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What makes a package “sustainable”?

Originally published on November 13, 2013 on The Dieline

By: Candace Hodder

Do a google image search for “sustainable packaging” and you’ll see a variety of interesting package designs, from molded fiber milk bottles to reusable bags for running shoes.

Straus CreameryBut what is it that makes certain packages more “sustainable” than others? As a sustainability consultant specializing in packaged goods, I think about this question all the time.

When you think about it, there are many stages in the “life cycle” of a package, each of which creates environmental impacts. We extract raw materials from the earth, we blend and convert those into a form, we fill the package with product, we transport the packaged product, we use the product, and then we landfill, recycle, incinerate or compost the product and package when we’re done. All the while we negatively impact our shared environmental resources either by consuming them or polluting them.

Screen shot 2013-11-20 at 4.54.54 PM

© Clean Agency. Illustrated lifecycle of a packaged product.

To be “sustainable”, the goal is to optimize this cycle of industrial production. Ideally, we’d design products and packages in such a way as to reduce or eliminate our need to extract new resources, and reduce or eliminate the pollution we create.

Applying this concept to define sustainable packaging, we might say something like: A sustainable package represents a fully optimized use of environmental resources throughout its entire life cycle.

This may seem like a complex way to look at packaging. But the advantage of this approach is that at each stage in your package’s life cycle you have an opportunity to dream up ways to make it more sustainable.

For some inspiration, I’ve selected some designs that tackle sustainability at particular stages of the packaging life cycle.

Raw Materials Extraction: Aaron Mickleson’s The Disappearing Package is a fantastic collection of designs that really push the concept of material reduction to the limit. But if you’re designing for a large company, even the smallest material reduction can make a huge impact. Take Mondelez (Kraft), for example. By coming up with a more efficient design for the zipper on their cheese packaging, they’re saving more than a million pounds of packaging per year. Just the zipper. On one product line. A million pounds of packaging saved each year.

Kraft Natural Cheese

Transportation: One of the best examples of design that optimizes packaging for transportation is the square bottle. As featured on FastCompany, Andrew Kim’s concept for a square coca cola bottle nests and ships more tightly and efficiently than the conventional round bottle. When more efficient shipping translates into fewer truckloads, big savings in greenhouse gas emissions can result.

Andrew Kim Coca Cola Concept

End of life: There are many different ways optimize your package for disposal, depending on the specific product and its supply chain. I’ve always had a particular soft spot for plantable packaging, like this line developed several years ago by Pangea Organics that could literally grow another package (in 50 years or so!). 

Pangea Plantable Package

At this point, you may be thinking: how do I know which life cycle stage to focus my efforts on? Is it better to make my package more recyclable, or more efficient to ship?

Unfortunately, there isn’t one sustainability strategy that applies across the board. Each package is different, and certain strategies will have more or less environmental benefit depending on the context of each particular supply chain. Also, you need to be careful that a positive change in one stage doesn’t unintentionally create a negative impact in another (for example, changing to a lighter material that reduces your product’s shelf life).

But, the good news is that there are a lot of resources available to help designers make sustainable design decisions. For example, my company Clean Agency uses life cycle assessment tools to help designers to figure out where to focus their efforts to achieve optimal environmental benefit.  

Yes, there are some complexities to looking at packaging from a holistic, life cycle perspective. But by expanding our outlook and considering all of the different stages in a package’s life cycle, we open ourselves up to many more creative opportunities to green our packages.