The subject of packaging is multi layered, with design, functionality, performance, manufacturability, cost and sustainability all being important – and often conflicting – design factors.
As product designers we make daily decisions about material and resource use that we know will impact the environment, so we’re acutely aware that in future we need to be even more innovative in reducing resource use.
The basic problem is – all this waste is hidden to us at an individual level. In our busy lives, when we absentmindedly leave our lunchtime drinks bottle in the park it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But these insignificant bits of waste soon add up. It’s estimated that in a year’s time you will have thrown away around 200kg of food packaging. Multiply that across the world and you get to some startling figures.
According to PlasticsEurope, 265m tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year, with approximately two thirds being used for packaging; this translates to 170m tonnes of plastic largely disposed of after one use. Biomass, a forward thinking packaging supplier in the US states that:
- An estimated 10% of plastic ends up in the oceans every year
- About 20% comes from ships and platforms in the sea
- The remaining 80% comes from the land – waste that travels through storm drains or watersheds, accumulates in streams, rivers and bays; and eventually finds its way into the oceans.
The result is enough to cause floating islands of plastic waste the size of the USA…
As a sailor myself, I have seen first hand the damage to sea life from plastic waste, thousands of miles from any human population. It’s amazing how often in the middle of the vast wilderness of the ocean you can see the result of someone’s lunch float by.
The second problem is that – believe it or not – plastic can be the most environmentally friendly packaging material. We can argue about the ideal source of the raw materials and biodegradability. But the fact is plastic packaging uses less energy (and creates less carbon dioxide) to make and transport, it performs better (so food lasts longer) and should be easier to recycle.
So the choice is not whether or not to ban plastic from our lives, but more about how can we develop product and systems that work in harmony to create closed loops of use (“cradle to cradle design”) which ensures we’re not leaking these precious resources into the ocean.
And this isn’t just a moral decision – reducing plastic waste can be a smart commercial move, which can differentiate your brand and reduce costs. Most of the focus in this area is currently on reducing the impact of current products and processes through small incremental improvements. This is of course a very valid approach and is vital part of achieving the future targets. But the most powerful transformations come from a change in our mindset from:
“Can we make this less bad?” (reducing the cradle to grave impact)
“How can we make this a zero impact “cradle to cradle” product?
This is much harder and often requires system innovation alongside new product developments. But starting out with this mindset really can create great win-win solutions.
For example – one company we admire is environmental consumer goods manufacturer Ecover – for always being clear about their mission to produce sustainable packaging and for proving that it can be serious business. Recently Ecover have announced that they will launch the first fully sustainable form of packaging, incorporating plastic waste fished from the sea. What a great way of using the Closed loop system, see below: