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The solution of packaging
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What can design do to solve the problem we presented in our previous post? A lot. Like we always say, design alone can just take small steps, we need companies (our clients) scientists and engineers (our colleagues) and specially consumers to make a real impactful change. Nevertheless, design has a strategic role which can show the way to the other actors in the scene.

Despite some theorists say that the three traditional eco-design strategies are an obsolete idea, the fact is that they are still a good starting point.

The first one is to reduce, with good design we can create packaging with the same functionality but using less material, while being equally or more attractive. Overpackaging is something that should make everyone angry and can even be considered unethical. To present something better in store is never a good enough reason to spend more material and resources than the strictly necessary. Companies should be creative, offering more and using less, and designers should tell them how to do it. Their economic results will appreciate it, and so will the environment and the client’s perception.

The second one is to reuse. With design, some single-use packaging can be substituted by a reusable one, reducing a lot the environmental impact that packaging provokes. A typical example are plastic bags at the grocery store. Do we really need to produce tonnes of virgin plastic bags that are only going to be used for 5 minutes, from the store to home? Of course not. Sadly, this can be applied to many other products and packagings, that can be replaced by reusable options in a very easy way.  Why is it that the evolution of this industry has resulted in the substitution of things that were already working - like refillable glass bottles - by others that are objectively worse?

The third one is to recycle, which involves the consumer, who has the responsibility to separate waste at home and dispose of each item according to the information provided by their waste management organization. Nevertheless, it also involves companies and designers, because they must create packs that are easily recycled, with a minimal number of different materials and choosing those that allow a complete re-introduction in the chain.

These are the three main strategies that have always been at the center of sustainable design, and in some ways, these are overpowered by others that have a more systemic approach. A step forward is to design packaging with a circular design approach where it can be re-introduced in the chain again without losing any value.

There are dozens more ideas that can improve the environmental impact of packaging and have an influence at different stages of the life cycle. It’s the job of the sustainability expert to find the one that best fits the product, the brand and its target. In order to choose wisely, designer and client need to perfectly understand the life cycle and the characteristics of the product they are offering.

Sadly, no strategy is ever going to work if consumers do not change some of the factors that are nowadays key decision-making aspects when purchasing a product. Consumers tend to be lazy and want easy and cheap things, but we need to understand that to buy something is as act of responsibility, and that to choose well benefits us all. Let’s then be smart and make the right choice.

The problem of packaging

We are not the first to say that in a global reality where there are increasingly more competitors, the image of a company is a key factor that must be controlled to send the right message in the intended tone. Consumers want to be identified with the brands they buy, so companies better care about how they present their products.

But packaging is not only a question of image, it is what protects what you want to sell, what the consumer sees in the store, what helps you to use the product in the right way and which completes its -generally short- life cycle by being recycled in the best of cases, or what ends up in a landfill or the sea being eaten by a fish or creating islands of waste in the worst of them.

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Using data from the Catalan Waste Agency last year we threw away almost 159.170 tonnes of light packaging in Catalonia (plastic and metal) plus more than 314.400 tonnes of paper and cardboard and 192.000 of glass. With Catalonia having 7.600.000 citizens, this means we are producing 87,59kg of packaging waste per person per year. The situation will only become more dramatic seeing how these numbers are going up after a few calmer years because of the economic crisis. We can find similar data in most of the developed countries.

In terms of volume, which is a very important aspect when speaking about waste management, the situation becomes even worse, because packaging tends to be something more or less lightweight but that occupies a lot of space. This fact results in very inefficient transport of waste with trucks that are not fully loaded in terms of weight although they are full, thus having to make more trips than necessary.

According to data from the OECD, in 2015 Spain recovered a 40% of the waste we produce, with a 30% recycling rate, but we are still far from the numbers of Belgium or Germany, that recover more than a 99% with a recycling percentage of 55% and 65% respectively. Maybe the European numbers look acceptable or in the right direction, but if we consider the huge amount of resources and energy needed to produce and later manage this packaging which almost instantly becomes waste, we can see that the solution is not only about whether they are recycled or not.

Once we are aware of the environmental problem we are creating, that is finally appearing in the news almost every day, someone might think that we are in the right path to solving it, and this cannot be less true. The United Nations’ Global Sustainable Development Goals establish that we need to reduce CO2 emissions by a 30% by 2030. This will prove complicated seeing how every year we produce more tonnes of waste than the previous year instead of reducing them.

Consumers are lazy by definition. The number of products packaged in individual portions is increasing, while buying in bulk has become something from the past despite some interesting projects that are appearing in our cities (or some others that never disappeared in smaller towns).

Take-away food and food delivery is a reality that is here to stay. Markets like the American have decades of advantage here, but it is now a fast-growing business in Europe.  Once again, the amount of waste we create every time we order food is completely insane. Online shopping is another reality that is a part of our everyday lives, and expectedly, the distribution to our homes results in added boxes or bags.

It is important to remember that when we are at a store, we want to buy detergent, wine or cereal, not packaging. Therefore, all the actors in the value chain should ensure their products are packed as efficiently as possible without losing image or functionality, and consumers need to be much more responsible when choosing between them.

Sustainable packaging
Picture CC Ben_Kerckx

Picture CC Ben_Kerckx

Last week we had an interview about sustainable packaging for BeOK, a program in la Ser, one of the most important radio stations in Spain. In it Àlex Jiménez talks about how design can improve the environmental impact of packaging, materials, the process to design a more sustainable packaging, consumer behaviour,  etc.  In this link you can listen to it, do it and tell us what you think!


La semana pasada nos hicieron una entrevista sobre packaging y sostenibilidad en BeOK, un programa sobre alimentación saludable en la Ser. En ella Àlex Jiménez habla sobre cómo el diseño puede mejorar el impacto ambiental del packaging, materiales, el proceso para diseñar un envase más sostenible, patrones de consumo, etc. En este link la podéis escuchar. ¡Hacedlo y decidnos qué pensáis!