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Zero Waste Packaging

by Diane Lindquist on 10/21/2013 | 7 Minute Read

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Zero-waste packaging is a highly contentious concept. On the face of it, eliminating packaging can only be a good thing – such as vastly reducing the 3.5million tonnes of packaging in the UK (DEFRA) that goes to landfill, wastes resources and makes its way into our rivers and oceans.

However, brands need to differentiate themselves from each other by expressing their values, retailers need to transport the goods with minimal damage or waste, and consumers want to be able to make quick purchasing decisions. And let’s not forget that as consumers, we also want our packaging to inhibit more ethereal, emotional values that enhance our perception and enjoyment of a product.

The result is a very real tension of needs – the desire to eliminate packaging is, ultimately, at odds with commercial requirements. Or is it?

In this opinion piece, Ben Sillence, Strategy and Innovation Manager from Path, discuss the possibilitiesof zero waste packaging.

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As the sustainability movement has evolved, people have increasingly desired smarter and more efficient forms of product and packaging. No longer is using brown card enough to convince people of a brands ecologically-positive intent.

As a result, we’ve been seeing designers, brands, retailers and technologists driving a number of new innovations to get as close as they can to packaging that balances commercial success with sustainability through zero-waste.

A growing trend we’re seeing is the rise of ‘bring your own packaging’ (BYOP) retailers, whose approach can be traced back to the fresh food markets where people would bring their own bags, tubs and jars to take produce home. Unpackaged is a good example of this – a boutique grocery store based in London that sells bulk products without the packaging, relying instead on people to bring their own tubs and containers. The Soap Dispensary in Vancouver follows a similar format, specialising in premium household soaps, cleaners and personal care products.

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This retail format appears to suit some commodity categories, such as coffee, oils, soaps and flour, but dispenses with the important attributes that packaging often supplies – convenience, product differentiation and branding.

This is where new and innovative uses of packaging technology are breaking conventions, and getting close to that balance of sustainability and commerciality.

As part of his master’s thesis at Pratt Institute, Aaron Mickelson developed a number of concepts that explored the idea of packaging without waste. For example, one of Mickelson’s solutions is for Tide detergent tablets where soap-soluble inks have been used to print branding on the tear-off sachets, which are water-soluble. The result is a piece of packaging that protects and contains the product, but can also be placed inside the washing machine to disintegrate and disappear without an adverse effect on performance or the environment.

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Other concepts included one for Glad rubbish bags, which dispensed with the standard heavy cardboard box and instead printed the logo and product information on last bag, which was wrapped around the whole roll.

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What makes the concepts from Mickelson stand out, apart from their innovative use of technology, is the clear adherence to the needs of the brands in communicating their values and even enhancing those principles with smart design.

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Use of similar technology has already reached the market however, with a portion of the 5th generation iPod Touch and 7th generation iPod Nano’s having EarPod holders that dissolved in warm water. UK retailer Marks & Spencer has also experimented with using biodegradable materials that dissolved in water, such as on their chocolate box packaging. Neither Apple or M&S have managed to use the technology with quite the elegance and ingenuity that Mickelson has with his concepts.

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But what if zero-waste packaging was about making that format edible?

Brazilian burger chain Bob’s recently launched an initiative where its traditional plastic wrappers were replaced with edible, branded versions. Researchers at Havard have gone a step further and developed a biodegradable membrane called ‘WikiCells’. Drawing inspiration from grape skins, these membranes can be washed and are entirely edible. The technology has been used to create ‘WikiPearls’, which house anything from ice cream and yogurt to cheese and even coffee.

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Drawing inspiration from nature, or biomimicry, could well be a fertile area to provide solutions for zero-waste packaging. Creating packaging that protects and promotes the product, but disappears once its been used, is getting closer to the horizon. Food production researchers are developing ways to package food with nutrients that improve freshness, but when they run out it triggers the packaging to automatically breakdown. This potentially means that certain raw foods could continue to grow within the biodegradable packaging, breaking apart when the sell-by date approaches or is exceeded.

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With 40% of UK and US consumers making a food purchasing decision based on how efficient the packaging is (JWT), brands will need to look for new innovative ways to balance increasing environmental concerns, but also address the need to communicate their values on-pack. Although technologies like WikiCell undeniably meet the brief of zero-waste packaging, its commercial viability is less certain.

What makes Aaron Mickelson’s concepts so engaging is that they make the packaging work harder and smarter – creating a proposition that goes beyond communicating the brand values with only graphics and logos. If a piece of packaging can convey values of progressiveness, ingenuity and responsibility with the use of smart, sustainable designs its benefit will not only be felt ecologically, but also in bottom line of the brand.

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About Ben Sillence


Ben Sillence is a creative strategist with a background in product and packaging design, and joined Path as their Strategy and Innovation Manager in 2012.

With a belief that strategic innovation works best with creative thinking, he has helped grow some of the worlds largest brands, such as JTI, SABMiller, P&G, Dell, PepsiCo and Kraft. Ben also acts as author and editor of Mapº, a monthly trends briefing piece from Path that seeks to inform brand leaders through trend analysis, and inspire fresh thinking.