How We Are Trying to Make Our Box Packaging More Sustainable

E-commerce packaging is a huge source of waste, as well as a massive drain on natural resources.

bottles of public goods travel size body wash

We simply haven’t figured out how to provide the convenience we want without destroying our planet.

At Public Goods we get that we are part of that problem. But we’re trying not to be. With some guidance from you and the right packaging experts, maybe we can be part of the solution.

Many of our members ask about whether our packaging is sustainable. So, we wanted to offer a little digital unboxing of what we’re doing now and how we are trying to improve.

Before we get into the details, let’s clarify that the packaging we are talking about is boxes and materials inside the boxes that prevent products from becoming damaged or spoiled. We’re not discussing the packaging of the products themselves (bags for popcorn, plastic bottles for mustard, shampoo bottles, etc.). We’ll tackle that issue in a separate post.

Now, like a Public Goods box on its way to be recycled, let’s break it down:

Boxes

What We Used to Do

Most of our old boxes were pieces of corrugated cardboard laminated with black printed sheets. People generally liked the look, but there was one problem: some recycling facilities had trouble processing boxes with black ink.

What We’re Doing Now

Currently we are shipping 100% recycled material boxes without the black ink printing. This change has ensured that anyone can recycle our cardboard.

Filler Material/Interior Packaging

What We’re Doing Now

To reduce plastic consumption, we substitute with paper whenever possible. Instead of relying on plastic bubble wrap to protect products, we pack boxes with Kraft paper padding that is easily recyclable.

We’ll admit, however, that we do use some plastic. To prevent leaks in liquid products, we encase them in bags made of polyethylene, the most common type of plastic.

How We Are Trying to Improve

Currently we are researching alternatives that are biodegradable and compostable. We are also trying to incorporate plastic that is at least partially biodegradable or compostable in certain conditions.

Our Head of Customer Experience, Lloyd Ellman, said, “My dream is a box where all the interior packing materials can be disposed at home without entering the conventional waste stream at all, either by dissolving, composting or reusing.”

Changing the Industry

One of our biggest challenges in implementing these improvements comes from the fact that the eco-friendly packaging industry is tiny right now. Because there isn’t much competition to drive down prices, it costs a lot of money to purchase the sustainable materials we want. Perhaps we can change that landscape, though.

“We see ourselves as a company that can create demand and ultimately make these products mainstream and affordable to all,” Ellman said.

In the meantime let us know what you think might work. From the beginning we have seen our members as collaborators in the product and packaging development process. We have been following relevant stories, research and businesses, but there could be something we’re missing.

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Comments (57)

  • Hello I am a Washington state resident, I love that as a company there is thought about how we dispose of our waste. I would be interested in a company I can do a take back program with. Where customers can send back what packaging isn’t possible for them to recycle like the poly plastics. They are lightweight also. I compost and reuse my glass. I buy local but would like to support brands that are thinking about waste solutions to bring attention to this demand. I also think cardboard pickup sites like terra cycle are a good idea for crowded areas like the city. Convenient life usually creates more waste in general.
    Thank you for your time and interest in waste solutions I would love to hear what you think about take backs and where you guys are going with poly plastics.
    P.S. I don`t generally feel any safer with a protrotive seal it’s, a false illusion of security, bad people are going to find ways to do bad things and not get caught.

    • I’d definitely join the “take back program” if Public Goods has this available. It’s been on my mind and I believe it to be a very thoughtful idea.

  • Thank you for this, and for all that you do to make sustainability accessible!

    I am going to second Erin’s suggestion of a take-back program, and I could ship the empty product containers back in the box & packaging that they arrived in. I usually transfer my products into my own containers at home anyhow, so this would be a great solution for me!

    I also really appreciate how much thought goes into packaging, alternative materials, etc… can’t wait to learn more about how that is going in the companion article!

