Sustainable Packaging        

Sustainable Packaging & Product Development

December 20, 2016


By: Philip Patke, Mechanical Engineer, Beyond Design, Inc.

There is a growing demographic of consumers that are becoming increasingly more aware of the environmental and humanitarian impact of the products they purchase. In the world of product development, packaging is often an area of procrastination, or a secondary consideration to be dealt with in an expiated manner with little attention outside of the graphic design. The manner and materials used to store and display a product have been a real struggle in efforts to promote a more sustainable product.

Traditionally, design packaging is meant to be thrown away, which makes it inherently wasteful. This is an issue that been getting more attention from the design community as a value-added proposition to the consumer and the client. Package design is an art form all to itself – starting with the source of the raw materials to the end of its life. Focusing on eight characteristics, the definition of sustainable packaging is as follows…

• Beneficial, safe & healthy for all individuals & communities throughout its life cycle.
• Meets market criteria for both performance and cost.
• Sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy.
• Effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.
• Physically designed to optimized materials and energy.
• Manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices.
• Made from materials that are healthy in all probable end of life scenarios.

However, from the beginning to the end, packaging has presented itself to be a complex issue. Over the years, as an engineer, I have learned there is no such thing as a complete sustainable package – but that sustainability is a journey that we have to endure. The ultimate goal is to make a number of changes and improvements over a certain period of time to provide a positive and effective environmental impact in our society.

The basis for sustainable packaging started in the 1970’s during the environmental movement – which allowed some to become aware of the ecological problems in our society. With the first Earth Day celebrated during that year and carried on to our current year, brand owners and packaging developers are continuing to search for more sustainable packaging materials to better support and for users to live in a more eco-friendly world.

The universal recycle logo was first introduced in 1969 and has become well recognized to communicate the desired method of disposal. The industry has not yet agreed upon a universal logo for a product being biodegradable. In sustainability terms, packaging materials – such as glass, plastic, paper, and aluminum shouldn’t be classified as either ‘good or bad’. All materials have their advantages and disadvantages – depending on how the product application is used and the goals of the packager. Especially in packaging, trade-offs are a natural part of the process. Moreover, an instrumental part of the journey is to have a full understanding of the full product supply chain. By putting things into perspective, all functions can properly go through the process from start to finish, facilitating all needs.


When deciding on what sustainable materials to use for packaging, it is important to think about the impact it will have, the message it sends and whether or not it is the most eco-friendly and cost-effective way to house a product. Having been a mechanical engineer for the past 9 I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here are my five (5) efforts to simplify the step a designer should consider to optimize a sustainable packaging design.

1. Take a Life Cycle Approach: Sustainable packaging is much more than just a single strategy. It’s a life cycle approach that focuses on consumption and emission factors that start with a single design and continues through the end of life. If packaging is trash and trash is the enemy, the most direct way to reduce the amount of trash is to reduce the size and amount of packaging. Leaving your product partially exposed is a great way to reduce the amount of material used to capture the merchandise.

Exposing handles, other touch points and/or product features can be an effective way to encourage a potential customer to interact with your product before purchasing. That interaction is the spark that builds the relationship of a specific product to the consumer. Using less is not just limited to the material used to make up the enclosure. Using less ink and color dye is another opportunity to reduce your rate of consumption.


Using the natural finish of a particular material with a minimal number of graphics can have a significant impact on not just the amount of virgin resources used but can result in lower cost and make the material more compliant to second life processes. By focusing on these assessments, engineers and designers can identify dilemmas for improvement in a package and prevent any further issues of the packaging’s other components.


2. Focus on the Relationship between Package and Product: The relationship between product and package go together like peanut butter and jelly. You can’t have one without the other. Packaging delivers products, prevents spoilage and communicates essential information to users once the packaging is in their possession. An example of this is household cleaning products, which has undergone a significant change to accommodate for more sustainable packaging. Systems allowing product refills with reusable packaging is becoming more popular. Companies need to be focused on making sure that the correct sizing and material selection for their packaging is the best fit to deliver their products in the most efficient, yet cost-effective way. Choosing innovative containers, caps, labels and other components to improve packaging will result in a smaller footprint, and even smaller pricing as well.


3. Adopt Better Materials: There is an ever-changing library of eligible materials that can be suitable for packaging solutions. To keep it simple, recyclable and biodegradable materials are better than single use and virgin materials that require high energy processes to manufacture. Engineers are constantly looking for ways to find materials that resonate with the end user. Recycling is great, as it gives a collected tonnage of plastic a second chance to be used without extracting virgin elements. Paper products have the perception as an eco-friendly product, and for a good reason.


It can be recycled five to seven times and are bio-based and biodegradable at the end of their life cycle. If you want to step outside of the box, there are some unconventional options that are slowly being adopted. Mushrooms are being used as an alternative to Styrofoam or other protective insulators. By clearly laying out recyclability and sourcing information, this drives action and a positive consumer response to help ensure that packages are treated in such a way that increases revival.


4. Pursue Creative Angles: As an area to really flex your creative muscles, engineers and designers are getting creative in pursuing different avenues of packaging and how to make them more sustainable, while looking for the next level of innovation. By working with others and being aware of potential issues, a wide range of ideas can be examined to source new opportunities for end solutions. For liquid and food items, designing a container with the intention that it can be reused as a storage container can prevent it from being viewed as disposable – making the consumer feel like they are getting more for their money. Allowing for packaging to be easily altered can enhance the user experience of the product by making it easier to store, organize or display in their home. The secondary use of the packaging does not necessarily need to be directly related to the original product. It could be something playful and whimsical like a toy, or game. Several companies have figured out how to impregnate plant seeds into paper products that can be planted into soil to grow herbs and vegetables, which could be a compelling option for products that promote a wellness agenda. Regardless of the popularity, the viability of these alternatives are being looked into to see how sustainable they really are.


5. Collaborate with Others to See End Result: Companies are continuously working with non-governmental organizations, industry professionals, working groups and design consultancies to collaborate and develop new ideas for sustainable packages. Conversations throughout the supply chain work together to solve problems through research strategy, while sharing their best practices amongst others. It will always benefit in the long run to make sure that you are knowledgeable about where the materials are sourced from. If you have gone through the efforts to add value to your product by being environmentally conscious, let your customer know. If the packaging has a secondary purpose, detailed and communicated instructions need to be relayed to the user to embrace the engineered design of the packaging. Moreover, if there are specific instructions on how to dispose of the packaging, communicate with the customer on how they can participate in minimizing their environment impact of their purchase. It’s vital to understand the specific environments to minimize distribution costs as well. By having wasted space in packaging, this can result in excess materials, transport, handling and storage.


Environmental issues are presenting designers and engineers with one of the more pressing challenges we face. The way we have produced packaging up to now, although it is not the sole cause of our environmental concerns, still raises issues that business, governments and the public need to address.

One of the best ways to ensure a holistic understanding and approach to sustainable packaging is to understand the need to introduce sustainability at the earliest point in research and development, specifically during the design phase. Decisions that are made during the design phase will display a positive or negative response across the entire life cycle of packaging. It can affect sourcing, processing, integration, distribution, warehousing, displays, consumer interaction and end of life management choices.

The good news is that the industry is at last moving in the right direction. In the last five years, the proportion of packaging that can be deemed to be sustainable has increased by over ten percent – which shows a positive example of how to produce high-quality, affordable packaging products that meet sustainable standards.

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