How to design sustainable packaging

As designers, we have the opportunity to encourage our clients to make more sustainable choices. Sustainability has many sides and so it can feel a little intimidating to offer sustainable packaging as a service. Before I became a designer, I studied ecology and sustainability and helping clients be more ethical and have a long term vision is now part of my job description. Today I will share my tips to get started with sustainable packaging and show how easy it can be to make improvements.



OVERVIEW:

  • What does "sustainable packaging mean?

  • Size and weight

  • Waste

  • Materials

  • Labelling

  • Give your packaging a second life



What does "sustainable packaging mean"


Before we dig in to the actionable advice, we need to define what our goal is. For me, sustainable packaging should have as little impact on the planet and environment as possible and the production process should be ethical and fair to the people and communities involved in the process.


Most people think solely about the materials when they consider how to improve their packaging but the reality is that there are so many more opportunities to make an impact.


Size and weight


When a product goes from manufacturing to the stores and eventually to people's homes, it needs to be transported. This is usually done in trucks or ships stacked on pallets. The larger the packaging, the fewer can fit in one shipment which means more fuel have to be used to get the product from point A to point B. The same is true for weight. A heavier truck will use more fuel but vehicles also have weight restrictions - meaning they will restrict the number of items in one shipment if the products are very heavy.


One great way to make your packaging more sustainable is therefore to design your inner and any outer packaging to be as small and light as possible. Avoid making design choices that look nice but leave big pockets of air in the packaging (imagine those bags of crisps filled half with air) and opt for light weight materials.


Clever little bag by PUMA and FuseProject - a more sustainable shipping option


Waste


If the packaging is damaged in shipping, the item is often thrown away since it will not look appealing on the store shelves. Make sure you choose a package design that is appropriate for the product inside and the journey it will go on from production to consumer. Consider how factors like moisture or handling will affect the packaging. It might seem counter intuitive but if your store ready design is made of paper, it might be more sustainable to add a plastic outer packaging protecting against moisture to avoid all the product being thrown away because of damage.


On the topic of waste, the shape and usability of your packaging also plays a role. Make sure it is as easy as possible to use all of the product inside the packaging. When you can't get that last bit of shampoo or half of the cereal is crushed, it leads to a lot of product waste. By making smart design choices that protect the product and makes it easy for consumer to access the full amount, you make your product more sustainable.


Materials


There are a lot of new and exciting materials on the market that aim to replace more traditionally used materials like plastic. This is great but don't feel intimidated or like you can't offer sustainable packaging services to your clients if you are not all studied up on algae and compostable options.


The truth is, at the moment, using materials that are widely recycled like plastic and cardboard and sticking to one material so consumers don't have to separate packaging in to different pieces will help make your packaging much more sustainable. Plastic and cardboard are both light weight and we know how they react to shipping conditions.


If you have the option, here are some great material alternatives to consider:


Plant-based plastics: By using waste products from the corn production, we can create bio-plastics. Besides being a great environmental choice, the fact that they are made from agricultural waste product also helps support local farmers. Plant based plastics are great for drinks and other bottles. On a similar note, waste materials from other food and drink production like wheat and palm leaves can be used to make replacements for six pack rings and food containers similar to polystyrene and algae makes a great plastic substitute that can be coloured with natural vegetable dyes like beetroot.


Wood pulp: Made from FSC certified wooden pulp, this material can be used to create an array of plastic alternatives including cellophane. NatureFlex even has a version of this product that is heat resistant and different alternatives for coating and permeability.


Plant-based inks: Toxic materials in normal inks are a problem for sustainable packaging. Not only is it bad for the environment but can also have long term health problems for people working in the production process. Inks made from plants use the oils in soy or vegetables to carry the pigment instead of petroleum-based products.


Labelling


Even with the best materials and recycling options, you need the end consumer to actually dispose of the packaging in the right way in order for the packaging to be sustainable. This means making clear space for recycling symbols, helpful statements and instructions that encourage recycling.


Every country (and sometimes even city) has different ways to handle recycling. In many parts of the UK for example, paper and plastic are added to the same container by the consumer and later sorted at the recycling plant. In other countries like Sweden, it is up to the consumer to sort soft and hard plastics, paper and clear glass from coloured. Make sure you look in to the rules in the area where the packaging will be sold and make your labels as helpful as possible.


UK labelling system


Give your packaging a second life


A bonus way to make your packaging more sustainable is to encourage consumers to keep it and use it for something else in the future. Perhaps you design a beautiful glass bottle that will make a perfect vase or add a game board to the back of your cereal box. Just think of how many of us keep old tin boxes because we love the design or how old CocaCola crates have become collector items.


Any cases where the packaging stays in the home is also a great branding opportunity for your client - like having a mini ad in your customer's home.


Besides sustainability, packaging is also seeing a lot of other revolutionary changes. Get ready for 3D printing and smart packaging. Sounds interesting? Read our blog on the future of packaging.


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