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Ten Tips For Sustainable Package Design

Aug 17, 2021
14 min read

For nearly a decade, the biggest buzz in packaging has been the move toward true sustainability, or “green” packaging. Driven by retailer requirements, public perception, economic pressures (petroleum, in particular), and government policies, sustainability impacts every aspect of a package—from the source of its raw materials to its end of life—and as such has proven to be an incredibly complex economic challenge. Balancing those challenges with keeping visibility to the continuously evolving technical breakthroughs in sustainability packaging is important. As one example, biopolymer packaging may still have some hurdles but continue to show strong signs of growth.  

In general, a high level list of growing sustainable trends to monitor, learn more about and to be mindful of during your design and development efforts over the next year are as follows:

1.  Clear and concise sustainable labeling communication that provides appropriate disposal options for the  sustainable materials all the way through appropriate sustainability claims. Environmentally conscious consumers continue to notice brands that make sustainability commitments.  

2. Bio-based material technology solutions continue to show promise and use and are on an upward trend.

3. Designing solutions for optimal product-to-package ratios; packaging as small as possible, while protecting the product safely through the rigors of the  supply chain to the consumer and maintaining adequate branding real estate.

4. Increased recycled content and light-weighting consideration will continue to grow with the promise of savings, meeting your sustainability goals, and compliance to laws like the Cal Recycle requirement.  

5. The increased use of new barrier/coating technologies in paper and board will continue with brand owners continuing to look for more disruptive functional and sustainable solutions.

Begin with the fundamentals

But over the years of debate and discovery, we have learned some core truths about the topic. First, there is no such thing today as a completely sustainable package. Instead, sustainability it is a journey. The goal is to make incremental improvements over time in the sustainability of a package to reduce its overall environmental impact.

Second, in sustainability terms, packaging materials—including glass, plastic, paper, and aluminum—cannot be classified as good or bad. Each has its advantages and shortcomings, depending upon the product application and the goals and mission of the packager. Continuously looking to leverage new sustainable technologies and balancing form and function trade-offs are an inherent part of pursuing sustainability.

And last, packaging must be put into perspective by understanding its role in the full product supply chain. Packaging typically makes up less than 10% of the carbon footprint of a product; raw material production and consumer use often comprise the largest proportion. While packaging’s footprint may be small, its importance cannot be understated. If the package fails in its primary functions—protecting the product through the supply chain, enticing consumers to purchase, and facilitating consumption—all the energy consumed in manufacturing the product is lost when the product is wasted.

With these fundamentals in mind, following are some areas to consider when implementing changes to your packaging for improved sustainability:

1. Take a life cycle approach to package design.

There are many Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools available today to help package designers understand the environmental impacts represented by different packaging options. One is the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment) online design software, which helps users make more informed material selections and design decisions by providing visual guidance on a common set of environmental indicators. PackageSmart LCA Software, one of several software-based LCA tools from EarthShift, also allows packaging designers to evaluate the environmental impacts of their design selections.

One caveat, however: Sustainability metrics and standards are still evolving, so pick a program, and stick with it. Using different tools to measure the same package may yield slightly different results. The key is to be consistent and make sure you are moving in the right direction in the core environmental areas that are of greatest concern to your company.

2. Evaluate each component of your package.

Ask yourself whether any changes can be made to use less material, bio-based material or more recycled content in these components without compromising product integrity. A few recent sustainability success examples include:

  • Method’s first to market launch  with a 100% RPET detergent bottle: Method’s new 4X Concentrated 53-oz Laundry Detergent with 100% PCR PET enabled Method to gain major sustainability benefits. Utilizing a life-cycle assessment tool showed that by using 100% PCR resin- the package’s life-cycle energy consumption is reduced by 78%, and its carbon footprint is lowered by 35% versus a virgin PET alternative.
  • Gilllette’s razor packs made of a renewable-fiber molded tray: This innovative moldable pulp technology is said to use 75% less plastic, including the outer fiber-based packaging and the plastic razor organizer tray, which was reduced in size and weight for greater environmental benefit. The package also represents a 17% reduction in pallet weight and improves pallet density by 16%. All these improvements are said to have been accomplished without any cost increase or detriment to pack aesthetics.
  • Keurig coffee-to-go pods are recyclable:  Keurig says that it’s new hot beverage recyclable polypropylene K-Mug pod is another important step in the company’s continued progress to reduce the environmental footprint of the Keurig brewing system and its progress toward achieving its broader 2020 sustainability targets. With the K-Mug pod introduction, three of the four pod formats available for the company’s Keurig 2.0 system are now recyclable. Keurig has a stated target to have 100% of its K-Cup pods be recyclable by 2020.
  • Eureka! Organic Bread switches to bread bags made of 36% sugarcane-based PE. Beyond the marketing advantages of the new polyethylene bread bag made from 36% bio-based material, Eureka!’s new packaging provides significant greenhouse gas reduction benefits: According to a lifecycle analysis conducted by the Braskem the material supplier, for each ton of Green PE produced, approximately 2.15 tons of CO2 equivalent are captured from the atmosphere. In addition, because Green PE provides the same properties as fossil fuel-based PE, it can be seamlessly integrated into the bag-making conversion process and is 100% recyclable.

