Permanent Packaging Designed For A Circular Economy

by Shawn Binder on 01/02/2020 | 5 Minute Read

While It might sound like a Utopia fever-dream, the idea of designing for a circular economy is not all that far away, even when it comes to something as seemingly impossible as permanent packaging.

But it’s also a tricky concept. Not only do you need to change the way people think about shopping, but you also need to entice a consumer brand to care about the packaging they’re putting their product in. And aside from keeping food fresh and intact, why should they? After all, once you purchase something, you’re also buying the vessel it came in. That’s your problem now. 

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Last year, Loop introduced a throwback concept—bringing back the milkman. Consumers purchase brand-name items like Häagen-Dazs ice cream or Tropicana orange juice, but in durable and sustainable packaging that they put down a deposit for. When they’d like their item refilled, they return it in the mail. Don’t want to do that? Return the container, and you get your deposit back.

“Why should we own something we don't want to own?” asked Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle and Loop. “That's sort of weird, right?”

“And by owning it,” he added, “it becomes a cost to get sold to the manufacturer. So the manufacturer's goal is to make that cost lower, and as you make packaging cheaper, it does get lighter. It does get cheaper. Those are two concrete benefits, but it becomes way less recyclable.”

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And that’s where we currently find ourselves. Once you’ve bought a product, you can try to recycle the packaging, but you’re at the mercy of your local recycling facility, and that’s if you even tried to recycle it at all. This is where refill comes in. Sure, there are plenty of subscription services a consumer can utilize—think Myro’s refillable deodorant—but we also need to consider permanent options. And not just packaging that’s durable.

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So, what kinds of materials should designers consider? Well, there are plenty of options that we’re already using, some of which are recyclable and long-lasting. Stainless steel production uses 70% recycled materials, and it makes up a large chunk of the packaging Loop utilizes right now. And while we might think of plastic as a strict no-no, there are some forms of the substrate that would make for a pretty useful indestructible container.

Acrylic bottles make for an exceptional alternative in designing beautiful, refillable vessels, and when heated to 100 degrees, the material can get easily molded into a variety of shapes. It’s also lightweight, highly transparent, and extremely impact resistant. Similarly, Acetal is also quite durable, and perhaps one of the most robust forms of plastic on earth. We’ve grown accustomed to hearing about how awful single-use plastic is when it comes to consumer products (and it is), but we’re also smackdab in a marketplace that perpetuates a wasteful economy, and if you can design plastic packaging that can last forever, then it’s certainly worth considering.

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Take KeepCup, a reusable coffee cup company that is committed to investigating every material they use. The polyethylene lining in the Keepcups is thoughtful by design, meaning “there is enough plastic in 20 disposable cups to make one plastic KeepCup. It’s about longevity and volume, choosing the materials that suit your use, and using that product over and over again." If a piece of your KeepCup breaks or needs replacing, the company offers options that will allow customers the flexibility to avoid buying an entirely new KeepCup.

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There's also Cupanion, a water bottle made from a BPA-free plastic known as Tritan. This forever material that resembles glass is highly impact-resistant and machine-washer durable, making it a perfect material for a water bottle that needs to stand the test of time. Besides reducing waste, Cupanion also donates clean water to someone in need for every bottle purchased. Designing for a circular economy AND social good? Sign us up. The options for alternative materials are there, but there's no real mainstream usage on the market, and because brands aren't responsible for the waste they put into the system, these substrates get over-looked for cheaper substances.

The solution to permanent packaging lies in the hands of the consumer. Although it is a lovely idea (and one that hopefully comes to fruition) to hold corporations accountable for the impact of their packaging through extended producer responsibility (EPR) measures, a more electrifying approach would be to put our purchasing power to work for companies who choose to design with a circular economy in mind. And if you want to entice consumers to move away from single-use containers, packaging designers need to make designing permanent solution not only their priority but something worth owning, a product you wouldn’t be ashamed of displayed on a shelf.

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One company that has thrown their hat into the ring of the circular economy is Blueland, a company that sends consumers beautifully designed bottles for cleaning solutions they can use over the course of a lifetime. Instead of purchasing chemical products with single-use plastic containers, Blueland sends you tablets you mix with water to deliver high-quality cleaning solutions. 

There's also cosmetic company Bella Vida that launched a zero-waste program where you can send their glass containers back so they'll get refilled with the product of your choice at a discount. The reality is, any company can design for zero-waste if they commit to it. 

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If designers can approach every design by asking how they can make a container last for multiple uses instead of focusing on convenience, they can begin to transform the way we interact with a product. Additionally, with sustainable designs becoming more and more prevalent, it will force big-box retailers like Walmart or Target to think about how they can adapt to that kind of consumer shift. For Loop, their goal was to have major brands on board so that their customers could have a home-base for returning their containers for refills, but there’s no reason they couldn’t implement one of these programs on their own.

Everything that we consume has a life cycle, and if designers can approach their work sustainably, they need to think about who will be touching their product from start to finish, and how many cycles their products could go through before having to be retired, if at all. 

What goes around comes around is a cliche older than most of the plastic currently polluting our oceans, but it’s also a mantra designers need to have on the tip of their tongue as they explore what it means to contribute to a circular economy in a meaningful, lasting way.

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