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Design Roundup: Dual Use Packaging Reduces Waste

By Gretchen Hooker

Most of us are aware that product packaging is a largely unnecessary source of waste, but the scale of the problem may still come as a surprise. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, packaging accounts for the greatest share (32 percent) of all the waste generated in the U.S. In the EU, packaging waste accounts for about 20 percent of the weight, and 40 percent of the volume of municipal waste. Not only does that packaging represent a significant volume of wasted material, but it’s also money out of consumers' pockets—twice. We pay for excess packaging first as part of the sticker price of a given product, and secondly in disposal fees for getting rid of the empty boxes, Styrofoam, and plastic wrappers.

Packaging that is designed for multiple uses is a solution that can both add value to products and help reduce their environmental footprint.

Fuseproject’s design for Y Water got a great deal of attention from design blogs earlier this year as a prime example of just this sort of dual use packaging. The organic children’s beverage is packaged in 4-lobed bottles that interlock with natural rubber connectors to become a building set when empty. And when no longer in use, the bottles can be recycled.

Photo credit: Inhabitots.

Image source: Phelan Associates
The trick of this approach is, obviously, to design a secondary use that is well thought out and which consumers truly appreciate. Otherwise it becomes simply a gimmick or, at its worst, greenwash. While the Y Water concept may have staying power, by contrast I reckon many of these sun visors swiftly ended up in the trash.

With this challenge in mind, I suspect that the most successful (and ultimately sustainable) types of dual use packaging may not necessarily create auxiliary uses at all. Rather, the package is part of the product.

Photo credit: Wal-Mart Stores

Surprisingly, it’s Wal-Mart and HP that got me thinking this way with their release of a laptop computer that is sold inside of a padded laptop bag—a companion product most buyers would have purchased anyway.

By packaging the computer in this manner HP reduced waste by 97 percent, even before accounting for the fact that the bags themselves are made out of 100 percent recycled material. Additionally, since the laptop bags take up less space in transit, the manufacturer is able to save fuel and reduce CO2 emissions associated with shipping.

This strategy seems especially suited to products, like laptops, which are already intended as portable. Why buy an iPod and separate protective case, only to throw away the packaging for both?

The package-as-product concept goes even further. Take these for example:

The shade of the lite2go lamp from knoend doubles as the packaging for the electrical cord, socket, and a CFL light bulb. Plus it’s made from recyclable #5 plastic.

Image source: Treehugger

With the TV Packaging Stand concept by Tom Ballhatchet, the packaging for your television actually becomes a media stand once you get it home—and then safely repackages your TV if you move.

Image source:

Toy designer Rachel Gottlieb’s package redesign proposal for an airplane play set eliminates the cardboard box in favor of a storage/tote bag that unsnaps to create a landing pad.

Photo courtesy of designer

The strength of the designs shown here lies in foresight: each considers the lifecycle of the product, beginning with how it is packed and delivered to the consumer. Eliminating packaging will take thoughtful and practical solutions, because retailers and manufacturers still need to protect their products. But let’s hope we see lots more of this kind of creative problem solving in the future.

Gretchen Hooker is a designer and writer who focuses on sustainable strategy. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains and can be found online at

You can read more posts about innovative packaging and zero-waste solutions in our archives here, here and here.

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This is how *every* product should be designed. Rather than viewing packaging as a necessary (and wasteful) evil, this stuff should be a universal product design practice.

Posted by: Victor Escobar on 10 Dec 08

I think the idea of dual packaging is super smart. I dig the tv/media stand thing. That is one nifty media stand/moving box. I kind of want one. if they came in pink. or black.

Posted by: Kate Huntley on 10 Dec 08

Useful packaging is essential along with the use of materials from renewable sources that can be recovered as well.

Posted by: Ed Reid on 10 Dec 08

It's really interesting to me because you can make so much from recycled materials from a laptop cover to a TV stand. It really is facsinating, but I don't know how popular the TV Stand would be-- it looked like it was mad out of rug material and I am not sure many people would like that so that could just be wasted material. But hey I think we are stepping in the right direction!

Posted by: olivia von Lembcke on 13 Jan 09

I like the packaging article. People have come out with so many new ways to help the environment. Reducing unnecessary material helps the packaging industry.

Posted by: sean smith on 15 Jan 09

I feel that these innovated ideas are amazing. Being able to save waste and create a product with a bi product is very smart. For example with the television. taking the packaging and creating a designer stand for you television is a very good concept.

Posted by: Jane Jones on 20 Jan 09

i also believe that double packing is better for the enviroment and that will lead us to less stuff to recycle since we wont produce as much!!!

Posted by: Eri Murati on 21 Jan 09

I feel that these innovated ideas are amazing. Being able to save waste and create a product with a bi product is very smart. For example with the television. taking the packaging and creating a designer stand for you television is a very good concept.

Posted by: Jane Jones on 21 Jan 09

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