Suppliers and third party technology developing companies are continually developing new technologies and innovating with containers, caps, labels, and other components that improve the package-to-product ratio, resulting in a smaller footprint, and oftentimes in a smaller price tag, as well.

3. Consider new alternatives for distribution packaging.

New machinery and material technologies are enabling packagers to use fewer materials to create multipacks, bundles, and pallets, as well as create shelf-ready packaging that minimizes waste at the retailer level.

For water distributor Unlimited Water Processing, Inc., switching from corrugated cases to new shrink-pack technology for its bottled water bundles was a risk that paid off. The Nested Pack from Polypack positions bottles in a staggered-row configuration that results in a sturdy, stable shrink-wrapped bundle that eliminates the need for corrugated trays or pads. After implementing the Nested Pack, Unlimited Water reduced its cost per case from roughly 45 cents to just 10 cents. And, according to company owner Elliott Henry, customers love the new package because it uses fewer materials, is easier to dispose of, and is more attractive.

Several options exist for more sustainable stretch wrapping/palletizing, including machines engineered to optimize film use. Another method is the elimination of stretch wrap and hot melt in favor of removable adhesives, such as those from Lock n’ Pop, that stabilize loads while reducing the footprint of the pallet. In California, artisanal food maker Premier Organics is employing a reusable polypropylene pallet cover that can be used up to 250 times. The company estimates that the system will eliminate 4,500 lb of material annually, or about 40% of its pallet-wrap usage.

4. Look for opportunities to make your packaging reusable—where it makes sense.

In Costa Rica, Pizza Hut customers have been introduced to a new pizza box design that allows the box to be broken down into plates and a smaller box for leftovers. Several years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken debuted its Reusable KFC Sides Container. Made of polypropylene, with patented “ventless vent technology” that allows moisture to escape without requiring a hole in the lid, the clear container with red lid is promoted as being reusable, and microwave- and dishwasher-safe.

But reusability is not just for food packaging. PUMA garnered great attention when it introduced its “Clever Little Bag,” an attractive, reusable red shoe bag used to package its footwear. As a result of the change, PUMA reduced its paper consumption by 65% and estimated it would reduce water, energy, and diesel consumption at the manufacturing level by more than 60% per year.

5. Consider changes in your product.

The best example of a product category that has undergone significant change to accommodate more sustainable packaging is household cleaning products. Beginning with laundry detergents and rippling through other cleaner and chemical products, CPGs have turned to concentrated formulas to reduce the amount of water shipped from factory to retail shelf and to enable smaller package sizes. Perhaps the most compact of all: Method’s 8X-concentrated laundry detergent formula can wash 50 loads per 20-oz bottle, and 25 loads per 10-oz bottle. Also popular in the cleaning products industry have been systems that combine concentrated product refills with reusable packaging. Complementing Method’s sustainable solution line-up was the recent launch of its new 4X Concentrated 53-oz Laundry Detergent with 100% PCR rPET bottle solution.

Another winning sustainable solution comes from the company PaperFoam. They are winners of the 2015 Dieline Awards* and are leaders in developing innovative green tray formed packaging solutions.  With their certified BioBased material and patented injection molding process used to deliver a new tray technology—they serve customers in consumer electronics, medical, cosmetics and dry food industries from facilities in the USA, Europe and Asia. * The Dieline Awards 2015 -Winners truly represent the peak of package design, the most creative work designed over the past year from all across the globe.

Another lesser-known yet very innovative example of a product modified to affect changes in packaging is General Mills’ Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper. Several years ago, the company reengineered the physical properties of the noodles within the meals to enable the design of a smaller carton size. The change resulted in a savings of 890,000 lb/yr of paper fiber, an 11% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and the elimination of 500 trucks on the road per year.  

6. Whenever possible, design for recyclability.

One of the most effective ways to preserve the energy expended in manufacturing packaging materials is through recycling. While many materials, such as paper and PET, may be widely recycled, oftentimes coatings, labels, and other elements added to enhance package functionality or aesthetics may render them unfit for the recycling stream. But new options are emerging.

From Hub Folding Box, an innovative Liquid Ink Technology allows for the use of cost effective SBS board in lieu of expensive and less sustainable foil, metalized polyester and holographic laminates to achieve high-end graphic solutions that can be accomplished with ONE printing pass.   The resulting process is a package that can be recycled in the traditional paperboard recycling streams without contamination from polyester and metal.  In 2015, the Crown Royal Maple carton manufactured by Hub Folding Box was awarded, Best Packaging— Worldwide Retail Association.

