While the use of eco-friendly options is rising, adoption is limited to upscale releases due to high costs. Most makers recycle and employ fewer materials instead.
China's export manufacturers are increasingly adopting earth-friendly alternatives to traditional packaging choices. PLA is replacing petroleum-based polymers to create degradable plastic containers and gift bags. More innovative solutions include microwave-, oven- and refrigerator-safe food canisters made from natural wheat straw pulp.
Such options, however, are used only for high-end releases targeting the US and the EU. At present, conventional materials still hold sway because they are cost-effective, functional and practical. In most cases, incorporating environment-friendly packaging raises manufacturing outlay 30 percent.
Wheat straw pulp containers, for instance, are roughly 50 percent more expensive than plastic foam. A ton of the natural raw material currently stands at 5,000 to 6,000 yuan ($731 to $877). Gift and packaging bags made of paper processed with pulp culled from sustainable forests cost 2 to 5 percent more as well.
To heed the growing call for ecologically safe practices, however, suppliers have taken to recycling instead. Paper waste is reduced to a pulp and reprocessed into new sheets. Others are simplifying designs to ensure minimal use of materials.
Standardized packaging is actually the norm at many large home appliance companies so that wastage can be reduced. Buyers' logos and patterns differentiate the cartons, but even then, prints are limited to three colors. Modifications, however, are accepted for a fee.
Still there are others that work with clients to balance minimum wastage and functionality. Electric kettle manufacturer Guangdong Longde Group Co. Ltd collaborates with buyers to ensure its recycled paper packaging can still provide optimum protection.
Reusable, degradable alternatives
Paper is increasingly being used to replace wood and EPS foam as packaging material for home appliances. The inner padding or cushioning for the cartons now comes in corrugated or honeycomb paper board. Compared with EPS foam and wood, paper can be reused in multiple ways and is cost-effective. Replacing EPS foam with honeycomb paper board for the cushioning is estimated to cut outlay by about 20 percent.
Cardboard is also being adopted in lieu of film packaging for small home appliances because it is less expensive and easier to recycle. The plastic is used to laminate paper gift boxes as well. This type of surface treatment, however, results in paper that is harder to recycle. As such, several companies are now incorporating the more earth-friendly UV oil finish, which costs the same as film laminates.
Shandong Teanhe Green Pak Science and Technology Co. Ltd, meanwhile, uses the same papermaking process to produce ecologically safe food and medical packaging products derived from natural wheat straw pulp. The food-grade items are nontoxic, 100 to 120 C oil- and water-resistant, and microwave-, oven- and refrigerator-safe. Not only can the containers be recycled, they can also degrade into fertilizer after being buried in soil for 100 days.
Concerns over cost, practicality
In general, it is the large and foreign-invested businesses that first delved into implementing measures toward achieving sustainable production, including developing environment-friendly packaging. But this has not spread widely enough to the smaller and locally owned operations. As such, green manufacturing has yet to achieve economies of scale. Consequently, costs are often higher.
Shandong Teanhe's workaround over the price issue is to target the midrange and high-end market. By doing so, the company has been able to post 30 percent annual growth since 2008. Even then, R&D is being carried out to improve processing and lower outlay for the wheat straw containers.
Apart from cost issues, eco-friendly substitutes sometimes do not perform as well as conventional materials. Most gift boxes, for instance, are still film-laminated because UV oil finish does not resist air and moisture as well as traditional plastic.
In addition, a few ecologically safe alternatives are actually more polluting because of the way they are processed. To decrease paper weight while still ensuring durability, many paper manufacturers work on improving starch paste, some of which now contain formaldehyde. Safer variants free from the toxic chemical are also available but at a higher cost.