Sustainable Packaging Explained

Written by Ollie Wilkinson

good things come in sustainable packages

We talk about the need for sustainability a lot, especially in terms of packaging and protecting our planet. But have you ever stopped to wonder what sustainable packaging is, or why some types of environmentally friendly packaging are better than others? 

Sustainable packaging is part and parcel of life on our green milkround, with all our fresh produce deliveries arriving on doorsteps in eco-friendly materials. Explore the positive impact this has on our planet by discovering the types and definitions of sustainable packaging seen out in the wild.


Eco-friendly packaging is important for a number of reasons.

  1. 1. It’s sustainable – preserving natural resources for future generations 
  2. 2. It supports wildlife – preventing ecosystems, biodiversity and habitats from being polluted and exploited by the manufacture of new materials 
  3. 3. It reduces pollution – avoiding the leaching of toxins into our water and soil, and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions leaking into our atmosphere 
  4. 4. It reduces waste – reducing litter and our reliance on landfills and incinerators, lowering emissions, pollution and the threat to health and habitats 
  5. 5. It fights climate change – protecting the planet from the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacture and disposal of materials. 

Over half of the world’s packaging pollution is from food and drink. And, according to 2022’s Dirty Dozen Report, 70% of branded, littered packaging comes from just 12 companies.

Over half the worlds packaging pollution is from food and drink

If we don’t make the switch to sustainable packaging, we risk even more plastic entering our oceans. Even more emissions clouding our atmosphere. And even more microplastics in our food chains

Experts believe we must transition to reusable and sustainable packaging to protect people, profit and the planet.  

“The circular economy gives us the tools to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss together while addressing important social needs,” says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “It gives us the power to grow prosperity, jobs, and resilience while cutting greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and pollution.” 

Eco-friendly packaging is how we can tackle the global waste crisis and be kinder to the environment. Because single-use materials are made to be used and abused. Our planet isn’t. 

So far, our eco-friendly milkround has prevented over 68 million plastic bottles from polluting the planet. Explore the Modern Milkman mission to discover why we deliver all our plastic free groceries in return and reuse, home-compostable or recyclable packaging.


Sustainable packaging materials protect and preserve produce and the planet. There is a wide range of sustainable food packaging, including:

  • – Recyclable 
  • – Return and reusable 
  • – Compostable  
  • – Biodegradable
Eco-friendly packaging materials defined

Despite coming in all shapes and sizes, you may be starting to notice common themes across these sustainable packaging examples. For instance, none of them are single-use plastic. And none of them go straight to landfill. Coincidence? We think not! 


Recycling is the process of converting waste into new materials and objects, ensuring useful resources aren’t totally wasted after a single use. Recyclable packaging materials include paper, cardboard, glass, metal and some types of plastics.

Glass is infinitely recyclable, and can be repurposed again and again and again. Plastic, however, requires a lot of heavy lifting due to its complex sorting, processing and melting processes.  

The difficulties of recycling plastic were highlighted by The Big Plastic Count, which revealed that just 12% of plastics are recycled, and almost half end up being incinerated. So just like Mean Girls taught us, plastics are artificial, up to no good, and often end up in the burn book. 

Local authorities collect recyclable packaging and send it to centres to be sorted and repurposed. Some materials are more recyclable, and therefore sustainable than others, making recycling a complex method of reducing waste.

Recycling Symbols Guide

Different areas and packaging types all have their own unique set of guidelines. Here are the recycling symbols you need to know when shopping for sustainable groceries: 

  • Recycle – this means the packaging is recycled by at least 75% of local UK authorities. 
  • Rinse and recycle – this packaging is recyclable, but only after you’ve removed any food residue. So, make sure you’ve licked and wiped those takeaway trays clean, otherwise, they can contaminate your whole recycling! Pretty crummy, right?   
  • Recycle with bags at a large supermarket – this packaging is recyclable, but not in your usual recycling bin. “Recycle with bags at a large supermarket” labels usually apply to plastic wrapping, which you can take to larger recycling points at your local supermarket.

Looking for more guidance? Dive straight into our go-to recycling guide before discovering what happens to plastic waste

Return and reuse

Everyone needs a bit of R&R once in a while – the planet included. Return and reusable packaging form the backbone of the circular economy, keeping products and materials in the sustainable loop. 

The circular economy is a conscious evolution away from the unsustainable, linear “take, make, waste” system we pesky humans have grown accustomed to over the last several decades. Rather than using and abusing resources like there’s no tomorrow, return and reuse packaging ensures durable, refillable and repairable materials are kept in circulation for as long as possible. 

Reusable packaging not only reduces emissions and our reliance on landfills, incinerators and recycling but also the need to constantly create new packaging and products. In other words, no wasted materials, efforts or resources. Winner, winner, keeping landfills thinner! 

It’s no coincidence that Modern Milkman is a milkround – and not a milkline (check out how it works). Our returnable glass bottles make full use of the ‘curvalicious’ circular economy, creating an anti-waste loop that goes round and round over and over again, like the wheels on a bus or a toddler singing Baby Shark.

Modern Milkman Circular Supply Chain

This is the circle of (Modern Milkman) life, and we’re not ‘lion’ when we say it’s the king of cutting down waste. We go full throttle in saving bottles, collecting, sterilising and reusing each one to give the planet and your wheelie bin a well-deserved breather.


