Packaging with zero waste is in sight.

by Alex Benady

It’s a difficult truth for a company like ours, but no one really wants packaging. Retailers need a way of distinguishing and managing products. Manufacturers need a way of transporting their products and making them stand out. Consumers just want the products inside. For all of them, packaging is a means to other ends. It is a distress purchase.

That explains why so much of it is thrown away. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we generated around 10.8 millions tonnes of packaging in the UK in 2009. Although an impressive two thirds was recycled, 3.5 millions tonnes weren’t – wasting resources, clogging up landfill, polluting water courses and turning the oceans into a rubbish dump.

In the US the problem is worse. The country generated 250 million tons of waste in 2010 according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and nearly a third of that, about 76 million tons, comes from packaging.

So the prospect of packaging that simply disappears leaving little or no environmental impact is as alluring as it sounds unlikely. But designer Aaron Mickelson, of the Pratt Institute New York, may just have cracked it.

He was concerned by the amount of unnecessary paper and plastic wasted in conventional approaches to packaging. For his MA thesis ‘The Disappearing Package’, Mickelson has found ways to reduce that packaging waste to almost nothing by creating packaging that is part of the product and is used up as the product is used.

He took five big wasteful packaging categories –detergent tablets, plastic containers, tea bags, soap and rubbish bags and showed how, with a very simple re-design, packaging waste can be almost completely eliminated. What is especially exciting about his project is that it isnt merely conceptual (ie theoretical), he has made real-life working proto-types.

For instance Tide detergent tablets are currently sold in plastic bags. Mickelson’s solution is water soluble, tear-off sachets printed with environmentally friendly soap-soluble ink that simply disintegrate in the washing machine. Saving 29kg per palette.

With his Nivea hand soap, the box is soluble, so you just take it into the shower and it washes away. Savings 7g per packet.

Individual Twinnings tea bags, were wax-lined for freshness, perforated together and folded up accordion style. “This provides a new opportunity to expand on the marketing material present on the package, and to eliminate unnecessary waste,” Mickelson told Wired magazine. Saving 54lb per palette.

Glad rubbish bags are currently sold in a heavy cardboard box. Instead Mickelson suggests printing the Glad logo on the last bag in the roll which forms the package itself. Saving 68kg per palette.

Currently Oxo plastic multi containers have the branding on glossy paper inside the container. Mickelson suggests instead printing them on to the surface of the container with soap-soluble inks. Saving 10kg per palette.

His ideas could well cut packaging and transport costs and will certainly cut waste management costs and environmental impacts. But packaging design companies like ours need have no fear of Mickelson’s new approach. It’s not an aesthetic hair shirt and it’s not going to lead to shops looking like Russia in the 1950s. As you can see from the photos, branding remains prominent. In fact the branding becomes integral to the product. Which in our view is the truth about how branding should work. ENDS


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