I was once a Christmas seasonal worker for a local Kohl’s clothing store. Handling anywhere from seventeen to nineteen million dollars of merchandise at one time, the store needed to get regular shipments at least three times a week. On those days, I had to wake up at 4 in the morning to get to work unloading a semi-truck full of boxes. There would be the occasional announcement between the songs on the radio from a friendly female voice talking about the vast quantities of boxes and packages that Kohl’s would recycle. At the same time, I was working in the back room, frantically stripping plastic from individually packaged pieces of clothes, to fill rack after rack of uniform style and personality for the unsuspecting consumer to wander by and purchase. I must have tossed away thousands of pieces of plastic while I was working there.

To the credit of Kohl’s, there was significant effort to reuse certain plastics, cardboard, and hangers. Maybe around half to two thirds of what came in was recycled. However, the thin patina of environmentalism that covered for Kohl’s was masking a reality that every shopper already knows. Almost every item sitting on store shelves or hanging from store racks has a distinct cost to the environment that study after study has carefully quantified and tabulated into a wide tapestry of numbers that terminate with injured or dead wildlife, damage to the broader ecosystems and economies that humans inhabit, and the individualized consumption habits that degrade the public health of the wealthiest nations on Earth.

In a market economy like the one that operates in most of the globe today, making the argument for environmentally friendly packaging (EFP) isn’t an easy one. Too often today, we’re making it to the wrong people. We’ve made significant strides in consumer and political awareness. A 2018 survey finds that over two thirds of consumers worldwide believe that “living an ethical or sustainable lifestyle” is important or very important for creating “a feeling of wellbeing.” (Mohan, 2018) Similar surveys all over the globe demonstrate that consumers are ready for change. (McCaskill, 2015 and Lee, 2017) Environmental awareness groups have done their part. What we need now is a novel approach that’s targeted at the very businesses that begin making goods, the businesses that transport them, and the businesses that distribute them. If there’s no reason for these businesses to use EFP, then little more will change.

After a fair bit of research, it appears in my view that there are a wide range of EFP materials – far too many in fact. Even limiting the materials to a few notable ones (provided by Mohan, 2018) like microfibrillated cellulose/nanocellulose, polyvinyl alcohol and its closely related ethylene vinyl alcohol , and polyethylene furanoate, there is no easy way for small or large businesses alike to determine how environmentally friendly these materials are or if they’re useful in packaging. Stacked against the well understood and organized business structures of plastic and traditional cardboard manufacturing, large companies are understandably hesitant to switch things up and small companies are too under-resourced to take a relatively large risk that could ruin one or more batches of goods heading to market. Individual companies might buck the trend, but, by and large, there is far too much high-density and theoretical technical information (the strength of fibers, abstract percentages on weight differences, tensile strength, etc…) and not enough high-grade, simple information (does this work to seal foods, protect clothing, survive transportation, etc…) to process. This information overload inevitably leads to what economists and psychologists call analysis paralysis, the inability to move forward with a decision due to overthinking. (Chen, 2019 and Taibbi, 2019)

In order to avoid falling into this trap, let’s walk through the most commonly used, unsustainable packaging and some of the possible and most practical environmentally friendly alternatives. The four main categories of products using packaging are food and drink (accounting for more than half of packaging use at 69%), clothing, home and interior, education, and recreation. (Pongrácz, 2007) Thinking about these products, everybody can find a few commonalities; lots of metals (especially tin and aluminum), plastic, cardboard, and various combinations of the above.

Let’s start with the metals, tin and aluminum. In terms of how environmentally friendly these materials are, there are two major concerns. Firstly, the mining process has a perceived negative environmental impact. Thankfully, both the tin and aluminum mining industries have built strong sustainability initiatives and have demonstrated a capacity to act on those initiatives. (The Aluminum Association, 2011 and The International Tin Association, 2017). These initiatives focus on restoring mining sites to their original state after extraction has been completed. The other concern is with how these metals are produced and recycled. To form them into useful shapes, it requires quite a bit of heat and energy, requiring lots of coal powered electricity. Aluminum alone contributes 4% of coal based emissions. Thankfully, due to sustainable electricity sources being on the rise such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric generation mechanisms, several producers are reducing their carbon footprint. (Burton, 2019) Add on to all of this that aluminum, tin, and tinplate are highly recyclable and constantly recycled, (Pullen, 2019 and Sloan, 2019) and it should leave any business using them with a clean conscience. These metals are environmentally friendly.

Next, let’s look at plastics. I would love to give a rosy vision of these materials, but that simply isn’t possible. Plastic is key to the way people are able to live nowadays. Fresh, inexpensive food is only possible due to large supply chains that allow grocers to purchase in bulk. The only way to facilitate that bulk while keeping food fresh requires plastic. The very same properties that keep food fresh, the non-solubility, flexibility, and durability, are what make plastics dangerous. Plastic is tough and doesn’t degrade in the natural environment. Hundreds of metric tons have absolutely covered sections of the ocean surface and ocean floor (Sebille, 2015), harming marine life and threatening our global ecosystems. (Savoca, 2016 and Reddy, 2018) Further, plastics themselves are made of fossils fuels like oil and natural gas, produced in heat and energy intensive processes, and eventually incinerated or recycled if they don’t end up in the ocean. In 2019, this cycle produced 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. (Hamilton and Feit, 2019) The simple solution would appear to be switching to other materials whenever plastics would normally be used. Unfortunately, that won’t work. Plastics, due to a number of factors, would harm the environment less than a mixture of biodegradable substitute materials. In the US alone, anywhere from 75.8 to 89.6 metric tons of CO2 are kept out of the atmosphere as well as saving thousands of MegaJoules in energy by using plastic instead of other materials. (Sauer, 2014) So, what can be done?

