Q&A;: EcoPackaging

Q. Treehuggers, Thank you for creating this website. The size of the net you have cast is impressive and the resources you are sharing are useful. I am a package designer and am very interested in incorporating green materials and processes into our high volume package programs. I am looking for alternatives to the current materials we are using. Any information or suggestions you might have to offer would be a huge help. Best Regards, NK.

A. Dear NK, thanks for posing this one. Was only a matter of time before packaging raised its controversial head. Packaging has value in that it protects the goods we buyand it's a medium, by which product details can be provided to help us make informed purchasing decisions. Of course, the down side is that it is so often discarded, almost instantly after we have obtained the product. By some accounts over 25% of a household’s waste to landfill is packaging. As consumers we're stuck in a bind - if it's a product we have decided we really need (more likely one we desire!) - then whatever the packaging, we will probably just suffer it, afterall we’re only buying one of those widgets. But as a designer, NK, you have a fantastic opportunity to change a whole industry, you are deciding on the packaging for potentially millions of products. You can directly impact that product’s ecological rucksack. In the UK alone there are an estimated 9.3 million tonnes of packaging waste generated each year. That's a heap of ‘waste’ for something that accounts for often well over 10% of a product's purchase price!

In 1990 Germany tackled this problem through their Grüne Punkt (Green Dot) program. It was later taken up by the EU and annually now some 460 billion pieces of packaging are influenced. Green Dot is an Extender Producer Responsiblity (EPR) scheme where the product manufacturer is responsible for the life of the packaging. It is deemed that the end-user is really buying the product inside, not the package around it. Customers may leave the packaging in the retail store. Rather than individual suppliers running around the country collecting up their discarded packaging, a single organisation manages that and licences their services. Packaging that subscribes to the scheme carries the Green Dot. It has encouraged suppliers to reduce the volume of packaging they were using and to move to more readily recyclable packaging, if reduction was not feasible. Over the first 8 years this decreased German packaging by 14%.

The lessons learnt from Green Dot are that customers can be provided with their needs but without unncessary extra material usage. Why, for example, does a rugged toothpaste tube need a cardboard carton? So, the best option is to design out the packaging in the beginning. For, as Paul Hawken, et al, noted in Natural Capitalism, 94% of the materials extracted for use in manufacturing becomes waste before the product is manufactured. And packaging is, of itself, a product.

However if it's necessary to have packaging, what forms should it take? Firstly, it should be reusable in it's current form. Think of the jam jars that become drinking glasses. There are many other design ideas for packaging but your direct question was materials for packaging. So let's jump to there.

Only two material choices really: those which can recycled without loss of quality and those which can be safely composted. The composting one is sort of easy, think of florists wrapping flowers in banana leaves, instead of non-biodegradable plastic ‘paper’. Or the myriad bio-plastics, derived from plant based origins, most particularly those which have a starch component. Potato and corn have been the two main players so far. The marketplace is seeing new ones on almost monthly basis. The Biopolymer Network is the best place to keep abreast of new developments in this field. Such materials have many of the production and performance attributes of petroleum based plastics but will degrade, once in contact with micro-organisms. However, as we’ve noted before, landfills are not the best place to find friendly microbial composters. And, of course, we need to ask if it's a genetically modified crop, from which the plastic is derived?

Recycled materials, are widely available, with cleverly designed papier maché forms substituting for nasty 'ole styrofoam. And steel and glass are other packaging materials easily recycled at the end of their useful life, although they do add extra weight, and thus cost, to the shipping of the goods they protect. Recycled plastics for packaging are predominately PET and polypropylene (PP). The former is used for blister-pack style goods and the PP for more rigid containers.

Packaging is a huge area, so we have included just a tiny sample of the people providing materials that are either recycled, recyclable or compostable. NK, we wish you well with your move to more benign packaging materials. But as product purchasers, the rest of us bear the responsibility of being more demanding of your clients, to ensure they come to you asking for ‘greener’ boxes around our goodies. [by WM]

A new biodegradable player in this market is Plantic. If made from Australian corn, as is inferred, then it should be GMO free, as Down Under currently has a moritorium on GM corn. At this time used to package chocolates (above pic) it should have other applications as product packaging.

Specialising in recycled paper packaging, Earthpack USA, has a wide choice of products to present retail goods.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are emitted in the production of many packaging films, so Michelman in the US offer natural Carnauba wax emulsions, as an alternative.

Made in New Zealand re~forme, is the name given to a packaging film containing recycled post consumer waste content.

Hip Lei in Hong Kong, are just one of many packaging companies supplying folding boxes, tubes, blister trays, die-cut sheets, that have moved to offering recycled PP and PET.

An international recycling company, headquartered in Australia, Visy are vertically integrated. They collect the materials, recycle them, then are able to design and make the product. They plan to have all packaging products 100% recyclable by 2008.

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK