Packaging is so all-pervasive that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that for everything we buy - from fruit to cars - there are complex environmental considerations at play. Few people are closer to these issues than those who design the packaging, and the heartening news is that matters appear to be in good hands.
One of the UK's top packaging design courses is the BA run by Sheffield Hallam University. This course - and others like it - is helping school the next generation of designers in all aspects of packaging sustainability.
"Environmental considerations are absolutely integral to everything the students do," says course leader Glyn Hawley. "There's no actual sustainability module because it's something that impacts on their decision making at all times."
Protection and proof of value
The green issues broached by Hawley's students - and jobbing packaging designers - are varied and complex. Environmental friendliness comes in unexpected guises.
"Awareness of environmental considerations is driven by the students' project-based work. For example, if it's a really expensive item like a TV set, the main function of the packaging is to protect it. But inevitably for a product like a TV there is already a lot of investment in it from an environmental perspective. If it becomes damaged during transport, then this in turn damages the environment by not supporting the product. The cost and the amount of environmental investment already within the product dictate some of the decisions on materials."
Customer expectation also plays a part in choice of materials, and it's something that can conflict with sustainable-driven decision making.
"Even exterior packaging such as boxing exists to improve the marketing of the product as much as stopping it from getting broken in transit," says Gavin Ashe, managing director of Milton Keynes-based cardboard packaging specialist Kite packaging.
Ashe picks up the TV theme. "With something like a television you end up over-specifying the packaging because not only do you want it to arrive in one piece but you want the customer to feel they've just bought a £4,000 flat-screen TV. It's not like point-of-sale packaging, which has to be colourful and beautiful, but it has to be strong and substantial to reflect the product inside."
When it comes to packaging low-value products, such as biscuits, environmental considerations tend to come down purely to choice of materials.
Hawley says: "The students understand that they can use recycled plastic only on items that don't come into direct contact with food. They'll know they can use recycled plastic on a biscuit pack, say, but only when it's laminated with another plastic, which means you're using less virgin material."
Packaging is a multi-stage process involving multiple parties, so weighing up environmental costs is no simple matter. Sustainability issues have to factor-in the roles of the manufacturer (who creates raw materials, such as paper pulp), the converter (who turns the paper into cardboard) the packer/filler (who fills the box), the seller (who passes the box on to the customer), the end user (who throws the box away), and the recycler (who puts the material back into circulation).
Hawley says: "When choosing a material, the students will be very mindful of the consumer chain - what the product goes through before the consumer sees it on the shelves and then what it goes through once it's in people's homes. For example, how empty containers are transported to where the product is produced can often dictate what materials are used. There are also space and weight issues. Yes, you can use materials that are recyclable, such as glass, but this comes at a cost. Glass is expensive to transport because it's heavy, especially if it's going overseas."
To complicate things further, even recycling itself has an environmental cost. Hawley explains: "Take glass, for example, where the material comes back to the producer to be refilled again. Designers have to consider what damage the sterilising process is doing to the local water supply, in terms of polluting streams and rivers. There can be very real environmental costs."
Where Hawley and his colleagues are honing the green sensibilities of student package designers, those making a living from this most labyrinthine of design disciplines face taxing environmental decisions every day of their working lives.
Janet Shipton is project leader with The Packaging Partnership, a packaging design consultancy that is attached to Sheffield Hallam University. She says: "We're often asked to develop environmentally friendly packaging by reducing the weight or amount of packaging with minimal detriment to the product, brand or the communications."
However, such green practices on the part of clients aren't necessarily altruistic, says Shipton. "Sometimes clients want to avoid plastic, because plastic has the perception of unsustainability."
She adds: "Every decent packaging design agency should be considering sustainability of the pack format and materials. You've always got to factor-in the requirements of the product and brief, but you should be looking at the most sustainable design solution possible. One of the biggest problems with packaging design is balancing sustainability with designs that have a wow factor to them. There are compromises to be made."
Hawley concurs, saying: "Designers have a responsibility to make clients aware of the environmental aspects of what they're asking for. Designers should minimalise the amount of materials they use to perform the function of packaging."
Hawley's charges sound like they're doing their bit on this front. One student recently worked on a DIY tools project with the aim of getting rid of packaging altogether. "The philosophy was making the package part of the product," says Hawley. "There was a tenon saw, for example, and its only packaging was the mitre block that it came with."
Hawley adds: "Once a designer has established what the minimal amount of material is, they've then got to bear in mind that a recyclable material might cost more than virgin material, and at that stage they need to talk to the client.
"But I think designers should push for recyclable materials. The client-designer relationship is always a tricky one, but I think they need to be made aware of these environmental issues."
One such issue is supermarkets over-packaging fruit. "There's a hell of a lot of environmentally unfriendly packaging out there," Hawley says. "Fruit and vegetables shouldn't require a lot of packaging. But what supermarkets do is raise the premium by putting them into shrink-wrapped polystyrene trays. That's an extreme example of poor decision-making and is totally irresponsible."