Applying product design thinking to sustainable packaging design.

This floss container embodies the principles of DfD. Disassembly is simple and intuitive. And the material makeup of components is clearly labeled to aid recycling.

There’s a lot of talk in packaging design about recycling, material reuse and source reduction, but there’s no strategy or theory behind it. But, with interest in sustainability growing, and regulations looming that will put the responsibility of material use and disposal on manufacturers, there’s increasing interest in these concepts. Why not look at the design for disassembly (DfD) strategy that’s recognized in product design and see if it might help structure some of the thinking around sustainability in packaging design?

What exactly is design for disassembly? It’s a design strategy that considers the future need to disassemble and recycle, or dispose or reuse packaging. Given the environmental and cost constraints of package development, the challenge is as much package de-creation as it is creation. DfD asks questions such as:

+    Can this package be reused?
+    Can parts of this package or the entire package be recycled?
+    Can the recyclable parts be separated from the non-recyclable?
+    If it must be discarded, how can we facilitate its disassembly?
+    And, how can the experience be simple and intuitive?

This floss container (pictured right) offers a simple, low cost example of DfD. It’s easy to open, free of glues, screws or heat stakes. The material making up the primary package is clearly labeled, and the component parts are quickly separated. And it’s just 10 seconds to full disassembly.

DfD strategies are considered and applied throughout the design cycle. To fully employ a DfD strategy, designers will need to educate their team, discover waste, set goals, create solutions, and then monitor results through production, distribution and sales, use and end-of-life.

Reduction of materials is key in a design for disassembly strategy. HP replaced the boxes, bags and foam typically used to ship its laptops with a reusable messenger bag.


The goal of the pre-design phase is to get organizational buy-in and communicate that, in the long run, DfD builds more efficient packages and can make businesses money. There are a few ways in which this happens.

To begin, there’s the reduction of labor. Package structures that disassemble easily often assemble easily, saving the company time and money. A DfD strategy can also open new markets; when companies make smart choices, people tend to notice.

The strategy can be communicated through consumer marketing as well. By actively voicing its design philosophy, a brand can reach eco-conscious consumers and, ultimately, drive sales.

Savings can also be found through a reduction of materials. By closely examining the anatomy of a package, designers are often able to find components that can be combined or deleted altogether, saving material and production costs.

Take Hewlett Packard, whose notebook division took on an initiative to reduce the number of parts involved with packaging.

“We noticed the number of boxes, manuals, and the foam components that came with a single laptop, and found ways to replace them with alternatives or eliminate them altogether,” said Stacy Wolff, director of notebook design at HP.

Foam blocks were replaced with molded paper pulp cartons, with compartments to separate the different electronic components and eliminate the need for multiple boxes. User manuals were replaced by a two-gigabyte SD card.

Another notebook design produced for Walmart replaced the outer box with a messenger bag-style computer case. The HP Protect Messenger Bag packaging eliminated several boxes, bags and foam from each computer shipped.

Because it requires a systems thinking approach, DfD can also help break the silos that dominate so many organizations.

“Having designers understand how they can affect different groups in the organization is fundamental to designing more sustainable products,” said Phil Berry, former director of footwear sustainability at Nike and president of Sustainable Product Works, a consultancy. “Development teams used to be isolated in silos, but now are working together to find new ways to build products that can be separated into pure materials.”

And that collaboration isn’t just limited to in-house disciplines. The strategy encourages goal sharing with strategic suppliers who, because they’re experts in their field, can often provide better alternatives if the design team communicates their objectives.

“Work with your partners to bring new solutions to the table,” advised Jose Wyszogrod, principal designer at Honda R&D Americas, which tapped the expertise of supplier partners when it sought to develop recyclable faux leather.

The pre-design phase is also the time to research the recycling stream by visiting the manufacturing and assembly lines. Talking about his visits to Asian suppliers when he was Nike’s director of footwear sustainability, Phil Berry said, “By analyzing the production facilities firsthand, we were able to reclaim roughly 15 percent of material that would have been scrapped.” 

Travis Less, sustainable design lead at Lunar, the product design firm, went straight to the source-visiting the sorting and recycling facilities of San Francisco Recycling and Disposal during the pre-design phase of one project. “There’s no substitute for getting in the trenches,” he said.

A DfD strategy looks at minimizing material types. This steel floss container is easy to disassemble. But if the plastic spool inside was made from steel, the container could be recycled as-is, without the need for disassembly.


When it comes time to begin designing, it’s important to set and write out goals-and to routinely review them during the project. For instance, furniture maker Herman Miller’s Design for Environment (DfE) policy evaluates products based on three core factors: material chemistry, design for disassembly and recyclability. “We ask four questions of our designs: Are the materials homogenous? Are common tools used to separate them? Did it take longer than 30 seconds to reverse a connection? And have the components been marked with their material type?” explained Scott Charon, Herman Miller’s DfE program manager. Each component is scrutinized on these factors and assigned ratings on a spreadsheet, allowing the design team to accurately evaluate the results. 

Materials research is another important element of the design phase of DfD. Designers have a deep responsibility when it comes to materials. For instance, it’s important to consider the number of material types that will be used in the packaging-and to work on minimizing them. If a design can be made with fewer components and material types, it will be easier to sort and recycle.

Take this floss container (pictured, above). When it’s finished, it requires the steel shells to be separated to remove the plastic spool inside. If the steel was formed to replace the spool, the package could be recycled without any disassembly required by the consumer. 

It’s also important for designers to understand the larger implications of their chosen materials and have an understanding of material science. For instance, it’s important to avoid permanent fixing of dissimilar material types, to allow them to be easily separated for recycling. Toxic or harmful materials and chemicals should also be avoided. For instance, in-mold plastic color is preferred over paint or metallic coatings, which are costly, wear poorly and prevent plastics from being recycled.

DfD also carefully considers the user experience of disassembly. “Visualize or simulate the steps to disassemble the product,” advises Lunar’s Travis. Give the consumer instructions for disassembly on the package, or make it so intuitive that instructions aren’t necessary.  Options for reuse can also be printed right on the packaging.


The post-design phase of DfD is something few take time to consider-but it needs to happen. Ask consumers, retailers and even recycling operations, “How would you dispose of this?” By confronting the mortality of an object, designers can learn how their decisions impact the end-of-life result. Turn that feedback into goals to share with the DfD team.

World-changing design doesn’t happen overnight. Instead things often evolve incrementally, to create a higher standard. Design for disassembly is a fundamental strategy that can help improve the cost and quality of what we produce. DfD delivers on our promise to provide people with better tools for living, for years to come. BP

Alex Diener is the creative director at Pensar, a Seattle-based design and engineering consultancy that develops compelling consumer, medical and industrial technology products. He hopes one day all packaging can go into the recycle bin with no strings attached. Reach Alex at (Research and images: Kristin Will, senior industrial designer, Pensar; Article adapted from a story originally on

Where to go for more information…

Okala Sustainable Design Guide

Sustainable Product Works