    • Teresa and Erin,

      Thank you both so much for these suggestions around a take-back program for packaging. This has been on our minds for a while now and while we don’t believe that we have figured out a solution that will make everyone happy just yet, we’re working on it. Obviously packaging is a huge component of the waste stream and we want to do whatever we can to minimize it.

      We are considering reusable secondary packaging – permanent replacements for cardboard boxes that can be shipped back to us and sent out to customers again and again. If a system like this proves workable, we may expand it to primary packaging – the actual jars, bags, and tubes that contain our products.

      In the meantime, we’re actively developing more bulk and refill options for customers like you who repackage our products into your own containers. (I do the same thing myself) Look out for a few new options in the next few months!

      Thanks again for your support and feedback, please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have additional thoughts.

      Lloyd

      • Would joining something like Loop be viable? This is the company that’s going with Reuse over Recycle, so ice cream is shipped in aluminum cans and when you get your next order, you return the used containers. http://www.loopstore.com Maybe you could be another brand that they carry?

        I get meat and eggs delivered every month in a reusable bag, and Walden Farms just picks up the old bags the next month. Of course, they are using their own delivery people, so maybe that makes a big difference.

        • We’re definitely keeping an eye on Loop’s launch! At this point they only plan to have relationships with giant corporate brands but we’re hoping to eventually be able to use a platform like theirs or to build our own to solve packaging waste issues.

          Companies that do their own regional deliveries definitely have a leg up in terms of reusable packaging. For us, shipping packaging back to be reused ends up adding a lot of additional cost and carbon emissions. That said, we’re constantly working on a better options in this area and hopefully will have an update for you in the next few months.

          Please keep up the great feedback,

          Lloyd

  • I love that we can buy the refills on shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion. I wish that you had a refill for the dish soap!

  • I was very surprised that you individually wrap tea bags in plastic sleeves. Until this is resolved, I will continue to purchase Tazo (paper sleeves) or PG Tips (no per-bag packaging).

    • Hi Geri,

      Thanks for this feedback. We’re working on a better solution and our next batch of tea should solve this problem. Stay tuned!

      Lloyd

      • My favorite tea is Trader Joe’s English Breakfast for this reason (besides it being very good tea). It’s just one bulk package I can open and pour into a tin. No need at home for individually-wrapped teabags.

        Thanks for being so attentive to feedback!

  • Hi,

    I appreciate the thought that goes into sustainability. It did give me pause when I had to deal with the box. Fortunately, I have a garden and could use it under my mulch to keep weeds down.

    I do think that manufacturers should pay the cost of disposal of the packaging and items they produce. They should figure a life cycle and how much it would cost to be recycled or disposed of properly. This would cause manufacturers to invest in options that would more cost effectively recycle the material. As it stands, much of the recycling we’ve sent to China is no longer being recycled and is being held. That cost should be part of the purchase cost, and as investment in recycling facilities increase, prices would come down and innovation would increase…I think.

  • Could you seal individual bottles separately, rather than putting it all in a bag? When flying, I often put a small amount of cling film over a bottle top and put the lid in place over that. It helps. Maybe something that creates a seal but uses significantly less plastic? It’s not a perfect solution, but it might be a temporary compromise.

    Good luck in your searching and thank you for continuing to improve.

    • This would be better anyway. One of my shampoo bottles leaked everywhere during shipping. I had to rinse all the bottles that were in the bag, and dry them, before I could put them away.

      • Hi Jeanelle,

        So sorry that this happened! We’re always working on better packing materials and methods to ensure that our products arrive safely. Sometimes things happen that are out of our control, but we’re always happy to resolve any issues that arise. If you haven’t already, please reach out to service@publicgoods.com, tell them I sent you, and I’ll make sure we get you a replacement shampoo.

        As far as sealing goes, we try to keep the total number of plastic bags to an absolute minimum while still protecting our products from accidental damage, spills or contamination. I’ll review with our packing team to make sure they’re keeping everything safe!

