The future of green packaging

Consideration for the environment shouldn't stand in the way of good design. Darren Smith looks at innovative packages that don't cost the Earth.

From the most minimal - like greaseproof paper covering speciality cheeses in Waitrose - to complex structural packaging to protect laptops and peripherals from damage and static charges, packaging serves the same purpose (known as the 3 Ps): to Protect, Preserve and Promote the product. Now added pressure from environmental lobbyists and eco-savvy consumers means that packaging must protect more than just its contents - it must do its bit for the planet too.

Of all the design disciplines, packaging design has the worst environmental reputation. Whether it's an excess of card inserts, heat-sealed blister packs or layers of plastic wrapping, the designer's desire to get their clients' products to stand out on supermarket shelves results in swathes of needless waste.

It's a perception that - unsurprisingly - irks those involved in the packaging business. Gordon Carson, editor of Packaging News magazine, insists the blame doesn't lie squarely at the door of the designer. "Design groups are absolutely dedicated to sustainability," he says, "but they make natural scapegoats." Unfortunately, this masks a far bigger underlying problem: that the process of waste management - especially in the UK - is a far bigger contributor to environmental damage.

The figures back this claim. A 2006 DEFRA study places the Netherlands and Sweden top for environmental waste management, with 20 per cent of waste being recycled and the remaining incinerated to provide energy that is pumped back into the national grid. Denmark and Germany are close with an impressive 35 per cent recycling rate and 65 per cent burned for energy, with a tiny proportion going to landfill. In contrast is the UK, with a 27 per cent recycling rate and 10 per cent burned to create energy, with over 60 per cent (or 16.9 million tonnes) going to landfill sites. Considering methane - a by-product of decomposing waste at landfill sites - is widely regarded as a bigger contributor to greenhouse gases than CO2, it's a shocking indicator of how far behind the UK is in terms of waste management.

Then there's the distribution of food around the world: analyses of CO2 emissions put freight tankers high up the list of producers. "Food in an average shopping trolley has travelled upwards of 100,000 miles," says Carson, "and though we pay less for imported foods, the environmental cost of that import is immeasurable."

That doesn't mean packaging designers can shirk their responsibilities to the environment. Packaging material and manufacturing innovations make it easier now than ever before to switch to a more sustainable model of production. Whether it's recycled or FSC-accredited paper for labelling, vegetable inks for print or cellulose-based plastics, there's an abundance of options available for the environmentally conscious packaging designer.

For Method Products, greener packaging sits at the heart of the company's core values. Method promotes E.O.M.E.D (Equal Opportunity Movement for Environment and Design) and its cleaning product range is entirely non-toxic and made from all-natural ingredients. It seemed the natural choice to look at sustainable packaging.

"Our go naked non-toxic surface cleaner (naked because it sports no dyes or fragrances) is the first of many method bottles made from 100 per cent recycled plastic," says Louise Roper. "We're aiming to use recycled plastic for our entire range in the near future. We believe every product has a past, a present, and a future. This means we source materials responsibly, including the plastics. And it means they are biodegradable and recyclable when you're done." And while recycled plastics can carry small colour imperfections, Roper thinks that it's worth the sacrifice. "Our bottle carries a slight green tint - a little souvenir of the recycling process. This inevitable green tint has discouraged many companies from thinking seriously about 100 per cent recycled plastic, but we think it's a vital step in the right direction. And we actually like how it looks."

There is no hard and fast rule to developing greener packaging; it tends to be a symbiosis between designer, manufacturer and client. Daylesford Organics - a company dedicated to providing fresh, organic produce direct from its dairy in Gloucestershire - insisted from the start of the design process that the packaging be as environmentally friendly as possible. Together with EcoLean and Teresa Roviras, its signature milk jug packaging is more energy efficient to manufacture, 100 per cent recyclable, and retains a premium feel. The resulting design netted Roviras her second D&AD Silver Award and yellow pencil in 2006.

The design started with EcoLean, a Swedish company specialising in 100 per cent recyclable packaging. The EcoLean jug is made from calcium carbonate (chalk) and a polymer to bind the chalk together to make a strong yet supple sheet plastic. The manufacture process is much more energy efficient, cutting CO2, and the end product weighs far less than rival cartons or bottles, making distribution more environmentally sound. Teresa Roviras complemented the product with a simple, sophisticated design that is instantly striking, but uses a limited colour palette and ink coverage to cut wasteful overuse of inks. This minimalist style is typical of Roviras. "I used to think I had a very lazy brain," she says. "I only came up with really simple ideas; what I felt was maybe too simple. But as I tried to find the easiest way out, that action enabled me to self-edit, which ultimately resulted in stronger design solutions. By removing the excess, I end up with the minimum elements I need to communicate. After that, it's simply a matter of composing these elements to create the most impact." This ethos does more than produce a striking end product - the 'less is more' approach is also vital to creating environmentally friendly packaging.