Another recyclable (and recycled-content) package technology that has caused consumers to take a second look is molded-pulp packaging from Ecologic Brands. The most well-publicized application of the material is from Seventh Generation, which launched its 4X-concentrated liquid laundry detergent in the package several years ago. The container consists of a molded-pulp outer shell made from 70% recycled cardboard (OCC) and 30% old newspapers (ONP) that can be recycled up to seven times. The package’s inner film pouch with spout has been constructed of polyethylene only, making it suitable for recycling with plastic grocery bags, while the pack’s polypropylene closure is recyclable through Preserve’s Gimme 5 recycling program.

7. Employ packaging strategies that encourage product consumption.

Approximately 34 million tons of food waste are generated in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So packaging that increases the likelihood that the majority of a product is consumed provides a tremendous sustainability advantage. Among the technologies that can be used to help reduce food waste are reclosable features, clearly marked use-by dates, and technologies that assist in evacuating all of a product from its package. Hellmann’s Easy Out! Mayonnaise package employs a nonstick surface on the inside of the container that provides the slip properties needed to get the last bit of mayo from the jar.

And, while bulk packaging may seem a more sustainable alternative than single-serve packages, given its smaller package-to-product ratio, single-serve may prove a more environmentally friendly option if it ensures product consumption.

8. Know where your packaging materials come from.

Increasingly, retailers and consumers are looking to CPGs for transparency. It is to your benefit to make sure you are using responsibly sourced packaging materials. For example, toy manufacturer Mattel recently faced very vocal criticism from Greenpeace, which accused Mattel of using paperboard packaging that contained significant amounts of timber from Indonesian rain forests. Since then, Mattel has launched new sustainable sourcing principles to guide its procurement of paper and wood fiber. Hasbro quickly followed suit.

For Stonyfield Farm, the use of non-Genetically Modified (GM) crops is a core value. When it switched to corn-based bioplastic for some of its yogurt cups, it learned its resin supplier could not guarantee the use of non-GMO corn in its feedstock. So Stonyfield became the first major purchaser of offsets through the Working Landscapes Certificates, which ensures that an equivalent amount of corn is grown to sustainable agriculture standards.

9. Evaluate your supply chain and distribution system for space-saving opportunities.

In a presentation at Michigan State University’s second annual Packaging Executives Forum, consultant Kevin Howard of Packnomics, LLC, emphasized the importance of designing packaging “from the outside in, rather than from the inside out,” to minimize distribution logistics costs. “It is vital to understand what is happening in your own environment,” he said. “Some packages that don’t pass ISTM [International Safe Transit Assn.] standards pass real-world tests and vice versa. Walk through your distribution pipeline.”

His message, in “Space…The Final Frontier,” was that wasted space in packaging results in excess materials, transport, handling, and storage. To reduce a package size while maintaining its integrity, he noted that the packager must begin by understanding the known sizing of the transport mode that will be used and then minimizing the package size to hold everything at the lowest possible cost.

Other takeaways: “Space is found around components, inside of boxes, on pallets and between pallets,” “Maximizing load density is vital to minimizing environmental impact,” and “Space costs money… minimize it!”

Changing the game of the traditional supply chain for CPG’s is the growing trend of the e-commerce product supply chain. That said, while evaluating space saving sustainability opportunities in packaging—be mindful of e-commerce shipping requirements too.  

Furthermore, while we are visiting the subject of e-commerce and sustainability- don’t be afraid to revisit the way you’ve developed packages for shelf sets.  With e-commerce packaging going to the consumer rather than sitting on a shelf, there are no rigid shelf set requirements to work around, which may allow brands to re-think structural sizing that may be optimal for the consumer usage and may be an improved sustainable solution.

10. Consider materials made from renewable feedstock.

Packaging based on renewable feedstocks—from bioplastics made of corn or sugarcane, to protective packaging constructed of mushroom roots—is a rapidly growing area. Natrurally, with any new technology offering, there’s a balance here  in utilizing these new technology bio-based materials and truly understanding their relative sustainability versus traditional materials.

As a recent example of bio-based packaging, Rich Brilliant Willing (RBW), a lighting manufacturer switched to protective packaging made from mushroom ‘roots’ for its wall sconces, enabling faster packing, damage-free shipping, and a more sustainable packaging solution.

When evaluating renewable feedstocks for use in packaging materials, as advised above: Use a full life-cycle approach; understand how these materials perform in the recycling stream; know where the raw materials are sourced from; and ensure that the resulting packaging provides the required functionality for your product.

Above all, closely investigate any additives and other technologies that promise to make packaging “just disappear.” While it is a very alluring idea, many scientific experts debate the environmental safety of such technologies.

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