Shrinking trick

Commercial reasons often drive innovation in sustainable packaging, but environmental benefits can go hand in hand with cost savings. Anna Richardson looks at ways of reducing a pack’s carbon footprint

Where there’s a will there’s a way. But when it comes to designing sustainable packaging, even the best will in the world requires a somewhat complicated way. ’What’s sustainable for one piece of packaging, isn’t necessarily right for another,’ says Mark Shayler, Elmwood’s new director of sustainability. ’There are a number of different strategies in approaching sustainable packaging, and the chosen one will depend on the market, tone of voice and the product itself.’

Materials are an important part of the puzzle. According to predictions from business information consultancy Datamonitor, packaging design will see a growth in the use of biodegradable plastics and sustainable materials this year. Computer company Dell last November started shipping its Inspiron Mini laptop in renewable bamboo packaging, and The Wholeleaf Company is trying to reduce non-biodegradable waste in the UK by developing a range of packaging made from fallen Indian palm leaves.

But the use of degradable or compostable materials does pose problems. There are two types of degradable packaging. The first contains additives that break it down into small elements, the impact of which have not yet been adequately established. The second type, such as plant-derived plastics, breaks down into nothing, but requires the use of land that could otherwise be used for food – and current recycling structures are often not yet set up to dispose of those materials. ’Renewable source elements offer so much, but they aren’t there yet,’ says Shayler.

In addition to material considerations, ’lightweighting’, or reducing the weight of the pack, is a key strategy in sustainable packaging. Kenco’s Eco Refill pack has 97 per cent less packaging weight per gram of coffee compared to its traditional jars, and Elmwood took a similar approach for Original Source shower-gel packs. Lightweighting is about lowering the weight in terms of distribution of the product, as well as lowering the embodied carbon per pack.

However, carbon reduction throughout a product’s life cycle is going to be the key strategy for the next three or four years, believes Shayler. Last week, the Waste & Resources Action Programme announced that the second phase of its voluntary Courtauld Commitment is moving away from weight-based targets towards more sustainable use of resources over the products’ life cycle, throughout the whole supply chain (see box).

Even though there are flaws in the carbon-reduction approach, the desire to have a low-carbon economy is currently driving policy, and packaging needs to keep pace.

Design also needs to consider the recyclability of a product. When Shayler worked with Dorset Cereals, removing the film from the windows of its boxes made them recyclable and also increased sales figures by 220 000 packs a year. Duracell moved to an all-cardboard pack, while Rachel’s Organic has opted for a thin recycled PET with a cardboard structure on the outside.

In addition, embedding recycled content ensures that materials maintain a high value. Innocent and other brands that opt for 100 per cent recycled materials play an important role in keeping up demand, which means, for example, that local authorities continue to have an incentive to provide recycling services. Increasingly, the design process needs to take end-of-life into consideration, according to Helen Hughes, sustainability strategist at Design Bridge.

’We have to determine how a material’s value is maintained,’ she says. A lot of research and development work is about ensuring that materials have a valuable end market, she adds. ’That’s quite a new territory, certainly for material specialists – and we’re keen to keep involved.’

Much innovation in sustainable packaging is driven by commercial reasons, according to Bob Wallace, founder of branding and packagingconsultancy Nicepond. ’Retailers are looking at more cost-effective ways of reducing transport, for example. With food products, they are looking for efficient packaging and less waste,’ he says.

The key is making sure that sustainable packaging is benefit-led without compromise. ’It should be something that builds a brand’s competitive advantage, and we look for something that maintains cost-neutrality or cost-savings,’ agrees Hughes. But as Shayler points out, ’I really don’t mind why people do it, because the main thing is that it is done.’

The three new targets of Wrap’s Courtauld Commitment 2

Packaging – to reduce the weight, increase recycling rates and increase the recycled content of all grocery packaging, as appropriate. Through these measures, the aim is to reduce the carbon impact of grocery packaging by 10%

Household food and waste – to reduce UK household food and drink waste by 4%

Supply chain product and packaging waste – to reduce traditional product and packaging waste in the grocery supply chain by 5%. This includes both solid and liquid wastes

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