Daylesford Organics is to an extent a special case: premium produce benefits from the cultural cachet that comes from associations like 'organic' and 'environmentally friendly'. There can be an extra cost: recycled and biodegradable materials often result from extensive and costly research and development, and in some cases these raw materials can push the price up. For a company like Daylesford Organics a small price increase is justified: market research (LEK Consulting 2007) backs the assertion that consumers willing to spend extra on organic or free-range produce will stretch the budget even further to cover conscience-salving environmental packaging. But greener packaging isn't just about saving the environment; it's of paramount importance to clients as well as designers. As a cost-saving exercise, shaving a few microns from the thickness of a glass bottle can save thousands in manufacturing, raw materials and distribution. ASDA made promises in 2007 to reduce own-brand food packaging by the end of the year, and Dominic Burch explains: "It's a pretty tough target, but there are financial benefits. We reckon we'll save £13m by not using that extra packaging." And using materials from a sustainable source can keep cost to the consumer down. There's less price inflation than materials from finite resources such as oil-based plastics and polymers.

From the top down, manufacturers are reaping the benefits of a sustainable source of raw materials. Large packaging manufacturers are increasingly working to attain Government accreditations from the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and ISO 14001. This means that many mainstream products now use packaging from a sustainable source, or use printers that work hard to improve energy efficiency. For example, Benson Box Ltd and Nampak cartons are two FSC-accredited box-based packaging manufacturers that supply packaging for Nestl© cereals, Easter egg cartons and many other Fast Moving Consumer Goods.

However, simply relying on innovations from the manufacturer isn't the answer. A well-developed structural design can save manufacturing time and cost - and the environment - while serving as an elegant solution. DCA Designs responded to a brief from Halfords to create transport and display packaging for a range of cycling helmets. The end result needed a uniform shape to solve stacking, storage and distribution problems, use sustainable materials and reduce manufacturing costs yet still be attractive. Changes in European legislation prompted the redesign, which requires that packaging volume and weight must be the minimum amount to maintain necessary levels of safety, hygiene and consumer acceptance, and that it must be recoverable in accordance with specific requirements.

After developing a lot of prototypes in CAD at concept stage to illustrate the final results, a lightweight-yet-rigid box was made from biodegradable material with sections cut from the box to display the product on all sides, but with a rigidity and uniform shape that makes it easy to distribute and store. The box is also 20 per cent more compact than its polypropylene predecessor.

PDD - a company that combines product design with engineering know-how and market research to solve complex packaging problems - also argues that developing an intelligent packaging structure can have an active benefit on the product as well as the environment. Its platinum in-flight food system examines how technologically advanced packaging can be an intrinsic part of the product. Each compartment of the in-flight meal houses and protects fresh ingredients that are cooked using an induction heating process, with a metal loop built into one compartment cover giving a char-grill effect, another containing gel-based water pockets to steam the produce, and a third using a Peltier effect (transference of heat from one material to another, thus cooling the contents) to keep the produce chilled. In this way a single cooking process can provide steamed, grilled, fried and even chilled foods simultaneously. This is much more time and energy efficient in aircraft conditions, and almost 100 per cent of the materials used are recyclable.

Structural packaging design isn't always this high-tech. The most common (and efficient) type of structural packaging uses a monocoque framework, in which the shape of the packaging gives it its strength, meaning that less rigid raw materials are required. A classic example of this is the 'eggbox'. The pressed recycled paper and the curves and dimples in the carton's basic shape gives it strength, while the flexibility of the recycled material helps to cushion the fragile contents. Since its invention in 1911 by Joseph Coyle, the egg carton has undergone few design changes: a sure sign of classically elegant, simple solution. Huhtamaki Nederland's take on the humble egg carton adds a futuristic look that uses less material but keeps the same rigidity, offering a more premium finish with less environmental waste. Dutch industrial designer Leon van Spijk finished the carton with a palette choice of 22 different colours, ranging from lime green to shocking pink.

As climate change comes to the fore of the public's consciousness and the government proposes taxation on excessive household waste, the trend for sustainable packaging is gaining momentum in 2008. The future design focus is on using less packaging, more recycled or sustainable materials, and sourcing local manufacturers to cut distribution costs. But for some the concept of sustainable packaging is nothing new. Minimising size and improving efficiency are the long-term design goals at Apple, whether it's the ultra-thin MacBook Air or the packaging it sits in, which is less than half the size of previous MacBook packages. In fact Apple redeveloped the packaging for its iconic iPod, which now favours rigid clear plastics to previous cardboard efforts. The results are 69 per cent smaller than earlier models, eliminating hundreds of thousands of pounds of packaging waste and allowing Apple to ship 120 more units per pallet of the 30GB iPod, thus cutting carbon emissions. It seems that packaging designers are at the forefront of greener design after all.