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8 guidelines on sustainable packaging

Packaging needs to catch up with product development in moving towards improved sustainability performance. There are consumer pressures mounting in the right direction, and it has been predicted that sustainable packaging will make up 32% of all packaging by 2014. There are even carbon taxes on packaging in the Netherlands. But this is not just about reducing the amount of packaging material used, or even using recycled and recyclable materials. It's about finding creative ways to design packaging with a cradle-to-cradle perspective, in many cases imagining future uses that are completely unrelated to the original purpose of the packaging.

There's a brilliant set of examples, evaluations, interviews and principles in the book Designing Sustainable Packaging by Scott Boylston.

For those of us who are not package designers, it's a good idea to be aware of these examples and guidelines so that we can be discerning consumers. So what follows a 'list of lists' on better package design.

One guiding principle:

Packaging can be transformed into a closed loop flow of materials in a system that is economically robust and provides benefit throughout the life cycle - in a way that meets our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

Two companies providing tools for designers:

  1. Chameleon Packaging has developed a tool for selecting appropriate packaging materials.
  2. Celery Design has a sustainablity scorecard for design, and identifies colours that are not toxic. (If you can't use inks made from entirely non-toxic sources, then there are colours to avoid: 20% of all PMS colours involve the use of heavy metals.) They also have an ecological guide to paper.

Three books every package designer (and everyone else, for that matter) should read:

  1. Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken
  2. Biomimicry by Janine Benyus
  3. Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough

Four organisations that provide useful ideas and resources:

  1. Rocky Mountain Institute
  2. Natural Step
  3. GreenBlue
  4. Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Five principles identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency for packaging:

  1. Eliminate toxic constituents
  2. Use less material
  3. Make packaging more renewable
  4. Use more recycled content
  5. Make packaging more readily recyclable

Six ideas for sustainable packaging:

  1. Design for new uses after the packaging has performed its primary function - like the WOBO (World Bottle): square glass bottles that fit together to form glass bricks for building.
  2. Don't mix dissimilar materials such as PET bottles with polypropylene closures which are more difficult to recycle - make sorting easier.
  3. 'Right-size' packaging so that it reduces space, energy and materials consumed while meeting transport and display requirements.
  4. Use less ink, saving on a range of upstream and downstream impacts, from mining the source materials to recycling the material on which the ink is printed.
  5. Educate consumers through words and designs that raise awareness of the importance of packaging in product sustainability.
  6. Reduce carbon footprint of materials - for example specify paper that contains 100% recycled fibres, is 100% recyclable and is manufactured using renewable energy.

Seven online resources:

  1. Pike Research - analysis and forecasts on sustainable packaging
  2. Buy Environmental - eMagazine article
  3. Packaging Digest Sustainable Packaging Channel - news on packaging applications
  4. Sustainable Packaging Alliance - research and a tool for evaluating packaging impacts
  5. Packaging Strategies - news and analysis
  6. Greener Package - knowledge exchange for sustainable packaging
  7. Sustainable Life Media - article on how sustainable packaging has become an expectation for many consumers

Eight criteria for sustainable packaging suggested by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition:

  1. Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its lifecycle.
  2. Meets market criteria for performance and cost.
  3. Is sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy.
  4. Maximises the use of renewable or recycled source materials.
  5. Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices.
  6. Is made from materials healthy in all probable end-life scenaries.
  7. Is physically designed to optimise materials and energy.
  8. Is effectively recovered and utilised in biological and/or industrial cradle-to-cradle cycles.

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