How full is your rubbish bin this week? If you have children, chances are Easter has left your waste bin bulging with moulded plastic and scraps of foil, your recycling box brimming with cardboard and your cupboards stacked with mugs you didn’t really want and certainly don’t need.
With the benefit of hindsight, we are horrified that our grandparents thought lead was the best material to solder food tins and our parents thought CFCs were the best propellants for aerosols. But despite heightened awareness of environmental issues and our best efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, we still use packaging methods and materials that our children will look back on with amazement.
“Toys are about the worst,” says Jane Bickerstaffe, director of Incpen, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment. “The packaging is excessive and often difficult to open. Most come from the Far East, so they need a certain amount of protection, but they have too much.”
Packaging is essential to protect products and extend shelf-life, so a balance has to be found between making the pack fit for purpose, achieving brand recognition and minimising environmental impact. Where once, brand managers were urged to consider a product’s life from cradle to grave, now all the talk is of cradle to cradle, with greater emphasis being placed on recycling and reuse.
“Increasingly we are being asked to consider environmental factors while also ensuring that the pack design delivers standout on shelf,” says Shaun Jones, realisation director at design company Blue Marlin. “We need to consider options that not only take advantage of the burgeoning materials technology available, but also how we can create a positive impact through creative and structural design.”
Various elements affect decisions on structure, says Jones: “It is important to consider how packaging can be designed to fit more efficiently within pallet configurations and minimise the amount of air shipped. We need to focus on how we can build strength through form while minimising material thickness and weight. This can also provide benefits in terms of moving more units through the distribution network.”
Last year Coca-Cola introduced its lightest 500ml PET bottle in the UK, while other projects have reduced the weight of glass bottles, plastic food trays, tins and other materials. Reuse is also a consideration, adds Jones: “Can packaging be reused or refilled to minimise the amount of packaging in subsequent purchases?”Refilling is a tricky one, as consumers simply aren’t keen: some find it inconvenient while others have hygiene concerns. Toiletries retailer The Body Shop long ago abandoned its refill policy, despite offering discounts to customers who brought empty bottles back to stores.
“You have to make it fun, clever and convenient for modern lifestyles,” says Bickerstaffe, explaining that some producers are trialling concentrates of bath products that come in test-tubes that can be emptied into bigger containers back home.
“Lightweight refill packs can save material,” says Mark Barthel, special advisor to WRAP, the Waste & Resources Action Programme. “We also favour concentrates for things like fabric conditioner and liquid laundry detergents: think Persil and Surf “Small and Mighty” – which use 50% less packaging, water and road transport.”
However, Bickerstaffe is dubious about concentrated products. “People just use the same amount as before,” she insists. Incpen therefore favours soap powder and liquid that come in individual doses – despite the extra packaging – because this encourages consumers to use the right amount.
Packaging that can be reused in other ways is also gaining favour. “In some categories – such as toiletries – we are seeing an increase in packaging that takes on the role of secondary product,” says Rory Fegan, planner at brand and packaging design agency Holmes & Marchant.
Holmes & Marchant worked on packaging for Gillette in the form of a canvas washbag. The agency also designed a moulded pack for Gillette that doubles as a mini-stand for the product. However, in a throwaway society, there is no guarantee that consumers will hang on to these added extras and they can end up as more stuff that needs to be disposed of.
Manufacturers and design companies are also using more packaging that can be recycled. Although local authorities vary in what they will accept, almost all now have facilities for recycling paper and board, glass and PET and HDPE bottles.
“Whether something is recyclable or not is determined more by infrastructure than if it’s technically recyclable. PVC is recyclable but few councils will recover it,” says Luke Vincent, consultant at design company Dragon. Materials should not be mixed in ways that make them difficult to separate, he adds. “It’s important to design with the recyclate in mind,” adds Vincent. “Avoid contamination and strong pigments in PET and glass. Strong colours like blue either won’t be recycled or will reduce the value of the recyclate if they are.”
Most manufacturers don’t get the basics of recycling communication right, believes Vincent. “It’s not OK to slap ‘recyclable’ on a product made of mixed materials. Consumers want manufacturers to make it easier for them to do the right thing, which means communicating clearly on packaging about which components are and aren’t recyclable.”