How demand for reusable solutions is forcing designers to rethink how we package our stuff…
Sustainability is a holistic business. It’s no use if your lovely organic apples come in compostable packaging when the manufacturing process involved the use of vast amounts of water, or if they’ve been air-freighted from the other side of the world.
It’s this kind of disconnect that leads to toxic products being protected by recyclable packaging, or organically grown produce on single-use plastic trays. Sustainability and ecological efficiency need to be designed into the full life-cycle of a product. Not only do the materials products are made of, and the manufacturing processes involved, need to be sustainable, but also the way they’re packaged, transported, used and disposed of.
All of these aspects are important when making the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of a product, but packaging in particular plays a strategic role. Partly because it has become a major product design feature itself, and partly because it currently accounts for almost half of plastic waste in the developed world (in the UK it represents 40 per cent).
But there are plenty of innovative ways of reducing the plastic content in packing. Foils are getting thinner (or even plastic-free), containers lighter, excessive components are being removed. Meanwhile, recyclability rates are improving. Metal can be decoupled from plastic; black food trays – for years largely undetectable by recycling processes – can be recast in drabber but more easily sorted colours.
However, eco-designers argue that striving for more virtuous recycling means we still think inside the disposability box. Designer and sociologist Leyla Acaroglu, for example, argues that “recycling validates waste” through perpetuating widely known practices such as planned obsolescence, where products are intentionally designed to be difficult to repair and with short lifespans, forcing consumers to simply buy more of them.
The call for more radical solutions is in line with the waste hierarchy incorporated into UK law in 2011, which ranks waste management methods according to their environmental impact. In the inverted triangle of waste hierarchy, the least desirable methods – disposal and recovery – are at the bottom, with recycling in the middle and reuse and prevention at the top. “Prevention” involves the absence of any protective or decorative covering on the product, so sustainable design doesn’t play any role there. Reusable packaging, however, is an area with great potential, and one showing increasing activity.
The challenges of reusable packaging
Reusable packaging is not a simple or instant remedy to a complex problem, with different, and sometimes competing goals. It has to be sturdy and as scratch-, dent-, detergent- and smash-proof as it can be, but without compromising aesthetic performance too much. It must be compatible not just with transport and delivery, but also reverse logistics (pick-up), sanitisation and refilling.
Visual appeal is not being abandoned, but consumers and producers need to re-examine their priorities – we may need to get used to a somewhat clunkier, visually more subdued packaging design to pay for the more important environmental targets. Designers also have to ensure reusable packaging some sort of uniformity, to make containers easy-to-transport and clean, and also allows brands to somehow differentiate themselves; they need to be heavy-duty, but also attractive enough to persuade customers to do their bit for product stewardship – in other words, enhancing the packaging’s longevity by taking good care of it.
But it’s not all work and no play for eco-designers. They also have a unique opportunity to shape the future by revisiting the tested solutions of yesteryear, such as the milkman’s reusable glass bottles or the Indian stackable stainless-steel tiffin lunchbox. Or perhaps they want to appeal to younger generations with revolutionary new materials and designs such as paper bottles. Eco-design might even force us into coming up with better ideas for packaging functionaity, such as zero-waste shopping platform Loop’s double-walled ice-cream container, featuring spoonable rounded corners and an optimum melting rate.
If refillable packaging catches on, all of these new types of transit packaging, tote bags, oriental style takeaway boxes made of bean shells, and stainless-steel sprays will become ubiquitous. Moreover, with the emergence of product and packaging sustainability software, the composition of eco-packaging is becoming more visible too. Empowered by eco-design tools, manufacturers will be able to make more informed decisions when commissioning designers to create packaging for their products, and retailers can learn the sustainability score of competing products’ packaging and order accordingly. Meanwhile, the eco-friendly apps that can translate this knowledge into customer decisions can also provide direct feedback to designers regarding what trade-offs end-users are willing to make to be able to live in a healthier, more sustainable packaging environment.
By ZIta Goldman