There are two main materials that will help this problem. While there are plenty of uses for plastic, the main uses in packaging are for single serving food and drink goods. For food products, which are generally encased in thin, flexible plastics, there’s a relatively new material that shows great promise. Ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) is a simple polymer made up of repeated chains of the organic ethylene and organically derived (Bienewald, 2019) vinyl alcohol (which, without ethylene, creates the popular plastic polyvinyl alcohol). (Mokwena, 2013) Not only is this bioplastic flexible, but it also provides a fine molecular barrier that traps in both gas and liquid while, more importantly, keeping everything else out. These properties set EVOH ahead of other flexible bioplastics. Further, recent strides have improved the how recyclable EVOH is, (Goldsberry, 2019) burning EVOH doesn’t produce the same toxic chemicals that oil based plastics produce, (Royte, 2019) and EVOH shows signs of being biodegradable within a decade. (Chiellini, 2003) EVOH isn’t perfect, but it’s the best solution to replace flexible plastics. As for the hard plastics that make bottles and jugs, polyethylene furanoate (PEF) seems to be a good potential replacement, but it isn’t going to be in production until 2024. (SpecialChem, 2019) Plastics are necessary to our modern world, so we should find ways to produce and use them responsibly.

From here, I could discuss how microfibrillated cellulose is a superior, EFP alternative to cardboard. (Lavoine, 2012 and Bertsch, 2016) However, I think I’ve gotten the point across. The major packaging materials have (or will have) accessible and effective environmentally friendly options. If this doesn’t convince the businessman on conscience alone, there is yet one more reason. Investors are putting their money into businesses with green business practices because those businesses make more money than other businesses. (Hirtenstein, 2018) Consumers are willing to spend money on products that are environmentally packaged. Furthermore, the attention to detail that switching materials requires likely makes packaging that is more conscientiously designed, creating associated benefits in product quality along with product packaging.

Businesses have a really good reason to switch to environmentally friendly packaging. Not only is it good for our environment, the Earth that all of humanity shares, but it also is good for the wallets of the businessman. The socio-environmental movements have done great work for the world by changing the mind of the consumer. Now it’s time to make that case to the movers and shakers of the global economy. It is time for companies to adopt more environmentally friendly packaging.


Bertsch (2016). 5 Exciting, Emerging Sustainable Packaging Materials to Watch in 2016. Packaging Digest.

Bienewald, Leibold, Tužina, and Roscher (2019). Vinyl Esters; Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. Wiley.
Burton, Bisheuvel, and Farchy (2019). Green Aluminum, Coming Soon to a Metals-Trading Desk Near You. Bloomberg.
Chen (2019). Analysis Paralysis. Investopedia.
Chiellini, Corti, D’Antone, and Solaro (2002). Biodegration of Poly (Vinyl Alcohol) Based Materials. Progress in Polymer Science (Volume 28, No. 6).
Goldsberry (2020). Tests Reveal Novel Ways to Improve Recyclability of Difficult-to-Recycle Plastics. Plastics Today.
Hamilton and Feit (2019). Plastic & Climate: The hidden costs of a plastic plant. The Center for International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 5Gyres, and #breakfreefromplastic.
Hirtenstein (2018). Most Investors are Going Green to Make Money, HSBC Says. Bloomberg.
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McCaskill (2015). Conumer-Goods’ Brands that Demonstrate Commitment to Sustainability to Outperform Those that Don’t. The Nielsen Company.
Mohan (2018). Sustainable Packaging Materials: Worth the cost? Greener Package.
Mokwena and Tang (2012). Ethylene Vinyl Alcohol: A review of barrier properties for packaging shelf stable foods. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition (Volume 52, No. 7).
Pongrácz (2007). The Environmental Impacts of Packaging; Environmentally Conscious Materials and Chemicals Processing. ResearchGate.
Pullen (2019). Is Tinplate as Recyclable as Aluminum. Tinware Direct.
Reddy (2018). Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Life Throughout the Ocean: Photos document extent of the impact, which extends to seafood people eat. Preventing Ocean Plastics.
Royte (2019). Is Burning Plastic Waste a Good Idea? National Geographic.
Sauer, Feraldi, Mosley, Schneider, Molen, and Snook (2014). Impact of Plastics Packaging on Life Cycle Energy Consumption & Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States and Canada: Substitution analysis. Franklin Associates.
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Sloan (2019). The Environmental Impact of Aluminum (And Why it’s Still Better than Plastic). Student Conservation Association.
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Taibbi (2019). Do you Have Analysis Paralysis? Psychology Today.
The Aluminum Association (2011). Aluminum: The element of sustainability. The Aluminum Association.
Essay by: David Noel Costello
Arizona State University

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