You’ve created the World’s Greenest Product, and you’re shipping it off to your first big customer. You’ve made it from the most environmentally sensitive materials, using only renewable energy. It’s the pinnacle of eco-friendly everything.

Special delivery.

Photo: iStockphoto.

So what are you going to pack it in, cardboard or plastic? And how are you going to keep it safe: Styrofoam, newspaper, popcorn, peanuts, Crackerjacks?

Last month, this column reviewed the impacts of shipping by plane, train, and automobile (and ship, of course). This time we dig a little deeper, looking at the impacts of the actual packaging materials that companies choose.

Those who ship products confront a boatload of packaging options, when you consider both the outer container and the inner materials used to cushion goods and fill space. Much like the perennial grocery-bag dilemma, opinions abound about which combination is “best” — and few of those opinions are conclusive.

Should you use a cardboard box instead of a plastic bag? How about shredded newspaper filler instead of foam “peanuts”? Logic might dictate that tree-based materials trump petro-based ones. But logic might be wrong.

So what’s the best call when you’re going green? The bottom line: It’s the weight, stupid — that is, the heft of the material, not its recycled content — that most influences the environmental impacts of your bags and boxes.

Bag It

Recently, a study commissioned by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. EPA offered one of the more comprehensive looks at the environmental impacts of transport packaging. It might even cause some manufacturers, retailers, and distributors to rethink their strategies.

The study analyzed more than 20 packaging options, including boxes, padded and unpadded bags, and several kinds of loosefill materials, made with both recycled and non-recycled content. It found that shipping items in bags — whether paper or plastic, virgin or post-consumer — had the lowest energy profile, including lower consumption of fossil fuels, less solid waste, and lower emissions.

Using corrugated boxes, including those made from post-consumer recycled content, was deemed to have a much higher impact. The heaviest combination (a corrugated box and molded-pulp loosefill) was found to weigh 26 times more than the lightest option (a linear low-density polyethylene, or LLDPE, plastic bag).

“The study confirms the waste-management hierarchy of reduce and recycle,” explains David Allaway of Oregon DEQ’s Solid Waste Policy and Program Development office. “Regardless of what the material is made of, the shipping bags have lower energy requirements and emissions because they weigh so much less.” (The full report — a weighty 500-plus pages — can be downloaded from DEQ.)

The findings of the study — which focused on materials used to deliver “soft” goods such as clothing and other relatively unbreakable products directly to consumers, as opposed to electronics and other more sensitive goods — are significant, since they are contrary to many companies’ tendency to focus on post-consumer recycled content as the main environmental attribute in selecting shipping materials.

“We have not found the environmentally friendly packaging material that doesn’t cause environmental impacts,” Allaway says. “Sometimes I think that gets lost in the enthusiasm for changing materials or using recycled content.”

Weight and See

Allaway is quick to point out, however, that “this is not a paper-versus-plastic study.” Rather, he says, it’s about factors that are too often overlooked: “The lesson is to pay attention to weight and volume,” he says. “Weight matters.” Indeed it does. In 2004, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America requiring companies to contribute toward recycling fees based on the weight of their packaging.

In fact, more than 30 countries across Europe and Asia currently mandate some form of producer responsibility for packaging, according to Raymond Communications, which produces publications and conferences on the topic. As more such laws come on board, these seemingly simple decisions are becoming increasingly important.

Even aside from governmental regulations, choosing the right packaging can save a company, well, a bundle. Norm Thompson Outfitters, for instance, estimates that it is saving around $1.15 million each year by increasing its use of lightweight polyethylene shipping bags — $664,000 in freight, $415,000 in materials, $75,000 in labor — instead of using cardboard boxes.

And even small steps add up quickly. Nike slaps “Re-Use It” stickers on incoming boxes in one warehouse, then does just that, saving more than $50,000 a year. And Toyota implemented a system of returnable plastic containers to ship floor mats to a distribution center. After eliminating disposable pallets and cartons, the supplier was able to pass along savings to Toyota in the form of a reduced unit price for floor mats.

In the end, says Allaway, the rule of thumb is to first make sure that your shipping cartons aren’t oversized, in order to reduce the use of packaging materials. (Smaller packages can also decrease freight impacts, as many long-haul trucks fill by volume, not weight.) Once you’ve downsized, select combinations that weigh less than the other comparable options. And only then, focus on making the “right” green choice: “Once you’ve chosen the material, by all means use post-consumer recycled content,” says Allaway.

Of course, if you take this advice too far and underpackage the World’s Greenest Product, causing it to break during shipment and require replacement, you’ll end up creating an even bigger environmental impact, since you’ll have to ship out a whole new one. Sometimes more really is more.

Pack It In

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality offers checklists for evaluating packaging options, methods for reducing waste, a rundown of waste-prevention regulations, and other useful information. See also the Reusable Transport Packaging Directory and a report on environmental packaging in the overnight shipping industry, both available on GreenBiz.com.