There was a time when packaging design was centred on the ‘four Ps’ – protection, preservation, promotion and price. More recently this perfect symmetry has been invaded by a fifth ‘non-P’ requirement with sustainability and the environmental impact of packaging coming under increasing consumer scrutiny.
Yet the reality is that sustainability was a key part of the plastic pack design process many years before the broadcast of the Blue Planet 2 programme. Indeed, the requirements for protection and preservation are very much part of delivering a sustainable packaging solution through their ability to minimise product waste. This is particularly critical in the food sector, where the impact of food waste on the environment has been shown to be 10 times greater than packaging waste.
Similarly, lightweighting has always been an important feature of new pack development and is in fact a higher requirement for the circular economy than recycling. This has helped to reduce carbon emissions in terms of both the use of resources in manufacture and the transportation of finished goods. Design techniques have ensured that the lightweighting is not achieved at the expense of a pack’s other benefits so that it remains fit-for-purpose.
This is essential in the design of any new pack. Sustainability benefits need to be incorporated without impacting on the pack’s overall effectiveness. To take the example of food waste, if making a pack recyclable means more food is wasted, then it is probably not the right choice.
For pack designers the challenge has always been to find the correct balance of all the differing requirements that go into creating a successful pack. At RPC Design, to ensure that sustainability considerations are part of this process, we have created our own Design Checklist which takes into account the many different factors that can affect a pack’s overall sustainability attributes. These include looking at the number of materials used in the pack, and assessing whether they can be reduced, or whether alternative materials are available that could further improve the overall environmental impact. The use of recycled plastic in the production of the new pack is also considered, and the potential for a pack’s reuse or repurposing investigated. Another important factor is the selection of the most appropriate manufacturing technique.
For food applications, the checklist covers opportunities for portion control or resealability as part of the drive to minimise food waste.
IN THE ROUND
For many packs the best end-of-life solution will be recycling. The checklist therefore encourages the use of single polymers, or a design where different parts can be easily separated, and the selection wherever possible of materials which are already being widely recycled.
As part of our focus on increasing understanding of design’s critical role in delivering sustainable packaging solutions, RPC has also worked with the Ellen McArthur Foundation in the development of a designers’ toolkit for the circular economy. This is a freely available website with a host of methods and techniques that can be used by designers to ensure they consider the circularity of products.
Of course, most projects are carried out in consultation with the brand owner, and it can often be the case that sales and marketing requirements can have unintended consequences for the overall sustainability of the pack. It was for that reason that we introduced our unique grading system that provides an easy visual guide to the sustainability credentials of each new pack. Such a system offers an early indication to brand owners and manufacturers about how their pack specifications may affect its final environmental impact. This enables further discussions and adjustments to be made in order for enhancements and improvements to be incorporated
At the same time, branding and image are still critical factors in a pack’s retail success. A bad experience with the packaging is a powerful driver to try another brand. Pack development therefore still needs to focus on ‘consumer centred design’. Creating packaging that is more accessible, easier to use, easier to dispense from, easier to reseal as well as easier to dispose of is a key part of building brand loyalty. What is important today is to ensure that a pack’s sustainability credentials are suitably promoted, for example highlighting the use of recycled or bio-based material, or its potential for reuse.
A successful pack design must achieve the crucial balance between attractiveness, functionality and sustainability; if it cannot deliver on its primary requirements, any environmental benefits are worthless. By applying the right skills and knowledge and using the best tools, it is possible to create packs that fulfil consumer, filler, brand owner and recycler needs without compromise. This is the best way to achieve retail success.