        Thanks for your comments!

        Lloyd

  • Thank you for taking is issue seriously and doing what you can to address it. Packaging is a huge part of the problem and it’s so great that you’re looking at how to drive more demand for recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging. Logistically speaking, have you considered ways to close-the-cycle or do ‘take backs’ in the form of pick-ups? I often think we could reuse our boxes multiple times, as well as much of the internal packaging. I could quite easily unpack all my items when they arrive and then save the box and all the packaging somewhere safe until my next order, at which time I could place the empty box and packaging in a place where your delivery driver could take it back to the warehouse to be reused in my next order or anyones who is happy to use reused packaging. Some boxes might be able to do 3 or 4 deliveries before losing integrity? Some packaging could potentially be reused indefinitely? Could be worth some testing? This concept could also expand as time goes on and people become accustomed to it, to allow for the returning and reusing of other containers too where appropriate (like glass bottles, like back in the day with milk deliveries). Thank you again!

    • Hi Alana,

      We have definitely thought a lot about a take back program. Once we make a decision, we will most likely send another update. The challenge is figuring out how to implement that initiative sustainably (take backs can mean more shipping, gas, etc., ultimately more waste and CO2 if not done efficiently).

  • I also think the consideration for how waste is processed is commendable. Manufacturing compostable materials would be the best solution, as more people are opening up to the idea of growing their own food using home-made compost. I agree with ideas to use plain recyled cardboard without the extra cost and difficulty of dark ink/labels etc.

  • I love that you listen to your customers when they are asking for changes, and that you are continuously looking to be better.
    I agree also with the idea of a takeback program, and like the idea of not a lot of ink on the boxes. It would be cheaper that way I think too!
    I bought the teabags once, but wont be again until theres no plastic separating them. Individual paper sleeves would be wonderful, or even just a paper lining in the box and loose teabags or something.

    Also, I see that the shampoo, conditioner, and body wash bottles are made of sugar cane. I would love to see the toothpaste and other stuff also made from that, and the Phenooxyethanol taken out. I just saw this on my last order that it’s in all 3 of my shower products and was really disappointed. For the most part though keep up the good work 🙂

    • I’m afraid it doesn’t have any of those qualities yet. Sorry for the disappoint news. We are trying, however, to make the product more sustainable, perhaps via a take back program.

      • I second the question about the deodorant, it’s a great, sturdy container, and I hate throwing it away. Could you develop a replacement cartridge for it–pop out the old one and insert the new? As for shampoo and such, the refill containers are great. If you could find a way to make the refill containers from something biodegradable, then those of us who re-use the original Public Goods containers would have very little waste.

          • Replacement cartridges for stick deodorant are a great idea!

            I have been wanting for a long time to find deodorant and toothpaste that don’t come in plastic. Found Schmidt’s deodorant in a jar recently. Still looking for toothpaste…

      • When will you do a blog post about the containers themselves? I know you use some alternative plastics but when sugar plastics break down in landfills they create methat which is really bad. What can we do to convince you to use glass and do a take back program or at least use materials that are not doing more harm. Thanks!

        • Hi Tamara,

          Maybe I can write a post for every major upgrade we make. We are exploring take-back programs, but we’ll admit they are really challenging to implement with the amount of money we have. Hopefully we can find a solution in the next few years. I will also forward your comment about increasing glass use.

  • I was thinking to change the box design. Instead of using the black just keep it a nice brown color. Some cardboard has that nice sleek darker brown then keep the white imprint for the logo. This way you don’t have to worry about the black laminent. For inside the box look up mushroom based packaging. There is a startup company that works to grow mushrooms mixed with wood pulp I believe to form a type of protection around products.

  • Ecovative Desgin. They are a plant based company that uses compatible packaging made out of mushrooms. Definitely check then out!

