Sustainable packaging: not so simple

While waiting in a large pharmacy recently I started looking at the packaging on the products. Every one of the estimated 10 000 items was packaged – some in a single material other in up to five materials. This piqued my interest so I took a course in Sustainable Packing through EdX and Delft University. What an eyeopener.

Packaging: cardboard, paper, cellophane, plastic wrap makes up a large portion of what we recycle. We know what is recyclable and where to sell it for the best price. What I didn’t know before the course was how complicated and how big the packaging industry is.

At Smart Waste we know recycling, what we didn’t know is how big the packaging industry actually is

We all understand we need to package goods, especially perishables, to protect the contents from bacteria and damage. We also know that the packaging provides information on the contents, sometimes even information on how to dispose of the packaging. But there is more.

What we don’t see is the secondary packaging and how packaging is disposed of. Almost all packaged items are placed in boxes or other containers for shipping. Some items are placed in boxes then wrapped creating a third level of packaging. This packaging is disposed of before the item is placed on the shelf.

The multi-level packaging involved in getting products to consumers is astounding

An example of simple packaging might be a cardboard box with water-based printing and no labels or glue. These do exist but most packaging is elaborate. Think of perfume where the box and bow costs most of the money, the perfume is the least expensive component. The really great thing about sustainable packaging is that they are designing ways of not using it at all.

Packaging strategies follow the reduce, reuse and recycle mantra. But there are many, very clever people overseas working on ways of closing or shortening the loop and doing away with packaging. Lush, for example, is now selling “Naked Products” without any packaging whatsoever.

The reuse strategy has been followed by, amongst others, Repack which uses a sealable bag to courier packages to consumers and is then returned for reuse. A number of major companies are using this service and their customers are delighted not to have to dispose of packaging. One bag can be used multiple times.

How can we reduce and reuse without compromising quality?

Recycling is the next strategy only they are more advanced than our recycling efforts. Coca Cola now use a recyclable bottle, which in addition to being made of largely recycled material has other innovations. The cap and label have different densities to the bottle so that the parts can be separated using a water tank. The light material floats and the heavier material sinks allowing for a quicker recycling. The glue is water soluble.

The really interesting stuff is innovations in renewables and rethinking packaging altogether.

Waginen University is working on using biobased material to take the place of fossil (oil) based materials. Using this we can replace plastic bags with another bag which will degrade by itself. Goodbye to the plastic-coated trees. Or how about using tomato leaves to create a container to sell the tomatoes.

Rethinking packaging is where the brightest young minds are going. Mirjam de Bruin is a designer at Twenty. She came up the idea of concentrated shampoo which the user dilutes with water. What could be easier when washing your hair. Instead of packaging and transporting shampoo which is usually 80 percent water anyway, just sell the concentrate. Have a look at one of her videos:

There are many more examples along these lines.

The takeaways for me were that we do not need the amount of packaging which we presently use. With a bit more care we can reduce the volumes without any loss of quality or inconvenience. I believe we will all be better off if we reduced or eradicated packaging. The environment would also be cleaner and healthier.

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Smart Waste

Picture: iStock