Waste not, want not

With waste packaging volumes continuing to increase, the need for designers to contribute to the development of sustainable products has now become more urgent than ever. Paul Gander looks at the many challenges posed by eco-design

Packaging waste generated in the UK has exceeded 10 million tonnes per annum in the second half of this decade and continues to rise. So says the 2007 Waste Strategy for England published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The survey points out that ‘most bottles, jars, cans and plastic containers are now lighter than they were before 2000’, but adds that source reduction can be taken further.

If volumes of waste are rising, so too are the quantities diverted from landfill by various forms of ‘recovery’. When it comes to packaging, this includes recycling and incineration for energy recovery. Recycling rates for packaging are now more than 55 per cent, and the industry has been set ambitious targets to push well beyond this threshold.

In fact, Government has sidestepped a leading role in the multi-faceted and often heated debate about sustainability in packaging. The media has played on consumer concerns about ‘overpackaging’. Retailers have leapt into the fray, dragging brands and manufacturers with them, and sometimes making undertakings which they have later come to regret.

So what is the role of design in all of this? As Defra acknowledges, designers have a vital contribution to make to the development of sustainable products. But when it comes to packaging, many feel poorly equipped to play much more than a reactive part in this process.

First, they are faced with competing definitions of ‘sustainability’. The term is broader, and can be no less vague, than ‘environmentally responsible’ or even ‘Green’. Second, packaging is a fast-moving science where new materials, from bio-polymers to nano-composites, are competing with more traditional options. The collection and recycling infrastructure in the UK is also evolving rapidly in areas such as plastics. Few consultancies have the independent internal resources to assess the pros and cons of different strategies.

Later this summer, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, which represents producers and users of packaging, will be publishing a guide for packaging eco-design. Titled ‹PackGuide, and developed in conjunction with the Government-funded Envirowise consultancy service for business, it outlines the issues and impacts around different design choices. It should be available from the end of July. As the guide makes clear, there is no single, exclusive route to ‘sustainability’. Valid environmental objectives can include: reducing product wastage, reducing carbon footprint, increasing use of renewable materials, reducing the amount of packaging used and the amount of packaging going to landfill.

Incpen director Jane Bickerstaffe says, ‘Normally, in order to arrive at packaging that is sensible, you need trade-offs between these different criteria, which are often incompatible. That can be a difficult message to get across.’

As an example of these competing claims, Bickerstaffe cites the increasingly pervasive call to reduce packaging. Quite apart from issues of product protection, this may duck the alternative route of using recycled materials, she says.

And yet a shift to recycled or ‘recyclable’ materials can be equally problematic. For a start, any supplier which classifies a material as ‘recyclable’ should be asked a few simple questions about how, where, in what volumes and with what result can it be recycled.

Charlotte Henderson is retail initiative manager at the Defra-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme, which offers its own on-line resources for designers. She points out that moving from a film laminate to ‘fully recyclable’ but much heavier glass, for instance, is not necessarily as advantageous as it might first appear. The current UK container-to-container recycling rate of 30 per cent, she explains, means that the two-thirds of the pack left statistically unrecycled still far outweighs the unrecyclable laminate.

Last year, along with others in the industry, Wrap helped to persuade Innocent Drinks to ditch plans to package its smoothies in the polylactide bio-polymer. In this instance, questions about current UK composting infrastructure and the impact on future bottle recycling influenced the brand-owner’s decision. Instead, Innocent joined GlaxoSmithKline’s Ribena brand in proclaiming its use of post-consumer recycled polyethylene terephthalate on-pack – though not quite in those words.

One London design consultancy has taken Wrap’s guidance on board in a very literal sense. Design Bridge now has Helen Hughes, formerly a senior project manager at Wrap, as a client director (DW 26 May). As Design Bridge’s head of 3D branding Nick Verebelyi puts it, ‘She’s now our internal crusader for sustainability.’

He notes that environmental trade-offs become even more difficult when a brand has international reach. One Design Bridge project for liquid detergent in the cash-and-carry market opted for a bag-in-box format rather than simply scaling up a polyethylene bottle. ‘Recycling for heavy PE is not available in all parts of Europe, and the corrugated box gave much better branding,’ he says.

Eco-design is increasingly being used to sell packaging – and the products inside it – to consumers, retailers and brand-owners. And yet, at the same time, the ‘marketing’ message behind those pack choices is becoming more, rather than less, complex.

‘There are no right answers,’ says Bickerstaffe. But being able to demonstrate that you have thought through the questions is more important than ever.

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