Compostable packaging is made from natural materials that break down into 100% organic biomass, which can be used as fertiliser for growing plants. Once this packaging has been used, you can throw it directly onto your compost pile, where it will eventually turn into mulch and food for your garden or houseplants. 

Rather than growing landfills and stacking wheelie bins, compostable packaging grows your garden and stacks your flower beds, planting the seeds for a brighter, greener, waste-free future. 

Protecting the planet from the ground up, compost bins tell waste to eat dirt. Become a compost master with the help of our guides, including a beginner’s guide to composting, the environmental benefits of composting, and how you can use your compost.

What is the difference between home compostable and industrial compostable?

Home compostable packaging can fully decompose in a home compost bin or pile within 90 days, with no added resources or energy needed. Industrially compostable packaging also breaks down within the same time frame, but only in the conditions of an industrial composting plant. These commercial facilities are designed to cope with huge volumes of organic waste, operating on a much larger scale than your average compost bin.  

Industrial compost plans need machinery and temperatures of around 60°C, whereas home-compostable materials only need a bin and some worms

UK parliament “don’t support a general increase in the use of industrially compostable packaging” due to the infrastructure being “not yet fit for purpose”, with very few industrial composting facilities existing. 

In a battle of home compostable vs. industrially compostable packaging, home compostable wins every day of the week. That’s why our eco-friendly milkround sticks to packaging that can be composted at home, fertilising your garden without machinery, travel or added cost.


Biodegradable refers to anything that decays and decomposes. This covers pretty much everything, including phone batteries! So, if you spot a so-called sustainable company promoting its biodegradable packaging, you can take it with a pinch of salt. Such claims are most likely a form of greenwashing.

Biodegradable vs compostable packaging

The words biodegradable and compostable are linked, but there are differences between these two types of packaging. Not all biodegradable things are compostable. But all compostable things are biodegradable. Kind of like how all Jacuzzis are hot tubs, but not all hot tubs are Jacuzzis.  

If something is biodegradable but not compostable, it’ll take many years to decompose. And when it does eventually biodegrade, it’ll leave behind pollutants and troublesome toxic waste. If something is compostable, it’ll break down within 90 days without polluting or damaging the environment, releasing added nutrients to soil and plants, rather than nasty chemicals.

Examples of eco-friendly sustainable packaging

Now that you know your recyclables from your reusables, discover the eco-friendly packaging examples you can find on our plastic free milkround and beyond!

The most eco-friendly recyclable material is brown kraft paper. This is because it’s unbleached and not chemically treated. Our recyclable sustainable packaging examples include: 

Also, the foil lids of our return and reuse milk delivery, soft drinks, fruit juice, and glass bottled water delivery. These should be put inside metal cans or saved and squished together until they’re the size of a fist. Otherwise, they’re too small to be recycled on their own.

What about returns for recycling packaging?

Return for recycling packaging – like that of our fresh yoghurt delivery – is collected by our milkies and then recycled by us. This ensures the materials are recycled properly, and that those of you unable to recycle certain materials kerbside can still dispose of your waste sustainably. 

We strive to make sure our convenient milkround has a low impact on the planet and your stress levels, which is why all our recyclable packaging can be dealt with at home.

Return and reuse packaging examples

Our milkround’s return and reuse packaging does what it says on the tin. Simply leave your empty glass bottles on your doorstep for our milkies to collect, sterilise and reuse once more!  

We use return and reuse packaging for our fresh juice delivery, tasty essentials and household products. These include:  

Compostable packaging examples

Compostable packaging is mostly made from natural materials like paper, cardboard, bamboo, cornstarch and organic fabric. Our milkround favours recyclable, home-compostable kraft paper, but we also use cellulose sourced from renewable wood starch.  

Here are some of our favourite compostable packaging examples: 

  • – Porridge and granola, delivered in home-compostable cellulose. Once you’ve eaten every last spoonful, all you need to do is remove the label and it can go right into your compost bin or pile.  
  • – Handmade pastries delivery and fruit and veg, arriving in kraft paper bags that can be tossed straight into your compost. Food for the soil and the soul!

What’s the most environmentally friendly packaging?

Return and reuse is the most environmentally friendly packaging because it creates a circular economy with zero waste. Reusable packaging reduces the demand, energy, emissions and resources spent on materials that are ultimately wasted. Environmentally friendly glass bottle packaging, for instance, can be washed and reused around 30 times before it’s infinitely recycled.

Outside of return and reusable packaging, unbleached paper and cardboard are considered among the most sustainable materials. These recyclable, biodegradable and home-compostable materials do come from trees, but responsibly sourced paper and cardboard can actually result in more trees being planted, with some companies planting several to replace each one that’s felled.

More from our milkround

Here at Modern Milkman, it’s our mission to reduce household waste one doorstep at a time. So, check out our blog to find more handy tips and learn how to make your food go further. 

While we’ve got you, don’t forget to read all about our milkround and find out how it works so you can get the freshest, tastiest food and drink delivered right to your door!

Look how much plastic we've saved!


Plastic bottles saved and counting


Wheelie bins of plastic saved from landfill

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