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Rethinking packing design and materials

Sustainable plastic packages resized
While packaging reduction is at brand discretion in the United States, regulations are slowly beginning to tighten in Europe and other parts of Asia. What do brands need consider when reviewing and redesigning their product packaging?

Sustainable packaging design has sprung to the forefront for many CPG brands. Market trends show that consumers favour brands that reflect their own values and are increasingly looking for companies that are ethically minded. Besides product fit, quality and price point, buying decisions are increasingly influenced by people’s environmental and social awareness—and consumers are looking to brands to help them make a positive impact. Dotcom Distribution found 61% of shoppers have taken green packaging into account when deciding where to shop, 55% have considered an online retailer’s overall carbon footprint, and 64% have considered the sustainability of supply chain practices when deciding between brands.

In addition to consumers, regulators are eyeing packaging materials and size as the pressure for a more robust legal framework grows. Korea has taken a lead with a comprehensive approach towards waste management with the 3R policy which encompasses the “reduction, reuse and recycling” of packaging materials. The Food Waste Reduction Act was passed in 1994 and aims to reduce the amount of empty space in packaging. This means that the empty space in the packaging container and the number of packing layers are regulated by law for overpackaging control. These regulations on packing methods are applied to seven product categories including food and cosmetics and its implementation has not only revolutionised the way brands look at packaging but also opened the door to packaging redesign and innovation.

Ideally, in a zero-waste world, packaging materials would exist within a circular economy, being fully (and truly) recyclable, compostable or reusable. And while the practice of packaging reduction does not improve the sustainability of the packaging material itself, it can significantly reduce the environmental impact of a product, and therefore should not be overlooked.

While such regulations such as those found in Korea don’t exist in most other geos, CPG brands are holding themselves accountable. Happy Family Organics, an organic baby and toddler food company, has a deep commitment to sustainability, which naturally impacts its product packaging. Working with Trayak, a consultancy focused on supporting and quantifying sustainable packaging initiatives, Happy Family revamped its Happy Baby Organic Yogis, a freeze-dried yogurt and fruit snack by reducing the height of the pouch and adjusting the size of the outer case. Through the lens of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) with Trayak’s EcoImpact-COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment) tool, the impact of these changes was profound.

The new packaging design lead to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emission reduction by 13% for the material, 14% in end of life and 28% in transportation. The new design also reduced resource needs, leading to a decrease in 197,534 pounds of cardboard, 12 million gallons of water, 3,666 wooden pallets, and 8,640 pounds in pouch material.

Packaging reduction can also have a significant impact on product cost and shipping. The new design lead to a 65% improvement in number of pouches on a single pallet and decreased product cost by 37%. While not a simple or straightforward undertaking, Happy Family Organics demonstrated in that packaging reduction can not only substantially improve the sustainability of product packaging, but it can also benefit the product margins, too.

While packaging reduction is at brand discretion in the United States, regulations are slowly beginning to tighten in Europe and other parts of Asia. Vitafoods Insights spoke to Matthew Rogerson, Chief Editor for Packaging at Global Data, about what brands should consider when reviewing and redesigning their product packaging.

Vitafoods Insights: What are the main areas in the design process that food and beverage companies can review in order to produce more sustainable packaging?

Matthew Rogerson: Fit-for-purpose is the main consideration—the material, format or function that will get the best protection, transportation and delivery of a product. Problems occur if a company is making a choice that would impact the quality of their brand. Sustainability should add to the packaging, not subtract something. There is no point in delivering 100% recyclable packaging if the product loses shelf life or taste or any other value as consumers will not purchase a lesser substitute. So, the core question should always be, ‘How do I provide sustainable packaging into the areas which add value to the product?’ And where value can be added, focus on making that part sustainable. The little changes will make a big impact soon. Take a 360-degree look at the product and its life cycle; sometimes the sustainable packaging can make a big difference in initial packaging, and other times it might be end of life—but looking at the whole life cycle will allow you to see where there is opportunity to design in more sustainable solutions.

Vitafoods Insights: What are the most important considerations when it comes to reusability of materials?

Rogerson: The main consideration must be adding: adding value, improving recyclability, reusability, reducing waste. Brands should always be looking at improving by use of the materials. If there is no improvement or gain, there is no point in using materials. Performance is another key; different materials react in different ways or provide different types of protection, so it’s important to consider how they are being used and how they will be disposed of.

Vitafoods Insights: What are the main considerations with regards to the size of the packaging? Do consumers still fall into the trap of bigger is better?

Rogerson: If this is about sustainability, bigger can be better. Less energy is required to make a 2L bottle of water than 4,500ml ones, less materials and resources. Products that are slow moving or use, like spirits can be in bigger bottles too as they are not going to be used all together and the luxury packaging can be a talking point at a table. But portion control and people wanting to have more variety mean that consumers tend to prefer choice over bulk in some situations.

Vitafoods Insights: Are there any clever sustainable packaging designs you have seen recently?

Rogerson: There are a few innovative designs I have seen recently: Colgate with a recyclable toothpaste tube*, iD (food brand) with its Vada Batter, Evita Beauty Whip by kanebo, and Notpla’s Ooho flexible packaging product, which is edible and disappears but can hold liquids or foods.

Vitafoods Insights: How should companies align their marketing/story telling around packaging?

Rogerson: I think honesty and transparency are key—be authentic and honest about the product and its sustainability and/or packaging journey. People also want clarity on how to dispose of their products responsibly—they want to know they are making a difference and want to be assured as to where their product came from. If there is something particularly outstanding about a product’s origins or manufacture that would be interesting, that is great too—but never patronise, condescend, offend or try for complex messages. The story should be simple, engaging, intuitive, and of course true. 

Vitafoods Insights: Should Europe follow the lead of Korea set a maximum ratio between product and size of packaging in the name of sustainability?

Rogerson: Korean and Japanese packaging can be considerably different to EU, but this is a very sensible set of guidelines. It not only reduces large box and small product combinations that frustrate consumers (for example, think of a time Amazon has delivered batteries in a fridge-sized box and how it makes you feel) but it means that more uniform size packaging can be adopted, which can fit better on pallets, get more products onto each pallet, and give huge gains to transportation costs.

As for cons, there is less need for specific rules as most retailers, through retail-ready packaging, have minimised sizes, and e-commerce is ruled by letterbox size so many EU companies are already wise to reducing waste and overpackaging is an easy area to reduce freeing up materials, cost and getting them closer to their sustainability goals. 

*Editor's Note: While Colgate’s toothpaste tube is recyclable, many recycling facilities do not have the ability to properly sort it, making it not inherently recyclable at this time.

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