Photo © David Gilford

Styrofoam is one of the world’s most environmentally unsound packaging materials – not only does it stick around in the environment forever (I’ll never forget swimming around a beautiful fresh-water lagoon in the DR, picking up tiny bits of foam that had found their way there), it’s super toxic to produce, clogs animal digestive tracks, contributes to ozone depletion, it’s made from non-renewable petroleum, and it leaches chemicals into food, especially if microwaved; and that’s not all! Fortunately, there’s a handful of innovative companies who are kicking the material to the curb – read on to learn about some inspired alternatives to the styrofoam scourge!

sustainable design, green design, packaging the future, green packaging, styrofoam, environmental design, biodegradable packagingPhoto © Kinerific

When writing, researching, and generally being nosy about the whys of sustainable (or supposedly sustainable) products and their associated packaging, once in a while I run up against the absolutist argument. It goes like this: I am asking (many, many) questions of a person who has many years of experience in a certain industry, and when I ask them why they are knowingly continuing a practice that’s unsustainable, they say, “Because there’s no other way to keep it cold/keep it from breaking/preserve it/meet our bottom line demands.” And then they look me in the eye and say something (condescendingly) like “It wouldn’t be very eco-friendly if we had to make twice as many cause half of them broke/rotted/melted, would it?” Reporters just love rhetorical questions, don’t you?

This absolutist argument comes from the mindset that the way something has been done is always the way it should be done (ie. it would take too much time, trouble and possibly some creativity to come up with a better solution). It is the excuse I’ve most heard for the continued use of styrofoam, for example. And it just ain’t true. One of the places I’ve continually heard that styrofoam can’t be replaced is in packaging for computers and electronics, and furniture. These items become worthless, or nearly so, if even minorly chipped or broken.

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Over at Housefish, a great eco-friendly furniture store (FSC-certified wood, nontoxic varnishes, and are key points), the owner, Scott Bennett, ran up against this very problem; how did he ship his gorgeous furniture without marring it a bit (taking into consideration the vicissitudes of the major US shippers) AND maintain his eco-cred? He wrote, “Petroleum based foam is extremely hard to avoid. We really didn’t want to use any plastics anywhere in this product, but there are very few suitable alternatives to EPS (commonly known as Styrofoam) for heavy objects like furniture.” But with a little digging and a few months’ worth of research, Scott found a solution (what I like to call a happy eco-ending!).

“We are very pleased to announce we have just completed our switch to 100% paper-based internal packaging materials. Any Key modular storage orders shipped after today will be completely free of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS, e.g. Styrofoam) and Polyethylene (PE, e.g. foam wrap).They have been replaced by Hexacomb kraft paper honeycomb, and cellulose wadding (which is a bit like extra thick toilet paper). Both products are made from 100% recycled fiber, and are themselves recyclable with your normal household paper or cardboard.”

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Scott told me in an email, “Since switching to the paper-based packaging (which had virtually no cost penalty relative to styrofoam), our damage rate has been 0%. No damage at all. There’s really no reason for everyone not to be using the stuff, but it’s been a huge struggle to convince some of the overseas manufacturers I do design work for to even consider it.” Scott’s not the only eco-conscious designer who has found solutions through paper; Litl webbooks packages their mini-laptop in a wholly paper-and-cardboard combination, and it works so well (and looks so fab) that it won the iF Communications Design Awards and will be featured in iD Magazine.

According to the company’s site, “Litl‘s packaging for the webbook enables the company to ship its computers in their own boxes – a decision that reduced Litl’s carbon footprint by eliminating the need for additional boxes and minimizing the space needed for transportation. The entire package is made from recyclable paper with no plastics or foams in use.The webbook’s packaging also includes non-traditional ways of presenting standard accessories. Instead of inserting an instruction manual, litl collaborated with acclaimed illustrator David Macaulay to create several whimsical cards to introduce the world to the way the webbook works. Additionally, the packaging for the webbook’s remote control simply resembles a paper pouch, a design choice that mimics the experience of tearing open a bag of potato chips.”

From high-end furniture to computers, these two examples prove that with a little thoughtful design, we really CAN avoid some of the most hazardous and polluting packaging materials out there.

+ Housefish

packaging the future, green packaging, starre vartanStarre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (