As a packaging designer and nature lover, I  dream of the day when material science and manufacturing can deliver on not only the promise of zero environmental impact, but also high performance, premium finish and low costs. Many breakthroughs have begun to deliver on the promise: PaperFoam, RPET and PLA to name a few. However, many of these materials still cannot compete on performance—and especially not on price.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the commodity materials market has been flooded by new manufacturers from the East, thus increasing the global supply and significantly lowering costs. In addition, the light-weighting movement in the plastics bottling industry and single-stream recycling both test the long-term financial viability of the material recycling industry since they collect on volume and are compensated by weight.

The viability of true sustainability is a very complex economic challenge, and the ugly truth is that very few consumers, brand owners or municipalities are willing to pay a premium price for cutting-edge sustainable packaging solutions. True solutions will come through systematic thinking that requires the material supplier, manufacturer, retailer, consumer and the municipality to share in the premium costs and labor required to design, collect and recycle packaged materials. 

What can you do now?

Sustainable materials will, over time, become more available and less costly—but what to do now? If you feel stuck and have given up on sustainable solutions, there is hope and you don’t have to look too far. 

First, stop looking for space-aged materials that will save the day. There are more advanced and more sustainable materials, but chances are they aren’t available for mass production today and, due to the scale, their costs are prohibitive. Keep the future of bio-science engineering in your back pocket as it will be the ultimate solution once truly green materials can be produced at volume and at competitive costs. Proven recovery and recycling programs for glass, metal, non-laminated papers, PET and HDPE exist in most major municipalities and should be considered highly sustainable commodity packaging materials.

Second, do more with commodity materials that are already available. How can you use less material? How can your packaging be more efficient during distribution and storage? How can you combine materials in a way that is easy to separate and differentiate, thus preserving their recyclability? How can you eliminate unwanted laminated materials and glues that transform a highly recyclable material into waste? There are many questions you can ask to begin improving sustainability through design alone without changing the materials.

Build a green creative brief

Finally, and most importantly, design with intent. Sustainable guidelines and goals must be a part of your creative brief and evaluation criteria for success. Sustainable packaging does not happen by chance and actually requires significantly more effort and focus to achieve.

Sustainable design will most often challenge the supply chain and current manufacturing processes, and thus make it a more difficult case for return on investment. It is important to look holistically at the packaging lifecycle with the aid of lifecycle analysis tools. COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment), developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, is an excellent starting resource. This tool can clearly communicate savings and efficiencies along each step of the lifecycle that can be offset by an increase or deficiency in another. Lifecycle analysis tools must be part of your objectives and evaluation criteria to clearly measure results.

Here are 10 principles to design sustainable packaging with intent:

  1. Start with commodity materials that are commonly recycled at major municipalities: #1 PET, #2 HDPE, aluminum, glass, paper, paperboards.
  2. Design the package from a single material. Single material packages are easier to identify and separate during recycling.
  3. Focus on the product-to-package ratio. The package should be as small as possible while still protecting the product and providing adequate branding real estate.
  4. Design for assembly at the point of manufacture. Think through the assembly steps as well as the use of hand labor versus automation. The more efficient the better.
  5. Avoid gluing and laminations. Laminations and glue make it impossible to separate materials for recycling and can negatively impact what would be an environmentally friendly package.
  6. Design for distribution. Design primary, secondary and tertiary package from the beginning, looking to optimize all package dimensions for pallet efficiency.
  7. Eliminate secondary and tertiary packaging when  possible. Look for opportunities to make the primary package more robust, as well as combining functions of shipper and POP displays.
  8. Design for disassembly. The end user will ultimately be responsible for cleaning and separating the packaging components for end of life. Use of the How2Recycle label is helping to communicate what to do.
  9. Clearly mark the materials on the packaging components. Design in-mold recycling codes or labeling to let consumer know what the material is.
  10. Use lifecycle assessment. Only in understanding the entire supply chain do you fully understand the sustainable savings. Improvements in distribution could greatly offset a more premium material selection or increase in manufacturing complexity.

There is hope for a brighter future when designing for sustainability can become a much simpler and straightforward methodology. Until the materials of the future significantly come down in costs, let’s keep designing with intent.



Think of the product and package as one to create a system that enhances its environmental impact and avoids greenwashing. 

by Bob Lilienfeld and Walter Peterson

Many people ask if sustainable packaging should be an element of their branding initiatives. Let’s start by stating that, in and of itself, there’s no such thing as sustainable packaging.

Sustainability needs to be measured against the total performance of the package—and the product. This means that a sustainable packaging system is one in which the package ensures delivery and use of 100 percent of the physical and psychological value of the product it contains—and does so with the minimum amount of materials, energy and waste needed to do the job.

What do you call it when the product and package, both together and separately, meet consumers’ physical and psychological needs along with the needs of the environment, the economy and society as a whole? We’ve coined an expression that sums this up: Sustainability requires holistic harmony.

Consumers and Sustainability

Do your consumers care enough about the sustainability benefits of your product and its packaging for you to build them into your branding and marketing activities? We know that up to 57 percent of consumers recognize sustainability initiatives in their purchase decision for a product. Thus, the sustainable value of the product and the package must deliver—separately and together—the total level of sustainability expected by the consumer.

For example, let’s say your package is constructed of recyclable materials produced from renewable energy sources, is relatively lightweight and is generally recyclable. You have also gone through great effort to make sure that package end-of-life options are clearly communicated via the How2Recycle logo. That’s great, but it’s not the end.

Say it turns out that the product inside the package is clearly not responsibly sourced or, because of dysfunctional packaging, has a tendency to leak, break or spoil during storage or transit. Oops! Your sustainable message breaks down pretty fast since one component has not supported the total sustainable balance required to achieve holistic harmony.

The same process works in reverse: A responsibly sourced organic food should be marketed in a package that not only successfully delivers the product and its benefits, but also delivers a similar level of sustainability as defined by science, your corporate culture, the regulatory environment and, of course, consumer perceptions.

Product and Package Together

The best way to think about it is to imagine that the package and product are not separate. Let’s use the human body as an analogy for this: Your skin is the package since it contains and protects the rest of you—both your physical presence and your personality. You would never wonder if your skin, alone, was sustainable because your personal sustainability obviously depends upon the efficient functioning and well-being of every part of you together—skin, organs, circulatory system, nervous system and psychological makeup. We call it holistic harmony.

So, what do you call it when the package and the product don’t work together to deliver expected levels of sustainability? We’d call it greenwashing.

When it comes to sustainability, successful branding requires that your product and its package, both singly and together, deliver against the expectations of all your constituencies, but especially those of your customers.

Bob Lilienfeld is the senior director of communications for AMERIPEN. Walter Peterson is the packaging innovation manager for Nestlé.