The product and the package are the same

Mark Shayler asks us to keep an open mind about packaging.  He is director of the innovation and eco-design consultancy Tickety Boo and on the People’s Design Lab Advisory Panel.

I’m getting a reputation. It’s one that I don’t deserve. No, not that sort of reputation – I’m happily married. What I mean is that I’m getting a reputation for being anti-packaging. This is crazy. It’s like being anti-food, or anti- breathing.

Packaging, like food and breathing, is a good thing. Without effective packaging you have damaged products. You have poor customer communication. You have inefficient distribution and storage. You have unappealing product. You have difficult filling.

But in the same way that you can hyperventilate or over-eat you can also overpackage. That doesn’t mean that I’m anti-packaging. In fact I love packaging; but I love great packaging that protects the product and makes things last longer. It really is impossible to now segregate packaging and product. They must be viewed as a single item. If packaging doesn’t perform then we lose the content.

In the vast majority of cases the greatest embodied resource is in the product, not the packaging. So it makes sense to wrap some fruit and vegetables in LDPE as it can give up to 12 days’ extra shelf-life. It makes sense to use metallic foil that is difficult to recycle on fried potato products as it stops them going off. It makes sense to package mobilephones well, given the relatively high levels of rare-earths in these products.

We have seen a number of supposedly sustainable packaging strategies emerge over the last few years. These are all valid strategies but none will deliver sustainable packaging alone. They all have a negative side.

Lightweighting may result in reduced recyclability if we rush to metallic laminate. Recycled content can result in the mobilisation of contaminants such as mineral oils. Adopting low carbon materials may result in reduced recyclability. Rushing towards compostable materials may cause all sorts of problems within the waste stream.

In fact, the race towards compostable materials creates some significant challenges. How, for instance, do we tell the difference between PET and PLA in the waste stream? How do we ensure that compostable film is collected with our grass cuttings? How do we coordinate the waste recycling strategy of each waste collection authority? How do we balance the need to grow food with the desire to grow packaging?

It’s complex and there is no silver bullet. It depends on your product, package, process, retailer, customer and disposal route.

So we’ve cleared that up. Packaging is brilliant if done brilliantly and bad if done badly. Sustainable packaging is not an oxymoron – it’s just too narrow a term. We must look at packaging and product together in order to get the greatest benefit.

This article was first published in Packaging News in November 2012.

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