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Sustainable Packaging and Design
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Wendy Jedlicka tells us about how to start sustainable packaging. She is a packaging designer with over 20 years of experience, teaches green packaging design at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and writes the Sustainability feature for Package Design Magazine.

I frequently receive calls from design firms and departments that go something like this: "We want a list of eco materials," they say. I ask if they understand systems thinking or if they have a training program in place to help the people using the list figure out what will actually BE eco for their applications -- the answer is always, "No we just want the list."

In theory, picking an eco material is better than a non-eco one. But in many cases, if you don't know why it's eco, or how to apply its use correctly, the eco material can be far worse than the thing it's replacing. A great example is PLA, a plant based plastic that can be used instead of PET/PETE (recycling number 1). If applied to products in a market that has PLA collection and sorting systems in place, it's a fantastic substrate that offers a huge list of eco-benefits. BUT -- when used in markets without proper systems in place to handle it, just a small amount of this material mixed in with PET/PETE can contaminate the entire batch -- making the plastic unsuitable for recycling. The now contaminated and unrecyclable PET/PETE in many markets is burned, adding to the pollution load caused by incinerating petroleum based plastics, as well as wasting a full batch of really good material that could have been used to make a wide variety of durable goods.

In addition to applying eco-materials properly, clients are looking to their designers to help them meet new more restrictive legislation, new initiatives from their own clients (Wal-Mart score card for example), and a whole host of problems -- bigger than picking recycled paper -- that require a look at the system of the packaging, not just its substrate.

To get an idea of what an eco/sustainable package is, take a good look at the Definition Project, by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. This definition is not only a great framework for what a good package is, but is a great way to frame any effort.

The criteria for Sustainable Packaging are quite clear, and really only ask these simple questions...

  • Does it make us or the planet sick? Don't do it!

  • Can we use renewable resources, energy as well as substrates, and then use them again without going back to virgin sources?

  • Are we doing it efficiently, considering all costs (logistics, materials use, recyclability, stakeholder issues, etc.)?

  • Are all components doing what they're supposed to do? Do they protect, inform, and sell with an added bonus of restoring some of the resources we've already wasted as well as increase positive consumer perception?

  • The criteria are an end-goal, not the Ten Commandments. As we begin new products, or look to improve our systems, the criteria provide a benchmark against which to measure our efforts. Sometimes we'll hit all the marks, sometimes just a few. But in every case the movement is always forward. No one expects a company to change all of their systems all at once, but the realities of how we do what we do provide natural opportunities for all players to improve or update systems as part of their normal modus operandi.

    To do this, though, designers and their clients need to do more than just pick from a "happy list" -- but rather, start to look at packaging's true costs and impacts from concept through rebirth.

    For further green packaging advice by Wendy Jedlicka, see Starting a Packaging Project - Tips for Non-Packaging Designers

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    Great pointer, thanks WC! :)

    Posted by: Colin Steele on 21 Dec 06

    I think it's important as well to look at packaging as having a use either to the product (in the case of a shampoo bottle, for example) or an alternative use which guarantees it an afterlife or secondary use.

    Posted by: Amy Leaman on 21 Dec 06

    Just yesterday I went into a pharmacy to buy: chapstick, floss, and pick up my wife's birth control. The chapstick and floss both came in vacumeformed plastic over cardboard back that I threw "away" along with the receipt in the garbage can just outside the store. The birth control pills are really out of hand, they come in: a paper bag with the receip, copy of the prescritpion and a coupon flier stapled to the outside of the bag, inside you find a colorful heavi cardboards box containing another plastic and foil dispenser, a not so small manual describing use, and a separate fuzzy purple plastic little booklet caring case. I felt incredibly guilty as I threw all this excess packging "away" in the garbage right outside the store... All I wanted was healthy teeth, unchaped lips, and birth control but we can't have any of that without senceless polution these days. We need packaging reform!

    Posted by: Stiven (sustainableday) on 21 Dec 06

    I am very glad to have read this. I am in the business of packaging development for the food industry. I have been angry that people think that materials are the way to solve all our waste problems. PLA is not any more biodegradeable than I am, when i get wrapped in plastic a buried under 6 feet of dirt... people can dig me up in 100 years and get a general idea about what i loook liked alive. PLA, PET, PS, PP, Paper you name it bury in under a mountains of other trash and it will take decades to decompose. People and more importantly Communities need to take responsibility for waste streams. A good example to look to in the dump on Lopez island, WA USA where people must deliver their trash in organized bundles for it to be accepted. Consumers and local politians need to lead the way toward a better way of managing our trash. I instantly think of the metaphor of my mother asking me to clean my room, if it was not for her and all of the other guiding influnces in my life I would not be able to disipline myself to perform simple day to day actions, and much less have any higher level thinking... And that metaphor streaches into this issue of recycling and issues associated with packaging.
    I sell millions of little cups every year to all kinds of different food companies, and i know much to my dismay that these little cups end up in land fills and waterways around the world. I feel helpless, because i know for a person to buy a clean quality cup of yogurt at the grocery store our economy requires a supply chain to meet the requirements of safety and value. This complicated problem can be mitagated with a code of laws but they must be derived organically from social/economic value systems. For example: the trash pile gets so big that people get sick from it, then find out what make us sick and correct the problem. I do not think that we should force everyone to cut the different layers of a diaper so that the PE layer can be seperated from the paper for proper recycling. Rather I think that that piece of waste material needs to have a negative value for a particuliar zip code. 10013 will have a much different negative value than 64103... this opens a huge window into a possible administrative nightmare... like differnet tax code and so on, but it addresses the key issue that our waste poop or otherwise needs to be accounted for and in so doing we manage our future more efficiently. We have a long way to go dealing with the problems of our waste. But I wish people would not make the problem worse by buying into the marketing HYPE associated with PLA. Because this hype is screwing up a part of our recycling resin stream that is fairly efficient. Heck I own a Patagonia jacket that was made fro PET bottles, if PLA was around at the same time PET got started in the market my jacket would most likely stil be in bottle form in a landfill somewhere.

    Posted by: Ian Arnold on 27 Dec 06

    I am a grad student in New York City working on becoming a green entrepreneur. I thought distributing biodegradable packaging would be a good idea, though now I'm not so sure because it doesn't seem to be as good as I thought that it was. Sure, it's not made from petroleum but also in most places there isn't a way to process it. It's a dilemma; I guess there's no perfect green business idea. I am really interested in green construction and plan to look into it. Does anyone know of some good resources for people looking to start green businesses?

    Posted by: Chris on 2 Jan 07



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