Good packaging has improved peoples' lives. Without contemporary packaging, we would be even less able to feed the growing world population. World hunger is a huge problem, and it mostly occurs in areas of the world where packaging is less developed.
While packaging can solve some problems, it also generates new problems. Creating packaging wastes and destroys valuable resources, energy, and material. Packaging pollutes the world.
Different interest groups make the decisions about packaging. Each of the groups that follow considers itself to be most important, but only sees one aspect of the entire problem:
- Packaging engineers choose the technology and the materials.
- Controllers make decisions about the costs of packaging.
- Marketing and sales people want the packaging to be attractive.
Governments often create contradictory rules and guidelines when it comes to packaging and materials. The European Packaging Directive is one such example—under this directive, industries are forced to reduce the amount of packaging and improve their recycling methods. But at the same time, other directives require additional packaging for hygienic reasons. For example, some small items will be put into big packaging just to accommodate the mandatory information texts prescribed by consumer protection laws.
The Problem with Questions
What kind of packaging answer you get depends on the question you ask. If you ask for low-cost packaging, you will get a low-cost solution. If you ask for an advertising pack, you will receive advertising media. And if you ask for a sustainable solution, you will get a sustainable result.
Up until now, customers did not often ask for sustainable solutions in their package design. I once proposed a design, which was the best possible sustainable solution, but it didn't look eco-friendly. The client insisted on using a material that fulfilled the public's expected cliché of ecology, and the final solution looked ecological, but it was not sustainable at all. It was a lie and a fake.
For example, people often think that a glass bottle is a more eco-friendly and sustainable container for liquids than a coated cardboard box. It's true that glass is made out of silicon, which is just sand, an abundant resource, and glass bottles can be used many times. But glass is heavy and needs a lot of energy to manufacture and transport to stores and then back to be reused or recycled. Before the bottle can be reused it has to be cleaned, again using energy, water, and chemicals. Plus, the glass used in packaging lasts forever, while the contents inside usually has an expiration date of less than two months.
On the other hand, the coated cardboard packaging is usually used once and then thrown in the bin. But when you consider all aspects of the use and reuse of each material, the cardboard is a little better than glass. What we really need is a better recycling system for coated cardboard.
Packaging is a complex system, and it isn't limited to the container on the shelf of a supermarket. Before the product appears on a shelf, masses of plastic foils are used to wrap the pallets to protect the cardboard shipment boxes against moisture during transport and storage. Plastic bags are used to transport products home from the store, and plastic garbage bags hold all the disposed products, which then end up in a landfill. In packaging, one has to think about reduction, reuse, and/or recycling.
Better Questions Equal Better Answers
The question should not be, "Can we do better?" but "How can we make things a little less bad?" Sometimes the perfect solution for a small problem can create big problems somewhere else. It is a bad deal when you have to invest $100 to save $10.
There is a difference between eco-friendly and sustainable. The eco-philosophy of the 1970s tried and still tries to save the world completely. No compromise. It is not less whale killing; it is no whale killing. It is not less petrol consumption; it is no petrol consumption. It is not less packaging; it is no packaging. On the other hand, sustainability is a philosophy of compromise. When we damage the world and waste energy, it's harmful. Can we damage less and waste less? Can we do less harm?
Packaging for the Future
For many years, I have taught courses about packaging design at several design colleges in Europe. In the past I used to ask the students to go out to a shop and pick out the worst packaging, describe why it is bad, get information about the reasons, and maybe talk to the producer and develop a better solution. Most of the designs proposed by the students improved the look and the branding, and maybe the handling.
However in the past few years, I began to ask a different question: What will packaging look like twenty years from now, after the death of supermarkets due to the e-buying revolution, in the past-petrol-age, and in the middle of the climate collapse?
Now I ask students to design from the future back to the present, and not from today until tomorrow. Ask another question and you will get another answer. It is amazing to see the change in the attitude of design students being faced with a different question.
For example, "Why do we have to cool production facilities when we produce ice cream? What if there were packaging made out of self-cooling material?" When asked these questions, students from the National College of Arts and Design in Dublin, Ireland, started to research if there could be such a material.
Then we asked, "Could this material provide a communicating surface, giving information about the temperature, the expiration date? Could it possibly be interactive, and could this material be reused?" They found answers to their questions.
The student's design solution was a briefing for a new material. Using this material, it would no longer be necessary to cool production facilities, trucks, storage, and shelves, or to put the ice cream box in the fridge. The savings on energy will be much higher than the additional costs for an intelligent packaging. And of course it is not only a solution for ice cream. This material may not exist yet, but it is technically possible.
Another group of students explored the question of packaging ownership. In a number of systems in the past, the consumer did not automatically become the owner of the packaging. For example, the milkman picked up the cleaned empty milk bottle and replaced it with a full bottle. Today, however, most consumers own the packaging after a product is purchased.
Process Precedes Product
Sustainable packaging design is the design of a process rather than the design of a product. The final graphics on the packaging are just decoration, not design.
In nature one can find many genius packaging concepts. Bionics, a new science between biology and technology, can be a resource to help solve packaging problems. Students at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, proposed to breed and tame intelligent microbes to teach them how to shape packaging. After the expiration date of the packed goods, the microbes would recycle the pack content themselves and it would become humus (soil). Ashes to ashes, earth to earth. It sounds like science fiction, but you never know. It is often the tiny idea that makes a big difference.
One group of students from the National Academy of the Arts in Bergen, Norway, wanted to design a new cracker pretzels package, which is a traditional product in Norway. Cracker pretzels arrive in the shop packaged in poorly branded plastic bags. Most of the pretzels crumbled because the packaging was inappropriate for its purpose.
The students' first sketches showed beautiful graphics on a sturdy box. The producer kindly permitted the students to have a look at the production and packaging chain. He questioned why they wanted to redesign the package. They replied, "To be more consumer friendly and sell more pretzels." The producer said, "The problem is not the demand. The problem is the storage space and the transportation capacities."
So the students researched storage and transportation. Looking at the big shipment boxes, they noticed that due to incorrect measurements, 25 percent of space inside the boxes and on the pallets was empty. This meant that 25 percent of the transportation space was also wasted, along with wasted fuel due to extra trips to transport the pretzels.
This example shows how easy it can be to save energy and resources and start to think sustainably. Design the process, don't decorate a product.
Let's Do Things a Little Less Bad
The more one gets into the field of sustainability, the more it is possible to see the chances to increase profit and make money by making things better. I am confident that sustainability will be tomorrow's fastest growing market.
"It's not creative unless it sells," was a famous quote we adhered to back when I studied design. Package design was the face of a product on the shelf in the supermarket. However, packaging design in the future will be a complex balance between economy and ecology, between user and producer, between profit and benefit, and between promise and expectation.
After seeing the results from the next generation of designers, I am very confident that they will make things better than we did, just by asking different questions.