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Packaging may be recyclable, reusable or composed of renewable materials, but still not be a fully “green” solution. To determine the actual environmental impact of a packaging component, the full life span needs to be evaluated. The components and resources used to make shipping coolers, on through to the final means of disposal, figure into the true environmental impact. Many challenges to the ecosystem’s health appear at all steps along the cradle-to-grave journey.

Why green packaging?

Each item shipped throughout the world creates potential waste, and many packaging materials cannot or will not be recycled, littering the landscape and increasing the need for landfills. Online sales grew by 15% in 2018. To fulfill their orders, businesses are using more massive amounts of packing materials, including paper and foam to protect their products from temperature exposure and drop protection during shipping. Yet, using packaging with the least impact on the environment is vital to preserving our natural resources and our planet.

Carbon footprints

carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, associated with a product in any way. The sum of the gases is calculated along the way from material production, manufacturing, use and disposal. The larger the carbon footprint, the more a product contributes to global warming.

Crops utilize a majority of the world’s water supply

Conserving water

Agriculture uses 70% of water worldwide, with industry claiming another 22%. That doesn’t leave much for a thirsty planet, and competition for access to fresh water continues to rage. Producing a sustainable product, then, must consume as little of the precious resource as possible. In an ideal situation, plant-based materials should require no water except what falls from the sky. Manufacturing should also involve minimal water usage.

The recycling crisis

For years, China accepted used U.S. plastic and cardboard for recycling, but that door has slammed shut. Cities that can’t find anyone to take their recyclables have begun to send them to landfills or incinerate them, making blue recycling bins a sad joke. China, however, is not the only problem.

One estimate puts the amount of recyclable trash that Americans throw out each year at 22 million tons. And, many items that consumers believe are recyclable are rejected by local services.

Plastic packages may be processed and reused, but the resulting materials are of such low quality, they can only be used in a limited range of products. Plastics may also contain dyes that make them difficult to recycle. Thus, in many cases low-quality recycled material isn’t worth the asking price, and industry has no incentive to buy it.

Collecting allegedly recyclable materials also poses serious difficulties. Many areas, particularly rural ones, do not have home-pickup because residences are so widely spaced that investing in bins to hold recyclables and trucks to retrieve them is a losing proposition.

For workers at recycling plants, sorting can be tedious, and even dangerous when inappropriate items are included in the stream. Robotics is beginning to address the problem and cut labor costs, but recycling is still less profitable for waste-management companies than handling trash.

Selecting materials

Sustainable or green thermal packaging must have a minimal carbon footprint, conserve water and energy and not persist in the environment after disposal. Designers of green products, therefore, must have a complete understanding of the materials that comprise them. Components that are generally not used in sustainable packaging include polyethylene and styrene derivatives.

Styrofoam coolers are pure trash in our environment

Expanded polystyrene (EPS)

Much as the public uses Kleenex® as a generic term for facial tissues of any brand or type, most people refer to the light, easily crumbled EPS as Styrofoam®. Laws and bans against Styrofoam apply to EPS in general. The ubiquitous product is found in everything from disposable coffee cups to theater props and is often used in thermal packaging as a cooler.

EPS can be recycled into insulation, but unfortunately, a look into trash containers across the nation would tell you that it often isn’t. As a petroleum-based product, Styrofoam is a hazard to the environment from its birth. It’s nonbiodegradable and produces toxic chemicals when burned. To engineer green packaging, you would need to eliminate EPS, but simply replacing it is far from the entire story.


At first look, you would think that cotton-based insulation would deliver little environmental impact, but consider what it requires to produce the fluffy bolls. It takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to produce about two pounds of cotton.

Runoff from cotton cultivation contains pesticides and fertilizers that pollute lakes and rivers, and erode the soil. While there is progress toward reducing the environmental damage from cotton farming, the product is still far from green.

Recycled denim

Even if all of us were determined to give our old jeans a new life, aside from the problems inherent with cotton, denim insulation is only 80% recycled material. It also may contain non-renewable binders and boron as a fire retardant, a combination that makes it less than fully biodegradable.

Recycled paper

The pulp and paper industry is one of the most significant industrial users of water in the United States. It takes 23 gallons of water to manufacture a one-gallon paper-insulated cooler. Paper and pulp mills also create wastewater and sludge, which pose severe challenges to environmental management.

