructure to collect it and send it back into use. A compostable mailer bag is lighter than a box and requires less resources to ship, and they work well in areas that support composting, but not as well in areas that don’t.

To reduce material, we eliminated entire categories of packaging from our products. We’ve forgone hang tags (the glorified paper bit that hangs from a string or plastic) and swift tacks (the utterly non-recyclable sliver of single-use plastic that attaches a paper tag). In their place, we developed our LifeTag.

One of our core innovations, the LifeTag isn’t an object at all. It’s a QR code printed on our garments where a tag would normally go. It improves on material reduction and also comfort, by eliminating the scratch potential. The LifeTag is instantly scannable, and links digitally to the product’s information—this way, we can provide comprehensive data using zero extra material. In the long-term, our LifeTag can serve as a unique identifier that enables greater transparency of our supply chain, as well as digital real-time tracking of our products. This is the kind of information that will allow us to build take-back programs and extend the life of our materials.

Divert from landfill with compostables and recyclables

“Diversion from landfill is our biggest goal, and a huge guiding factor in how we choose packaging materials,” Kenney said. “With green waste and residential composting services on the rise, we were drawn to the idea of the fully compostable polybag.”

By switching from conventional polybags to compostable packaging, we intend to divert over 1.8 metric tons of plastic waste from landfill in 2021.

To protect garments inside their shipping boxes, we’ve replaced fossil-fuel based polybags with compostable PLA-based bags. Instead of throwing away a conventional polybag (which takes over 200 years to degrade, and harms marine life), you can drop our compostable garment bag into your green bin, where it will take about 180 days to compost. We have opted for compostable mailer bags as our external packaging, because they are lighter to ship and break down in both residential and commercial compost boxes. Plus, they can be resealed and reused if you need to return or exchange.

Even the stickers on our bags are compostable. One of the complications of supposed recyclables is contamination from adhesives and other non-recyclable material that you’d need to physically cut or remove from the original packaging. That’s why it’s a challenge to use store dropoff sites as a feedstock for the polyethylene fiber in our products—a process we’re continuing to refine as we grow.

Compostable packaging can transform the way we live in harmony with the planet, but it needs to be truly composted in order to work. Compostable materials are not desirable in landfill environments—they need to be diverted from the wastestream (by you) to fulfill their circular potential.

Once we’ve minimized materials, source the rest responsibly

We’ve carefully evaluated every aspect of packaging materials to make the most thoughtful, responsible decisions possible. Our paper stickers are FSC-certified—a mark of sustainable forest management. Our inks meet REACH and RoHS compliance standards, which regulate hazardous chemicals to prevent harmful substances from entering waste streams.

The majority of our product is shipped in compostable mailer polybags; we opt for boxes only when necessary. And according to what’s in the order, we do our best to optimize packaging to maximize the capacity of the different bag sizes. In every step, we aim to set new precedents for efficiency by design.

The future of packaging

In short, as long as human needs are material, packaging is essential to protect the things that travel to our homes. As a team of innovators and designers who strive for symbiosis between planet and people, we are committed to leveraging both science and design to refine and evolve our packaging solutions for the highest level of sustainability. We believe in the possibility of truly sustainable packaging that delivers goods safely and efficiently (and even beautifully) to your home.