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Sustainable packaging: What’s next?

Moves towards sustainable packaging designs are welcome, but more can still be done. Chris Sherwin, sustainability consultant at Dragon Rouge, says designers must not ignore their responsibilities

A quick Web-trawl of the major UK packaging design consultancies reveals an encouraging amount of material focused on sustainability. Most of their websites now have articles, think-pieces, tools, tips or case studies of good practice in sustainable packaging and the use of phrases such as ‘sustainability is no longer a trend, it’s a given’ suggests that the sustainability penny has finally dropped and that designers recognise they can no longer ignore their responsibilities. In practice, this awareness means factoring sustainability into all packaging projects, in the same sense that cost, usability, aesthetics and manufacturability are factored in, and so getting sustainability into every single project brief.

Some of this seems to be having an impact, as UK waste went down last year by 2.7 per cent and recycling rates went up by 39 per cent. However, the UK still creates 23 million tonnes of waste a year – which equals one tonne per household. Packaging makes up a reported 30 per cent of that figure. Adding food waste takes the figure up to more than 50 per cent. The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany recycle more than 60 per cent of their waste. So packaging designers should pat ourselves on the back, but realise that while our current approach is a start, it is not enough. To hit the coalition Government’s ‘Zero Waste’ ambitions will require a step change in the way we do things. Sustainable packaging designers won’t just be substituting one packaging material for another – we will need new approaches, roles and skills. Here are five themes we think might lead to these step changes:

Beyond the pack

Often seen as the environmental bad guy, packaging can provide useful sustainability benefits to protect products. It creates a real dilemma when an increase in packaging causes howls of protest, yet also makes products last longer and reduces waste and spoilage. That’s why a number of companies, including Unilever, no longer measure sustainable packaging impacts in isolation, instead counting product/pack impacts together. This blurs the boundary between where packaging design stops and product design starts, so designers will need to be involved in more joined-up packaging and product development.

Corporate programmes

Most big brands have sustainability commitments for packaging, driven by corporate programmes. These could be sustainable packaging design guidelines or tools, while some brands – including Philips, Coca-Cola and Asda – even have a director or manager dedicated to sustainable packaging. At their best, companies set clear targets for brands to hit. For instance, Proctor & Gamble boasts a commitment to ‘replace 25 per cent of petroleum-based packaging with sustainably sourced renewable materials, plus to reduce packaging per use by 20 per cent by 2020’. These promises help to systematically embed sustainability into business and packaging development processes, which then cascades down the value chain to suppliers and designers. If you aren’t experiencing this already, you may do so soon. I’m convinced a great deal of future progress on sustainable packaging will be client-driven, so it’s important to keep abreast of clients’ plans.

Industry collaboration

Many complex sustainable packaging issues are, quite rightly, being tackled by industry-wide initiatives. Currently, sustainable packaging programmes, initiatives, consortiums and standards are proliferating, but among two worth looking at is the US-based Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which has 200 members and the most comprehensive definition of what sustainable packaging really is.

The second is sustainability champion Wrap’s Courtauld Commitment, designed to tackle retail packaging, which was found to make up more than half of all domestic waste landfill. Featuring an impressive list of retailers and brands, the commitment sets absolute targets of 10 per cent packaging reduction by weight, recycled content and carbon by 2012 and reduction in food waste down by four per cent. Such industry collaboration will be crucial in the future, so get to know the standards, initiatives and programmes, and check out who is signed up.

Packaging for sustainable living

Current discussions on the sustainability circuit are centred around behaviour change. This is especially important, as brands can have their biggest impacts when in the hands of consumers. For instance, detergents generate 80 per cent of their total eco-impacts in their use and electronics between 80-95 per cent.

An emerging theme is to think of packaging as the mechanism to communicate sustainability, educate consumers and change their behaviour. Eco-labels are the obvious first step in communication, but designers are going much further than that. Pioneering cleaning brand Method recently tackled product waste through a clever pump system on packaging that ensures consumers use just four squirts of detergent per wash. Similarly, the Philips Activa portable MP3 is delivered in packaging that doubles up as a reusable bottle to hold the two litres of daily drinking water recommended for its health-conscious target audience.

Further beyond the pack

Looking past the mere substitution of one packaging material for another, bigger savings and benefits can be had from new packaging systems in which we design more than the packaging. As well as launching a bottle made of 30 per cent bio-plastics in 2010, Coca-Cola recently announced a joint venture with Eco Plastics for plastics collection and recycling that will effectively double the UK plastic recycling rate, plus presumably securing its supply of plastic recyclate.

Mainstream packaging designers are making progress on sustainable packaging, but we will need to do more to move packaging on to a sustainable footing, which will require designers to work in new ways that embrace some of these themes.

Case Study

The Food Doctor by Pearlfisher

Earlier this year, Pearlfisher was tasked with creating sustainable and creative packaging for The Food Doctor. The original glass jar was reusable, but the health food brand viewed the storage-style jar as clichéd and deemed the container too heavy.

Pearlfisher took the opportunity to look at the structure of the packaging and aimed to ensure that the new material was reusable and recyclable, but also that the packaging had a distinctive graphic component. ‘One of the challenges we faced was in creating a fine balance between minimising the amount of material and keeping the strength and quality,’ says Tracy Sutton, senior realisation manager at Pearlfisher.

The solution was a material called R Pet (recycled polyethylene terephthalate), which is 100 per cent recyclable and reusable. The shape of the packaging was changed to a rounded-square, for structural integrity, and the lid was embossed with The Food Doctor logo, in order to ‘brand the packaging in a subtle way’, explains Sutton. The container is encased in a recycled cardboard sleeve that displays the bright and bold branding.

Case Study

Clever Little Bag by Yves Béhar of Fuse Project

Last year, Yves Béhar of Fuse Project reinvented the shoebox for Puma, creating the Clever Little Bag, which combines a simple cardboard frame with a reuseable bag. Now, the designer has created sustainable T-shirt packaging for the sports brand that uses half the amount of materials than it did previously, and which is branded as ‘I’m half the bag I used to be’.

‘We are also looking at other aspects of Puma’s packaging including the kinds of tags it uses and the information it puts on its products,’ says Béhar.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Flexible packaging is a sustainable packaging solution as it makes less use of resources and materials. There is less wastage and less use of energy and water at the manufacturing level. Uflex Ltd is dedicated to the cause of reduced consumption of energy, water and petroleum based products and works constantly to achieve the same providing its customers more sustainable and ‘green’ film and laminates.

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