The Environmental Impact of Packaging Design

Most consumers are now more concerned than ever about the environmental impact of packaging and yet much of the most common packaging found in households is problematic from that perspective. For example, toothpaste tubes, plastic containers without a recycling symbol, bottle caps, and cardboard boxes nested within cardboard boxes are among the many surprisingly eco-unfriendly packaging options found in most homes.

Across the board, companies spend more than $130 billion a year on packaging – a figure that is passed on to consumers who may not even think about package design until confronted with pointless blister packs, non-recyclable materials, or excessive slack fill.

Today’s savvier buyers may actually reject products that they perceive as being over-packaged and product developers are certainly catching on to the trend. However, if you’re truly concerned about the environmental impact of your package design you can’t simply reduce the volume of packaging. You need to consider applicable environmental and recycling regulations, plus sustainability and disposal concerns along with the overall impact of manufacturing.

It’s a lot to think about in a landscape with a huge number of packaging options for everything from electronics to entrees. Here’s a quick look at how to not only choose better packaging but also to think about package design in a more comprehensive way.


Why the impact of packaging design is important

Even if you’re not looking to actively court sustainability-minded buyers, remember that some percentage of your potential customer base will find eco-friendly packaging more attractive and packaging can have a huge influence on buying decisions. Think about the amount of time Apple devotes to the unboxing experience and then consider that the company has actively chosen to create that experience using recycled and sustainable materials and less packaging volume.

When your team is committed to the goal of building a more sustainable product, it’s important to recognize the environmental impact packaging will have. More than likely it will represent a small fraction of your product’s impact but remember that the amount of packaging waste is nearly equal to the amount of packaging on the market. HP took this to heart back in 2008 when it cut the extraneous packaging on some of its notebooks by a whopping 97%. The company replaced cardboard, Styrofoam, and plastic with a reusable – and it should be noted, branded – padded messenger bag.

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Think in terms of lifecycle

There’s no denying package design has a big impact on the environment but determining that impact is tough. Packaging constitutes a sizable percentage of solid waste. In Europe, packaging makes up 17% of municipal solid waste by weight and 3% of the waste stream in total. It might seem straightforward to say that you can avoid adding your packaging to that by making it recyclable. But consider that even if your packaging options are recyclable, that’s no guarantee consumers will recycle. And what about the impact of the recycling process itself?

Today there are a number of software packages (e.g., PackageSmart Life Cycle Assessment Software) that analyze the lifetime impact of different packaging options, from design to manufacture to disposal. It can be eye-opening to see just how many ways a package impacts the environment over its lifecycle even if it never sees the inside of a trash barrel.

For instance, you can consider – among other factors – the:

  • Materials impact
  • Energy used to create packaging components
  • Energy used to assemble them
  • Waste products generated at all points
  • Solid waste generated after use
  • Recyclability and recycling rates
  • Mixed material concerns (e.g., a cardboard box with a plastic window)
  • Energy requirements of recycling


Remember it’s about balance

Though it’s clear that it’s incredibly important that manufacturers continue to reassess how packaging affects the environment across its lifecycle, it also helps to acknowledge the positive aspects of packaging.

For instance, certain case ready packaging for beef can keep refrigerated meat fresh longer and Tetra Pak cartons can extend the shelf life of milk by months. In consumer goods, packaging is about more than branding – it’s what makes it possible for the product to make the journey from the factory to its final destination without sustaining damage. And in both of these cases packaging is preventing additional waste streams from entering the environment.


So evaluate each component of your packaging

Remember that bottle caps frequently make the list of common household items that can’t be recycled. The bottles they arrive on, however, can be recycled which means that lessening the impact of basic plastic bottles doesn’t necessarily require a full redesign. If you’re concerned about the impact of your package design there may be specific elements you can change to avoid starting from scratch.

That said, in the initial stages of packaging design, think carefully about how you can use less material and alternative materials without compromising your product’s integrity. Don’t make assumptions!

Remember that paper products like cardboard seem like the eco-friendly option compared to plastic but plastic frequently comes out on top when the entire lifecycle of the packaging is taken into consideration.

As you delve deeper into product design keep in mind that the impact of your packaging design needs to be included in whatever environmental assessments you make. Quantifying the effect products and their packaging have on the planet isn’t always a simple matter but in an age of ever more aware consumers it’s worth the time it takes to approach your packaging options thoughtfully.

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Jarrod Barker
About the Author
Jarrod Barker
Jarrod has a keen interest in technology development and operations. He has an honours degree in Mechanical Engineering and his industry experience spans product design, sports technology, medical device engineering and power generation. He has worked for a leading design consultancy in Cambridge, UK and now runs the Outerspace branch in San Diego USA.

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