A New Revolution In Packaging

by Ted Mininni

Sustainability is marking a second “age of industry” that’s transforming the way products and packaging are made.

Some sustainability experts have boldly stated that a “second Industrial Revolution” is underway, referring to new ways of thinking about the development of consumer products, as well as their packaging.
The first Industrial Revolution featured a burst of creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness that enabled goods to be mass produced. This new Industrial Revolution is seeking to use those very assets, along with the latest technological advances, in a better way. By becoming better stewards of our natural resources, energy sources and the environment, we are working not only to make products and packaging, but to do it better than we have in the past.
The concept of environmentally friendly packaging has come and gone before. But, this time it’s a bona fide trend, gaining impetus daily, thanks to the efforts of companies like Wal-Mart. In 2006, when the retail behemoth announced its new Sustainable Packaging Scorecard, which is working toward a five percent packaging reduction across its global supply chain by 2013, it was a clear signal that this trend was about to snowball.
Wal-Mart’s ultimate goal: to become “packaging neutral” by 2025. Translation: a projected savings of $3.4 billion for the retailer; 213,000 fewer truckloads of merchandise; 67 million fewer gallons of diesel fuel; and 700,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The ultimate manifestation of Wal-Mart’s goal? Having all of the packaging that flows through its distribution chain recyclable, reusable, compostable or recoverable for future use.
While not the first company to initiate an environmentally friendly packaging policy, Wal-Mart’s sheer purchasing power has sent ripples through every consumer product sector. Its ambitious agenda has already resulted in a huge spike of interest among manufacturers to adopt sustainable packaging measures.
Many are exploring ways they can cut back on energy consumption, use alternative energy, reduce waste and use recycling procedures in their operations. And while it’s still a brave new world for business, there are sustainable packaging measures that can be implemented today, and cost effectively. Some of what has been written about environmentally friendly packaging has been extremely scientific, but the important points are, in a nutshell, reduce, reuse, recycle, remove and renew.
Remove, reduce and profit
Take the concept of reduction. Removing excess packaging and reducing the overall packaging footprint are steps that go a long way toward sustainability. With reduced packaging, more products can be packed into shipping cartons and more cartons onto pallets, resulting in fewer truckloads and harmful emissions. But because the process can reduce energy and material costs, it can also add substantially to profits.
General Mills estimates that by reducing the package size of its Hamburger Helper line by 20 percent, it will require 500 fewer truckloads to distribute the product each year. Procter & Gamble is introducing new rigid tubes for Crest toothpaste so that it can merchandise the product on retailers’ shelves without a box. Kraft has gone to lighter PET bottles for its Crystal Light products, cutting about 18 percent of the weight and saving an estimated 8.7 million pounds of plastic in the process. And Stonyfield Farms went from number two plastic (HDPE) to number five plastic (polypropylene) for its yogurts, reducing overall packaging by 17 percent, thanks to the thinner-walled polypropylene cups.
These initiatives demonstrate that you can successfully use less material, or light-weighted material—whether plastic, aluminum, glass or paperboard—when developing packaging solutions. (Consider how a reduction in packaging communications can lead to less packaging as well; the challenge will be to convince consumers in some cases they’re getting less product, but more value in less packaging).
Reuse more
Reusing packaging is the next-most-sustainable step you can take. Consider how common the practice of reusing milk bottles used to be for local dairy producers. Though some companies and industries currently engage in this practice (return deposits on soda bottles enable manufacturers to collect, clean and reuse them), more can and should be done in this area.
Why not extend the idea of reuse to plastic food packaging, which can be reclaimed after the product is consumed to store other foods? Consumers are already purchasing containers to store their food—why not make a storage container a purchase bonus?
Or consider another solution: packaging that is literally part of the product. Hasbro’s GI Joe Sigma 6 action figure’s packaging turns into a carrying case that holds the figure and its accessories. The solution is functional, durable and lasting.
Recycle, naturally
But more can be done. In their book, Cradle to Cradle, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart make the case that product and packaging manufacturing should be reconfigured using a closed-loop process.
Since the Industrial Revolution, a “cradle to grave” system has been in place where products and packaging end up in landfills at the end of their life cycles. In a “cradle to cradle” approach, product and packaging materials are perpetually circulated and reused in a closed-loop system, which extracts maximum value from existing materials without sending them to the landfill.
McDonough and Braungart go even further in laying out this new era of manufacturing, describing reusable and recyclable materials as “technical nutrients” that can create new products and packaging without a loss in performance, and newer compostable packaging materials as “biological” nutrients that can safely break down to renew the soil.
The packaging world envisioned by the authors of Cradle to Cradle takes a page from nature and mimics its natural, regenerative processes. In this scenario, every packaging component is engineered to be safe and effective and to be able to go on to a new life, virtually eliminating the heavy waste streams we have today.
Many companies are already purchasing packaging made from post-consumer waste. Most notable are the natural product companies, which have used recycled packaging or packaging made from renewable sources and practiced some degree of sustainability for decades. For Kashi, Annie’s Homegrown and Tom’s of Maine, recycled packaging has simply been part of their philosophy and their way of doing business.
How can you follow their lead? Work with your package design firms, suppliers and industry groups like The 100% Recycled Paperboard Alliance and The Sustainable Packaging Coalition to uncover information on recycled materials.
Look to renew
You should also consider renewable material sources. Bioplastics, for example, are made from corn, soy, sugar cane or even microbial sources, which all can be replenished, unlike a non-renewable resource like petroleum.
London’s Belu Natural Spring Water and the U.S. brand Biota are using corn-based PLA (polylactic acid) in molded plastic bottles, and the deli and produce departments in Wild Oats and Sam’s Club stores are using other formats of PLA.
While they’re not perfect, these bioplastics are recyclable and compostable—and they, and others like them, are the subject of research and development efforts to ensure that they can meet the following criteria: availability, adequate supply, quality, product protection and sustainability.
Your charge? Work with your package designers to explore more sustainable alternatives. PLA bioplastics can be used for food packaging, wrapping and serviceware applications. Cellulose and starch-based films, biodegradable packing foams and pellets, moisture barrier coating films and biobased clampacks, clamshells and blister packs are also available. These alternatives are becoming increasingly attractive from an economic, as well as sustainable, viewpoint as petroleum prices continue to rise.
The balancing act
Indeed, things are changing rapidly. There was a time when packaging was called upon to do a few, important things: deliver products intact, retain their integrity and keep them safe for consumer use. But, now, packaging is the last and best chance for marketers to reach consumers with their brand messages; a means of delivering a great brand experience in a very tangible manner. And the responsibilities of packaging have expanded as a result.
Now, packaging itself has to become safer and healthier. We’re demanding performance, economic feasibility and environmental responsibility from package designers and suppliers. And it all demands a very delicate balancing act. The more “environmentally sound” materials don’t always present the best alternative, when they use more energy during the manufacturing process, for instance.
To be effective in this new age of sustainability, you will have to consider solutions carefully, and ensure that the environmentally friendly mindset comes from the top down, and in many aspects of your business. And you’ll have to tread carefully in broadcasting “green messages” in your branding efforts. They’ll ring hollow with consumers unless they’re perceived to be part an overall commitment to sound environmental practices; packaging is just one slice.
Only then can you begin to take part in this second Industrial Revolution, to extend your sustainable point of view to employees, stakeholders and consumers, to eliminate the millions of tons of packaging waste dumped annually in landfills and to breathe a little bit easier.
Ted Mininni is president of Design Force Inc., a metro New York area consultancy that specializes in brand identity, package design and consumer promotion design. Reach him at 856.810.2277 or visit www.designforceinc.com.