Enough energy to charge a cellphone for a year, 1.8 kilowatt-hours, is required to produce the paper for a one-pound cooler. While using recycled paper may reduce the overall damage to waterways, many cities have stopped recyclingpaper because the market for it has collapsed. Contamination such as greasy food – like pizza – prevents the recycling of paper products. The shortage of recycled goods makes it more likely that a cooler will contain the virgin product.

Starch-based foams and peanuts

Starch-based foam insulation particles were developed as a more environment-friendly alternative, but they are not. The starch used in the foaming process comes from vegetal-based crops rather than fossil fuel-based polystyrene. Starch foam can be made from sorghum, corn grains, or other similar crops. Starch-based insulation is soluble in water, which makes them susceptible to deterioration in humid environments that are usually found when shipping cold products.

The starch-based foam insulation production competes for land with crops that can feed hungry people, and the petroleum used to run farm machinery also produces greenhouse gases. A starch-based insulation study also found that corn-based foam could result in higher levels of pollution because of the pesticides and fertilizers used, along with the processing chemicals.

What, then, is a company to do when it wants to be environmentally friendly from beginning to the end of its product?

 Ecochill coolers are the first truly environmentally friendly cooler for shipping perishables.

The Ecochill solution

Ecochill thermal solutions from Illuminate are the first truly environmentally friendly cooler for shipping refrigerated or frozen perishables. The insulation originates from a completely renewable source. The material is naturally dried, requiring no additional energy, the manufacturing processes use minimal power and the finished product is entirely compostable.

Only practices certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative are used to produce Ecochill coolers. The raw material is grown using only sunlight and water, with no pesticides or fertilizers to pollute waterways.

Manufacturing Ecochill wastes no raw material and requires no production water. Fabricating one pound uses only 4% of the energy it takes to make a pound of EPS.

Constructing greener thermal packaging

The fate of many products considered recyclable and headed for the trash pile is sealed by bad design. Many designers lack the tools to engineer products that can enter the recycling system, and simple details can lead to failure.

A package containing two different recyclable plastics will not be recyclable as a whole if the components cannot be separated. Labeling can confuse automated machinery, so the combination will be incorrectly identified and end up as a contaminant, potentially creating an unusable batch.

Illuminate assembled a world-class team of scientists to develop a tool to determine the overall environmental impact of all types of packaging. They discovered Ecochill as the only solution for a truly green way to protect for temperature-sensitive cold chain products. Now, the coolers can be used across industries for transporting perishable foods, pharmaceuticals, biologicals, infusion therapies, as well as animal food and medicine.

The packaging is versatile and protects frozen goods and perishables that are maintained in refrigerated ranges. If gel packs leak, Ecochill will absorb the liquid without loss of insulation efficacy. Meal-kit manufacturers can ship food in Ecochill coolers at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. In addition to thermal protection, Ecochill can cushion fragile goods such as glass and electronics, without plastic bubble wrap or peanut-type fillers.

Ecochill can be composted to support plant growth and can become mulch to enrich the soil and retain moisture.

Ecochill disposal

Ecochill can be included along with leaves and branches in local waste pickups, is fully compostable and won’t release harmful chemicals into the soil. It is an ideal supplement to help mitigate the moisture associated with food waste composting. Organic and biodynamic agriculture can use Ecochill compost as one of the best carbon sources to support plant growth, and gardeners can use it as mulch to enrich the soil and retain moisture. Ecochill will also degrade and compost in landfills, and is free of plastics and genetically modified organisms that can contaminate soils or water tables.

Adapting to container dimensions

Mail delivery shippers can use two sizes of Ecochill insulations to create more than 18 cooler configurations. The coolers can provide full thermal and shock protection to pouches and a range of box sizes, and its insulation systems can minimize the need for warehouse space by up to 75% in comparison with conventional coolers. An added benefit is the efficient use of payload space, reducing the use of fossil fuels, lowering emissions and costs during shipping.

Green thermal packaging for your products

The cold-chain experts at the Illuminate group will work with you to find fully green solutions for transporting your temperature-sensitive goods. Contact us today to discover how we can draw on our experience and innovation to serve your business.

Two Ecochill insulations make over 18 different cooler sizes