Is Zero Waste Packaging the Future?
In previous blogs, we’ve explored many topics within sustainable packaging, such as the role of LCA, ways to implement recyclable materials, and source reduction strategies. While all ambitious reduction goals, none of them solve the inherent waste that occurs once the job of packaging is done. Stemming from this issue, zero-waste packaging is a budding initiative that serves as a possible solution.
The Role of Packaging
Packaging has a unique role in the purchasing process. On one hand, it is meant to protect the product from contamination, through transport, and during storage, but on the other, it has to convey the message of the brand. Just the look of a good’s packaging can communicate that the company is more expensive and luxurious or that it has an environmentally-friendly mindset with wording, textures, and colors. It’s the first thing customers see, and therefore, needs to be distinctive enough to attract attention.
While it has many functions, its useful life is brief. Once a product is bought, for the most part, it serves no other purpose and is immediately thrown away. For this reason, it makes up a quarter to a third of the entire waste stream. The concept of zero waste packaging prioritizes a significant reduction or elimination of waste that is generated from a package.
A Case for Zero Waste
Producing packaging that will not generate waste requires thinking outside of the box- literally. For his thesis project, Aaron Mickelson redesigned recognizable, everyday products with wasteless packaging. Nivea hand soap is housed in a box that dissolves in water, Tide PODS leverage their already water-soluble plastic by placing the labeling directly on the pods in a tear-off sheet, and Glad garbage bags make do without the box altogether by having the bags hold themselves. These ideas are green, perform all the necessary functions of packaging, and do not provide unnecessary waste.
Mickelson’s ideas are future-oriented, but there are zero-waste packaging solutions that can be implemented today. Serval commercially viable opportunities for zero-waste packaging are related to material selection. Packaging that uses plantable materials has been in use for years and involves embedding seeds within biodegradable paperboard and molded fiber. This allows the box to be planted after use instead of tossed. Another innovative material is Mushroom Packaging, which is meant to replace the plastic foam with mushroom made bioplastic. Once used, the material can be composted along with other food scraps.
Retail’s Role in Waste Reduction
Grocery stores and big-box retailers can play a significant role in package reduction. Zero-waste retailers aim to eliminate the need for packaging in the first place. Instead, customers buy exact quantities needed and use personal containers to bring their purchases home. Spices, rice, and even hygiene products are available in bulk bins, ready to be scooped up. Although it eliminates packaging, there are downsides. The concept cannot be applied to every product and there is no product differentiation or marketing opportunities.
Overall, food is proving to be the biggest challenge when it comes to zero waste packaging because of sanitary and contamination issues. Most people wouldn’t want to eat something that has been transported and stored without some sort of container for good reason. However, there have been inventive ideas in recent years. A Brazilian chain has developed a burger wrapper that is entirely edible. Tomorrow Machines has utilized disintegrating ingredients, such as beeswax, caramelized sugar, and seaweed. Designers are also looking to biomimicry. The grape skin served as inspiration for David Edwards to create Wikicells. According to Edward’s website, “Wikicells enclose food and drink inside soft skins that are entirely comprised of natural food particles held together by nutritive ions, and generally protects the soft skins with hard shells that are either completely edible (like an orange peel) or varied biodegradable (like the shell of a coconut.)” Disappearing packages like these, either edible or biodegradable, may be the future of food packaging.
While these ideas may not be commercially viable for all brands, they are future-oriented and propose an opportunity for market disruptors.
An important step towards a zero-waste future is waste reduction. Companies should evaluate their own packaging, set sustainability benchmarks, and find ways to make improvements. Often times, a simple component reduction can lead to a notable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and end-of-life impacts.