Packaging and Sustainability: a way ahead

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At the nearby shops, in these pandemic days, I saw a long queue or maybe a lot of people waiting for their turns and thought that instead I would order anything online and would get it delivered at my doorstep. But when I received my package, I saw it had an extra layer of the package which usually is a box or a plastic bag. I would like to start with a few questions. Are the products you use packaged in some ways? What happens to the package after you use up the product completely?….. Yes, it becomes a waste for us. It has become almost impossible to imagine what our lives would be like without the many benefits of packaging. The packaging is required to store and transport the products, to protect valuable goods, and to preserve food. Yet as our global population grows in size and affluence, both our collective demand for packaging materials and the waste we generate as a result will increase drastically. However, energy and material consumption are rising and packaging waste pollutes the environment.

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What is the solution to these problems? Can we just stop packaging? Or only use biodegradable or re-processable materials?…. No, it’s not always possible. Bearing it in mind, sustainability is considered a crucial aspect of packaging nowadays. In contrast to our current industrial model, which extracts, uses, and disposes of resources, a circular economy is regenerative by design. This means that products and their packaging are reimagined from a systems perspective to minimize waste and keep resources locked in a cycle of restoration.

For the designer, I think circular design has some consequences because you have to design your product and packaging to be part of such a circular system. So, you always have to check first: Can I make a product last longer? You can make a reusable bottle or wash your coffee cup, but there are certain situations where you need products with a short lifetime, and that’s inevitable, so you have to make a design that fits that situation. I would throw some light on the strategies which are used in a circular economy.

The first design strategy to be used would be Rethink and that’s about asking yourself the question: Why are we doing this? Why do we use this packaging? Why are we using disposables? And it’s always… There are always good reasons to do so, but asking yourself the question might lead up to new solutions and might come to some solution which will have no waste at all.

The second one to talk about is Reuse and that’s about making packaging reusable. Like a bottle, you can refill a bottle, use it again and again and again. And that saves, of course, a lot of waste if you can do that, but you have to organize a system to do that. It’s not only about packaging but also in combination with the system.

Well, the third one Recycling is of course something very obvious. We have to… Every available waste we have to recycle in the future. But what a lot of designers and companies forget is that they also can reuse recycled content in their packaging and prove to be a trendsetter. If you recycle something, you should also be the one taking care of it by using or supplying the recycled content yourself.

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The last one is called Renew. And that’s also both about using bio-based content like paper, carton, bioplastics, maybe natural fibres to make a package and on the other side, it also talks about recycling it again or making it biodegradable and giving it back to nature.

When to apply which strategy is a difficult question, because it’s always dependent on the product; which kind of product or packaging you are using, the kind of application, also the client is an important factor. Every client can’t make a reusable system happen, so sometimes you will have to make something which will be recycled. So, the dependency on a lot of different factors is a challenge for the designers.

Here are some sustainable innovative packages being used in Europe.

  1. As I mentioned at the beginning about an extra packaging layer for home delivery products, Repack in Europe has come up with reusable parcel bags which they supply to such online delivery firms who use the bags to transport the products safely to the customer. The bag comes with a postal slip which the customer has to just submit to a postal service which would return it to the manufacturer. The bags are checked for any damages and then again sent for use.
  2. Selling body care products like shampoo or body wash in their concentrate form of a ball which when put in a specified amount of water forms the actual product. This has reduced material consumption. In India, such an initiative has been taken by Godrej for its ‘Protekt’ handwash.
  3. Coca-cola in western Europe has been using 100% recycled PET for manufacturing its bottles. Also, it has set up some collection booths, place to place where people deposit their empty coca-cola bottles which are then recycled by the company and used in new bottles.

Many companies have taken initiatives to make their packages as sustainable as possible to take a step forward in saving various environmental resources like fossil fuels, garbage dumping areas, water bodies, etc. Promotion of such initiatives is necessary because only if the people understand the motive and step forward to contributing on their part by separating waste or using the innovations to its best then this can be of greater importance.

At this point, marching towards a sustainable future using our knowledge about innovation and usage of a package is the wisest. According to a human mindset, it is seen that they make a choice depending on the value addition in the product. The ‘sustainable package’ concept is emerging as a new value addition strategy in the industry. It has a huge scope if publicized properly, and the product quality is not compromised in the process.

Shreyasi Manoj Patel
Age: 21
Completed Bachelor of Engineering in Printing and Packaging Technology from SIES Graduate School of Technology, Nerul, Navi Mumbai.