  • I hope we can find a sustainable of delivery, I have been using my own canvas bags for shopping & stop using grocery plastic bags for 25 years. Reuse is top priority now, when we hear “recycle”, please understand how the process is done. As Mike said above, most of our trash is sent to other countries, it is not solving the problem.
    As it stands e-commerce is popping up everyday, Amazon and many other mail order companies produce an enormous amount of plastics & cardboard, at rate way quicker than we can reuse or recycle, and so call biodegradable items take hundred of years, now it is reported all the toxins from most of these plastic are in our everyday lives, hence comes with lots of new diseases.
    We need to be educated and informed on how to realistically save our planet.
    Read the books by Bill McKibbon on global warming.
    Bravo for everyone bringing the subject into discussion, I too love the idea of reuse packaging & returning glassware for future use. Let’s keep finding a solution. Thank you all.

  • Hello! I’m very excited about this company and have high hopes for its future! I understand that some plastic is needed now for shipment; however, I would appreciate an effort to reduce that. For example, the “zero waste” bags I just received were wrapped in plastic bags and the cleaners were also wrapped in plastic films. Hope this is something you will consider addressing in the future!

    • Hi Lesley,

      You’re right that we need to reduce plastic, and we are working on it. Plastic reduction is one of our top long-term goals.

  • I appreciate your work toward less packaging and more sustainable packaging. Because of this, I don’t understand why the dish soap — a product I use every single day — is only available in a very small bottle, and there is no refill pouch available.

  • So refreshing to hear your efforts as a team to adapt more sustainable packaging in the future. As with all good things, I understand that you all need time to develop a plan that you’re confident in and excited to share with your customers. I’d like to echo my support for reusable packaging and reduced plastic wrap. Glad to hear the boxes are already being improved. As for the tea bags that someone noted were in plastic packaging, David’s Tea, a Canada-based company, uses sachets and overwrap that are biodegradable. Maybe they could be a helpful resource! Thanks for all you do as a company!

    • Choice Tea and Equal Exchange also do. And Celestial Seasonings just comes in no-label bags, in a paper sack, in a cardboard box! I think they’re the best model. I do think it’s becoming rarer and rarer to see plastic packaging and staples in tea bags, now that alternatives have been developed!

  • You could look into beeswax wraps? A lot of the beeswax wrap companies are just starting to take off as well so you guys could help each other! Maybe speak to one of the companies that sell them and see if they make or could make very large ones that could be wrapped around the products you want to keep from spilling? And then the consumer has a beeswax wrap for their veggies or fruits or the top of a bowl, in place of Tupperware or other plastic containers. Maybe you could use small pieces of beeswax wrap as the seals for bottles in place of plastic as well. The increase in business for beekeepers could mean an increase in the number of bees in the world. This would be a win-win-win situation, I believe. Also beeswax-lined paper boxes/cartons could be used to hold some products that are currently in plastic or glass. The take-back program is also a wonderful idea. I truly appreciate all you are doing to help the world and it’s people! Making convenience convenient for everyone (whether they are covered in fur, leaves, or naked skin) ❤️

  • Hi there,

    I so appreciate what you guys are trying to do for our big blue home. Like many others who have commented on this post. I do agree on the take back program. What about bottles made from aluminum?
    Maybe providing information on your website to consumers about how and where your products can be recycled?
    The goal in my opinion should be to create less waste and cut down in recycling all together but I understand we’re a long way from this.
    How is the company doing? What kind of help do you guys need from us?
    Please let us know. We look to responsible companies like you. Who are willing to make changes and accept responsibility for what you are bringing to the public.
    thank you
    Connie

    • Hi Connie,

      The aluminum idea is interesting. I forwarded it to our product team. We are definitely considering using more aluminum.

      We actually do have a disposal guide! I can’t link to it here, but you should be able to find it. Eventually we can make it more easily accessible on the site.

      We are doing well! Thank you for asking and offering more support. The best way to help us is to continue providing feedback like this. You can also refer people to Public Goods and save money on your orders if they accept the referral link.

