Less isn’t always more when it comes to product packaging

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CC BY 2.0 Creativity103

“Lightweighting” often shrinks down packaging into items that are unrecyclable, difficult to capture, highly polluted and designed without end-of-life solutions.

Goods and services evolve to meet the needs of the modern consumer, and music is no exception. Initially experience-based, as it has been for hundreds and thousands of years, music eventually became something people wanted to own, and prevailing demands called for audio content and playing formats that were lighter, smaller, portable and more user-friendly. From the invention of the phonograph (or wax cylinder), to the vinyl LP, to the 8-track cassette tape, to compact discs and digital files played on iPods that got smaller and smaller (and eventually, too, became unnecessary), music as an audio format evolved to satisfy demands of convenience and access.

For similar reasons, packaging designers and manufacturers are increasingly taking up the practice of “lightweighting” in order to create packages that are more convenient and accessible to consumers. Done by either replacing packaging material with a lighter weight alternative (such as a flexible plastic pouch versus a glass bottle) or cutting down the amount of packaging material used, lightweighting, literally, makes for a lighter package that people find more portable and affordable.

However, music is an auditory experience, and unlike music, product packaging doesn’t simply shrink down to digital iterations that only differ in interface and pricing models—lightweighting will often shrink down packaging into single-use items that are unrecyclable, difficult to capture, highly polluted and designed without end-of-life solutions.

Take one of the most extreme examples of lightweighted packaging: the sachet. Used today to package things like powdered drinks, shampoo samples and condiment packets, these small, single-use, plastic pouch-like items are very inexpensive to make. But these items fall outside the scope of recyclability due to their small size, and are prone to end up in oceans and waterways.

Lightweighted packaging configurations are often marketed to consumers as being more affordable, more convenient and making less of an environmental impact by taking up less volume, and companies cite the practice as reducing a company’s carbon footprint, as well as costs, throughout the supply chain. But a package that is in itself less costly to ship, lighter in weight and volume, and conserves natural resources does not translate into a reduced environmental impact. By and large, the opposite is true.

In many cases, a lightweighted package is multi-compositional in nature and not recyclable in the current waste management infrastructure. Further, the waste created by the various fitments that give lightweighted items high functionality (such as straws, caps and spoons) are also not recyclable through curbside collections due to their small size. At this this time, the biggest problem with lightweighted packaging is that producers and manufacturers of these items have not designed end-of-life solutions into their packaging innovations, despite an insufficient waste management infrastructure.

Where Boomboxes and Discmans and turntables today suggest inefficiency or antiquity, traditional glass and metal product packaging configurations are more favorable than their modern lightweighted counterparts in terms of cutting out structural waste and retaining value. These heavier, quality items can be reused, recycled and captured for the worth of their materials, kept at high utility and used in lieu of new material sourcing. We can do well to look to the past to create more sustainable product and packaging designs for the modern consumer.

Today, music as a product format has been dematerialized for convenience and access, and in the process, the paradigm for its ownership has changed; the plastic of vinyl records and compact discs and cassette is no longer necessary, and the emotional, social and functional benefits remain. Finding a way to change the paradigm of ownership for products in the food, beverage and household industries might change the way consumers view the purchase of these goods, which, like music, will always be in demand.