Over packaging : inventing sustainable solutions
The global packaging industry is big business, turning over around $500 billion each year - lucrative it might be, but sustainable it isn't. Organisations, such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, however, report that the UK produces 10 million tonnes of packaging waste every year. And industry analysts estimate that at least 500 billion plastic bags are used globally each year, which can take between 20 and 1,000 years to decompose.
Despite there being an improvement in how much is recycled - in 2008 in the UK 61% was recycled (a significant increase from 28% in 1997) meaning 8.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions were avoided - the problem is rising once again.
European Union (EU) data shows that while packaging consumption petered off a little during the economic crisis in 2008, by 2010 the numbers were rising back to pre-crisis levels - the EU produced a combined total of 18.7 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2010.
In the US Americans get through 250 million tonnes of material solid waste (MSW) each year, of which paper and paperboard make up 28% and plastics around 13%, reports the Environmental Protection Agency. After recycling, 164 tonnes of MSW were discarded into landfills - and the average size of these is increasing.
Ensuring quality : protecting products
While on one hand it is in a manufacturer's interest to ensure that packaging is cost-effective, on the other it has to meet the needs of today's consumer, as well as sell and protect a product effectively.
A good package should not only be "cost-effective and provide value to generate revenue," says the World Packaging Organisation, but it should also be "lean on resources", "recoverable", "prevent its contents being spoilt", and "have a good user interface".
These constraints present quite a challenge to today's packaging designers and companies, and yet some of them are rising to the challenge with various forms of disappearing packaging, heralding a new era for the minimisation of packaging.
The Disappearing Package (TDP) : redesigning household brands
Award-wining designer Aaron Mickelson, Senior Designer at Jansy Packaging in Chicago, found that his love of packaging design was being weighed down psychologically by the vast amount of waste that packaging produces.
"In America, packaging is the single largest source of waste in our landfills and many products are still over-packaged, using materials that end up in the garbage," says Mickelson. "For the package design community, the single most important challenge we face today is cleaning up our industry."
It is for this reason that he decided to develop "The Disappearing Package" (TDP) concept for his thesis project, while taking a Masters in Package Design at New York's Pratt Institute, which took around six months to develop.
With a brief that questioned if it was possible to eliminate packaging waste entirely, Mickelson set about redesigning the packaging of five household brands: Tide laundry pods, Oxo Pop containers, Twinings tea bags, Nivea bar soap and Glad dustbin bags.
Brave new world : finding the balance
When tackling Nivea's soap packaging, Mickelson created a package that looks familiar (because it can be printed on and embossed), yet used a substrate that can be dissolved. Thus the consumer takes the whole package into the shower with them and the packaging disappears down the drain. At 7g per box, he estimates that this will reduce 79lbs (35kg) of waste per pallet and 3,950lbs (1,700kg) of packaging waste per truck load.
For Twinings, instead of being stored in a cardboard box with the teabags stapled to a paper handle, Mickelson's design sees the box discarded - 17g (7kg) of waste, making 2,646lbs (1,200kg) per truck load - and the individual tea packets, wax-lined, perforated together and folded up accordion style, like a book.
"Some packaging is necessary, especially in terms of food safety and sanitation - so eliminating packaging isn't always going to be the right answer," he acknowledges. "However, a combination of over-protectiveness on the brand side and laziness on the part of the designer has produced an enormous amount of extraneous packaging."
Harmless dissolve : innovative solutions
"Over packaging is ubiquitous," says Ben Cijffers, Sales Director at Cyberpac. "It seems bizarre that over the past four or five years companies have not responded to the pressure of competition and cost-cutting by reducing their unnecessary packaging expenses."
While he acknowledges that the "purposes of packaging is to protect, showcase and add value to products", he also believes that "packaging is failing to deliver".
One of the packaging concepts that Cyberpac has developed and now successful markets, is Harmless Dissolve, a dissolving water soluble plastic, which, when mixed with warm water, will completely dissolve. It is popular with clients for whom sustainability is integral to their brand and expected by their customers as it is non-toxic and degraded by micro-organisms which use it as a food source.
There has been a significant increase in interest in Harmless since Q4 of last year, explains Cijffers, which is partly due to a recovering economy. It is ideally suited to flow wrapping (such as magazines), marine and aquatic applications, and dose-controlled delivery of dry chemicals and product into liquids.
Two very popular Harmless Dissolve packaging solutions come in the form of laundry bags and flushable-dissolvable bags, which, as they are flushable in a domestic toilet make it ideal for the disposal of dog waste. The company receives a lot of interest in the laundry bags from overseas hospitals and medical supply companies. "From an employee risk management point of view the benefits are evident, as it massively reduces the handling amount of contaminated laundry," says Cijffers, who says they are currently in talks with a US packaging company to roll out Harmless Dissolve over the States.
The Vivos® Edible Delivery System : water soluble film
Over in the States, Monosol has developed an edible, water soluble film that will disappear when exposed to hot or cold liquids and can then be eaten or drunk along with the food: the Vivos® Edible Delivery System.
It is a "transparent, odourless, tasteless film composed of a proprietary blend of food grade ingredients," says Sumeet Kumar, Monosol's Senior Strategic Marketing Manager. "Vivos® will be extremely beneficial as a manufacturing and cooking aid to deliver ingredients during the manufacturing of food and or beverages. Examples include food colours, enzymes, vitamin fortifiers and yeasts."
The edible film also lends itself well to packaging solutions for nutraceutical items, workout supplements and personal care products - and the Vivos Film website even has a video demonstrating how instant coffee sachets can be entirely immersed and dissolved in a cup of hot water.
Kumar explains that the advantages of this water soluble pouch application include "end-user convenience", "reduction in product waste" and "reduced packaging and shipping costs". He points out, however, that it will require an adequate moisture barrier in the form of an appropriate secondary package, such a pouch or tub, during storage and transportation.
The future : legal framework and individual responsibility
Having immersed himself into the world of over packaging and TDP, Mickelson's feelings about packaging design have shifted. "Not making it worse is just not acceptable," he says, "these days if I'm not designing disappearing packaging, then at the very least I am working to reduce waste as much as possible."
But the issue of over packaging can be tackled if multiple groups of stakeholders all play their part, asserts Cijffers. "Governments need to create a legal framework, individuals need to take responsibility for their choices and actions, and companies need to play their part by recognising that there are both business and ethical reasons for bringing these innovations to market," he says.