  • Hello! I would love to become a member, but the cost of shipping + taxes to Quebec (not to mention the $ exchange) make it a pricey proposition. I realize that most of your products are created in the U.S., but is it possible to develop a system that makes it cost-effective for Canadians to shop at Public Goods?

    Thanks very much,

    Pamela

    • I have the same question! I am not from Quebec so it’s a little less but would similarly love to hear what the future of public goods in Canada may be.

    • Hi Pamela,

      We are working on a more efficient system for shipping to Canada! Once I have access to more details, I will make an announcement via content or fill you in here.

  • I absolutely love the conversation! It’s really great to see how much you guys care and are responding to your customers, but also accepting feedback and constantly improving to be better! Love the idea of take back programs and fully reusable containers as an option, especially if streamlined and made easy it could convert so many customers who already shop for convenience (like on amazon, or meal prep services), to keeping to their same habits but in a more sustainable way!
    Just thought I’d add my thoughts to the conversation – what about transportation carbon emissions? Obviously probably more than half the footprint of the products are removed just from eliminating the brands/retailers etc… What if the future of public goods could mean local shopfronts or pick up points are available instead of personal shipping? Localizing business and stimulating local economies by partnering with small businesses could even be a plus.

    • Hi Sam,

      Thank you for the positive feedback! I can’t answer all of your questions at this point, but I will make these points:

      1. I forwarded your ideas and feedback to our team. Maybe they will know something about the transportation carbon emissions issue.
      2. We are definitely going to have local shopfronts at some point. Our founder has wanted a PG general store for a long time.
      3. We are already partnering with many local businesses such as hotels, zero-waste grocery stores, bed and breakfasts, Airbnbs and similar companies, real estate developers, etc.

  • Hi,
    I am interested in trying your products, however, I don’t see anything about Animal Testing.. You are not on the “Happy Bunny” site. My wife and I are Vegan and do not use “Any” products who animal test. Please clarify your company’s position on this matter.

    Scott

    • Hi Scott,

      It’s true that we are not participating in that program yet (I think it’s called the Leaping Bunny). I will raise the issue during our next company meeting. Nonetheless, we do have cruelty-free and vegan labels on relevant products. You should be able to see those badges on our product pages and physical products. To clarify the position: we do not test ingredients or products on animals.

  • Hi there,

    I see your products contain palm oil. I was wondering if it was from somewhere sustainable or from the rain forest. I am trying to avoid products that contain palm oil to help prevent further deforestation to the rain forest.

    Thank you!

  • For the cleaners, have you considered tablets that dissolve in water as refills? Ordering a tablet refill would significantly reduce CO2 emissions in transport and all that plastic packaging for the spray bottles.

  • Wow! It is incredible just how much time and dedication you are putting into direct customer interaction — not to mention the values that drive your company. I’m very impressed! Thanks for being so transparent and for putting environmental concerns so high on the priority list, where they belong. Climate solutions often get pushback from business, but I think you are helping to show that the solution to climate issues can also *come* from business. Thanks also for considering multiple layers of environmental impact (i.e. the extra carbon footprint of “take-back” programs), instead of just going with things that will look good to consumers on the surface.

    Back to the original post — great idea to “break down” your packaging for us, and another example of wonderful transparency. I’d love to see the post on internal packaging when that gets made. That is one of the biggest thorns in my side when it comes to buying products I use in my life. It’s easy now to find products that contain ethical ingredients, but they often still come in plastic, and it’s hard to be fully happy with the contents when the container is still problematic. I’m excited to see what you come up with as you help drive solutions to these problems!

  • Really looking forward to the second article mentioned about each product’s packaging but can’t seem to find anything anywhere. I would also personally love if each item on your website listed what the packaging was. I try not to use plastic at all but when I do it has to be #1 or #2 because that’s all we are able to recycle here in New Orleans.

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