In previous blogs, we’ve explored many topics within sustainable packaging, such as the role of LCA, ways to implement recyclable materials, and a source reduction strategy. While all ambitious reduction goals, none of them solve the inherent waste that will occur once the packaging’s job is done. Stemming from this issue, zero waste packaging is a budding initiative that serves as a possible solution.
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 is to reduce the outrageous amount of waste that is generated from packaging on a daily basis significantly, if not eliminating it entirely.
Producing packaging that will not generate any waste requires some creative thinking outside 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 all together 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 solutions that can be implemented now for zero waste packaging. For example, plantable materials have already been in use for years. Seeds are embedded within biodegradable paperboard and molded fiber, allowing the box to be planted instead of tossed. Another innovate material is Mushroom Packaging, a company founded in 2007, which is meant to replace plastic foam packaging with mushroom made bioplastic. Once used, the material can be composted along with your other food scraps.
There are also grocery stores popping up that aim to eliminate the purchase of packaging in the first place. The concept consists of customers buying the exact quantities they need and using their personal containers and bags 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 have 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.)” These disappearing packages, either edible or biodegradable, will be the future of food packaging.
While these ideas are ambitious, they are future-oriented and may not be obtained now. Fortunately, companies can still look at their own packaging and find ways to make it more sustainable with software analysis. Our pioneering COMPASS and EcoImpact applications analyze the environmental impacts of your materials using Life-Cycle Assessment to identify areas of improvement. In doing so, engineers will be able to design better and streamline packaging.