Whether you’re ordering some new clothes, treating yourself to a takeaway, or needing somewhere to store leftover pasta, packaging is an important part of our everyday lives.

There are many different types, and not all of them are as eco-friendly as one another. To help make things simpler, here at Beyond the Box, we have gathered and rated the most popular packaging materials, to give you an insight into how they all compare.

So, read on for our light-hearted take on Top Trumps that will mean you’ll be even better equipped to make decisions about the packaging you choose.

Cardboard

When it comes to sustainability, cardboard packaging ticks many boxes (excuse the pun!).

Being versatile and easy to print on, cardboard can be used creatively to house and package a range of different sized items. It’s useful for protecting items sent via home delivery (we suspect you might be used to seeing the occasional box arrive on your own doormat…) Then, once it’s in your home, we all know cardboard comes into its own and can be reused many times – perhaps there’s a cardboard box keeping your Christmas decorations organised as we speak.

Cardboard is 100% recyclable, so when you’ve unpacked your delivery – or when your reused cardboard box is on its last legs – simply flatten and add to your recycling bin. This means the fibres can be used time and time again.

The good news is that if worst comes to worst, and your cardboard packaging ends up in landfill, it is totally biodegradable and will decompose into the ground over time.

Glass

Handy for holding wine, jam, and other kitchen ingredients, glass packaging is limited in what it can hold, but for certain items it can’t be beaten. Like cardboard packaging, glass is 100% recyclable, and if still intact, can be reused again and again, like reusing glass jars to store household items or getting creative with an old wine bottle to make a candle holder.

One of glass’s undeniable strengths is that it won’t absorb any flavours or smells, which is why it’s a perfect material for storing food and drinks.

Although a durable material, glass is heavy, meaning extra energy may be required to transport items packaged in glass from A to B. It’s also fragile and can be hazardous if broken. It can be expensive to buy dozens of glass containers to store all your household ingredients. Plus, even though glass is ultimately biodegradable, it’s a very lengthy process, taking many thousands of years so it’s always best to recycle.

Paper

Paper packaging is compact and lightweight, and although it may not be as strong or durable as cardboard, paper is also 100% recyclable and biodegradable.

Paper bags are becoming popular with retailers and consumers due to the environmental benefits, helping to reduce plastic pollution.

Though a good sustainable packaging choice, paper’s durability is not great. Items like paper bags can be reused, but you may know all too well that these often don’t mix with a rainy day. Paper bags don’t last as long as plastic bags if they’re not looked after properly, either.

Plastic

Plastic is one of the most popular packaging materials in the UK, and one of the cheapest. Both rigid plastic and plastic film can be used to protect all sorts of food products, from microwave meals to cucumbers and chocolate bars, reducing the speed at which food will spoil. However, in recent years  plastic pollution has become a worldwide concern, and with some plastic taking hundreds of years to decompose, plastic packaging can be a highly polluting material.

Some plastic packaging can be reused and is very durable, however it’s often not the easiest material to recycle, particularly when compared to materials like paper and cardboard. Many of us are still confused about what can and can’t be recycled – and plastic packaging can be even more of a brainteaser. Rigid plastics can be added to your recycling bin, but other types, like plastic film, cannot.

This means that even with great recycling resources across the country, plastic can still be found littering the sides of motorways or town centres. Some plastic packaging can be recycled at home, but you will need to check with your local recycling centre to see what types of plastics they will take from kerbside recycling.

Metal

Sometimes items will need to be stored away from sunlight; this is often where metal packaging comes in. Durable and lightweight, aluminium and steel offer great product protection and often increase the shelf life of products, like tinned foods and drinks.

Unlike cardboard packaging, metal is not a renewable material, nor is it biodegradable. Throw metal in the bin and small pieces of metal will eventually rust and begin to flake away, while larger pieces of metal that have been treated won’t rust away and will end up sitting in landfill.  

This means that the best way to dispose of any metal packaging is to recycle it. Luckily, most popular metal packaging materials, like tins for chopped tomatoes and cans for fizzy drinks, are all widely recycled at kerbside. That means with just an empty and a rinse, it can be added to your recycling pile. Plus, metal can be recycled again and again, without losing quality. Let the recycling commence!

So, when it comes to packaging, remember that while it has an important place in our daily lives – helping to protect our food from decay and safely transport items across the country – packaging materials are not all created equal.

Carefully considering and choosing materials that come up trumps on our list can really make a difference to your individual environmental footprint.

And, while cardboard packaging probably isn’t the best way to preserve a cucumber (we’ll give you that one, plastic wrap!), it’s ultimately one of the most effective and environmentally friendly packaging choices out there.

Find out more and start your sustainable packaging journey with Beyond the Box.