With “sustainability” being a major buzzword it is not surprising that packaging comes under scrutiny to ensure it satisfies those who are aiming to improve the environment we live in and promote “green” living. Manufacturers are facing strong pressure to ensure packaging meets the sustainability criteria at all levels of the process from government policies and consumer requirements as well as others. It is not a simple issue as to comply with “green” standards every aspect of the packaging must be environmentally friendly.

While in an ideal world packaging would be entirely “green” it is just not possible for this to happen at this time. It is possible that in the future all packaging could become sustainable, but in the mean time, it is a process of making incremental improvements when and where we can, working our way towards a product that eventually will have less and less impact on the environment.

Whether packaging materials consist of plastic, paper, glass or aluminum each has its pros and cons. None of them can be classed as being completely good or completely bad. In that respect, tradeoffs are a necessity as true sustainability is being worked towards.
While the impact packaging has on the environment should never be trivialized it is important to understand that it makes up only 10% of the carbon footprint of a product, with the largest portion being created by manufacturing of the raw product, and consumer use. All that being said there is a fine balance between being as “green” as possible and still fulfilling its purpose of protecting the product and enticing customers to purchase. If the product doesn’t perform as intended any attempts to make it sustainable will have been in vain as the effort will have been wasted.

When moving towards implementing sustainability into your packaging methods there are some principles to consider in your packaging redesign process:

1. Consider the entire life-cycle of the packaging –

Package designers have many tools at their disposal today which can help them create a product that will have less environmental impact. Online software such as COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment) was created by Sustainable Packaging Coalition to help package designers make better informed decisions regarding materials and design elements. Another LCA (Life-Cycle Assessment) tool shows designers the environment impact of their packaging design. TIP: In order to maintain accurate results it is best to complete the design project using the same LCA tool throughout the process.

2. Consider each component of the packaging –

One of the first considerations of any packaging design is how little materials can be used without reducing the efficacy of the package. Sometimes it can be as simple as using a different material that will still provide the same result and yet comprise a lower percentage of the entire product and have less negative environmental impact, and yet still provide the consumer with packaging that fulfills its purpose. Suppliers are continually working towards providing items such as caps, labels and even containers that are fully functional and yet reduce the package to product ratio and therefore the carbon footprint. Sometimes these improvements result in retailers being able to offer products at lower prices too.

3. Consider distribution packaging alternatives –

How products are packaged when bundled for the consumer (multi-packs) and readied for transportation to the retailer can often be addressed to decrease the use of packaging materials. Shelf-ready packaging is one example that causes less waste. The configuration in which multi-packs are packaged can impact the amount of packaging material required. Sometimes a simple change to how the product is stacked can result in significantly less packaging. Retailers and consumers alike appreciate having less packaging to dispose of.

4. Consider reusable packaging –

While it is not always feasible, reusable packaging drastically reduces waste. Many food packages can be washed and re-used by the consumer, but reusable packaging is not limited to just food products. Shoe brand PUMA adopted a reusable bag in favor of their prior method of packaging and with this one move towards sustainability alone have made significant reductions in paper usage and energy consumption.

5. Consider making changes to the product itself –

An excellent example of how changing the product itself has led to a massive reduction in packaging is the move towards concentrated household cleaners. Consumers can now purchase sufficient laundry soap to do the same number of loads as before but in a smaller container, sometimes measuring as little as half the size of the non-concentrated version. Many concentrated cleaning agents also use less water than their non-concentrated counterparts. Changing even one portion of a product may result in a reduction of packaging, and while some items simply cannot be reduced in size where possible it should be explored.

6. Consider recyclability –

With many materials being recyclable today considering recyclability when designing packaging seems only natural. It doesn’t begin and end with the packaging material though. Often labels and other elements are not recyclable, and make the entire package unfit for recycling. New materials are being created regularly with this thought in mind. Using recyclable packaging is one of the best ways to ensure the energy used in the initial processing is not wasted. All packing materials at rtagencies.ca are designed and meant to be taken apart and recycled in the appropriate waste buckets.

7. Consider packaging that encourages the consumer to reduce waste–

Often when a consumer is unable to use the last of a product it is due to the packaging making it difficult to retrieve it. Taking into account a design that allows the consumer to retrieve the entire contents of the package will reduce waste. While you may consider that single-serve packaging causes more waste, if the entire contents of the package are consumed, it may actually have the opposite effect.

8. Consider the source of your packaging materials–

It is important to know where your packaging materials come from and whether they are being responsibly sourced. Paper packaging is a prime example. Ensuring it was created from timber that had been sourced from sustainable forests and not from the likes of an Indonesian Rain forest is something that you should be aware of. It is not enough to take a supplier’s word for it that their product is sustainable. You should research to confirm the source.

9. Consider space-saving distribution –

Logically the smaller the packaging the less space it takes up. The size of the packaged product affects not only the retailer who allots floor or shelf space for it but also the transportation costs involved in getting it into the retailer’s hands. Costs of materials, transportation, handling and storage are all reduced when the overall size of the packaged product is reduced. While reducing packaging size is important it should not be at the expense of protecting the product inside.

10. Consider renewable materials –

With many materials being made from the likes of corn and sugarcane, both renewable feedstock, and provided you adopt a life-cycle approach, designing a package that incorporates one of these materials may be a viable option. These materials are not viable for every application and there are still many questions about their sustainability, but may be worth consideration nevertheless.

Footnote: There are packaging materials on the market that promise to make packaging just “disappear”, usually through the use of chemicals designed to break down the materials. There are grave concerns among scientists about the impact such chemicals will have on the environment and therefore should be avoided until environmental impact has been ascertained.