Many entrepreneurs believe that to be as eco-friendly as possible, they have to cut down on their packaging and use only natural materials. But packaging experts and researchers say sustainable packaging decisions aren't so black and white.

"You can't say that there is one material that's better than another. You have to pick the material that's right for your product," says Joan Pierce, executive director of the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN), a Wakefield Mass.-based advocacy organization for environmental packaging issues. Instead of simply focusing on finding the latest sustainable material, small-business owners would be wiser to think about how they can optimize their packaging process to minimize both environmental impact and the risk of product damage. Figuring out the right kind of packaging isn't a one-time effort. "Focus on continuous improvement," says Pierce. "If you do that, you're going to be way ahead."

Here are three things you should know about sustainable packaging to help you make the best decision for your business:

Cutting back too much on packaging can do more harm than good.
Reducing the amount of corrugated board you use when packing a product might seem eco-friendly, but cutting back too much on packaging could result in damage to the product during shipping, says Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader at Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co. A damaged product means wasted money for your company, of course, but it also represents wasted energy and natural resources. What's more, the damaged product now becomes waste in a landfill. "We need to think of product protection as a part of sustainability," Wooster says. "If we waste the product… we have certainly done more harm than good."

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Recycled materials usually aren't as durable as non-recycled ones.
When a material is recycled, it is typically less durable than one that has not gone through this process, says Sterling Anthony, a packaging and logistics consultant based in Detroit. Take paper, for example. Every time paper is recycled, its fibers are shortened, making it structurally weaker than non-recycled paper. So while using corrugated board made of recycled paper seems like an eco-friendly alternative, it may not be as effective in protecting your product during transport. The higher the percentage of recycled material in the board, the weaker it will be, Anthony says. What's more, maintaining consistent quality when using packaging made from a recycled material can be tricky. For example, you can have two corrugated boards with the same amount of recycled content that perform differently. That's because one could be made of old newsprint, while the other is made of a sturdier paper product. This doesn't mean you shouldn't use recycled materials. Just don't jump into it whole hog. You can start out using corrugated board that is made of, say, 10 percent recycled paper, and if that seems sturdy enough to protect your product, try gradually increasing the amount of recycled content.

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Paper isn't always better than plastic.
People often think that because paper is more natural and biodegradable than plastic, it is a better choice when trying to develop sustainable packaging. But that may not be so. Sustainability takes into account not just how natural a product is, but also how much energy and other resources are required to make it. For example, the production process for a paper shopping bag takes more energy and water and releases more greenhouse gases than the process for a standard plastic bag, Wooster says. Moreover, the choice between paper and plastic packaging will depend on the type of product being shipped. For example, a digital picture frame that could easily be crushed would need to be enclosed in corrugated board with foam padding around it, Wooster says. But if you're shipping cases of bottled beverages, they don't need that level of protection. It would make more sense to bundle the bottles together with plastic shrink film, enabling you to use less material and reduce the package weight. Although you're using plastic in your packaging, you're being as efficient with energy and materials as possible.

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