The Sustainability Enigma
Are you thinking about stripping away
material, or extending usefulness?
The CPG industry is in the midst of a
crash course education in sustainability, with the lion’s share of
attention focusing on packaging. The reigning strategy of many brand
owners appears to be centered on material use and selection, with three
common approaches: source reduction, increased use of post-consumer
recycled content and new bio-derived/degradable materials.
These approaches can be effective at
reducing waste. Take, for example, what Nestlé has done by reducing
the gram weight of its PET water bottles. The brand was able to achieve
an almost 30 percent reduction of the eco-footprint of the package and
is now looking to include more recycled content as well.
While this is a great example of a sustainable
success story, it should also be considered in the context of future
scalability. Source reduction has inherent limitations because, at its
core, packaging must maintain specific technical requirements. In the
case of the lightweighted PET bottle, it can only be taken so far before
it loses the rigidity required for appropriate handling and stability.
To focus entirely on material may result in designs that are at odds
with packaging’s primary roles of effective product containment, durability
New Challenges Arise
This raises new challenges about how
to approach the “greening” of your pack, and where to look for alternatives.
One area to consider may be that of reusable and refillable packaging.
It can be argued that if a product requires more robust packaging due
to its unique characteristics, extending the use of that package beyond
containment – and thus extending its life – could represent a compelling
Let’s look at a typical household product,
like window cleaner. The need for effective product application has
created a durable, multi-component trigger spray pump mechanism, the
usability of which can certainly exceed the short lifespan of a single
bottle. The vessel is made of a durable rigid material that was manufactured
to resist atmospheric pressures and top load, and thus is able to live
beyond the volume of product it contains.
Recently, we’ve seen several innovations
in this category. Wonder Tablitz created a spray bottle with an integrated
compartment that contains three dissolvable tablets of cleaning concentrate.
The bottle can be used over and over again by simply placing a tablet
inside and filling the bottle with water from the tap. Once the tablets
are used, the user can purchase more without ever having to purchase
an additional bottle or sprayer.
A similar strategy directed Reckitt Benckisers’
new line of Glass Plus cleaning products. Here, dissolvable pouches
of concentrate are sold in two-packs. The pouches can be dropped in
an empty spray bottle, which is filled with warm water to create 32oz
of Glass Plus surface cleaner.
Digging deeper, we find that there are
refill/reuse strategies at play in other areas as well. Restore Products,
a Minnesota-based manufacturer of ecological cleaning products for residential
and commercial use, has developed an automated refilling station for
retail stores. The station recognizes encoded Restore brand bottles
and refills them with one of five different cleaning products. Restore’s
stations have extended their initial Minnesota territory to include
stores in neighboring Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa and have been picked
up by several Whole Foods stores in the region.
At Petco, cat litter is sold in typical
large plastic pails, but can be refilled in-store from a large hopper.
The pet supply retailer recognized that these packs had value in their
durability that could be easily extended if a refill option were made
But refill programs can be rife with
complications and are only appropriate for certain types of products.
Many of us are familiar with the bulk dry goods hoppers at stores like
Whole Foods. At first glance, this seems like a pretty straightforward
offering that reduces packaging to a minimum. But retailers claim that
these hopper systems can incur additional costs due to a higher rate
of product loss from spoilage and spilling. Those who have invited consumers
to bring in their own packaging have run up against health code regulations,
which are intended to protect store environments from outside contamination.
Regardless of the approach, there is
a measurable synergy between reusable/refillable packaging and consumer
mindset and behaviors. A recent study conducted through the DEFRA Waste
and Resources Research Programme in the UK traced and tested the correlation
between refill packaging and the consumer’s need for value and convenience.
The study maintained that, while current examples are few and far between,
there is certainly opportunity for growth, just so long as baseline
convenience is preserved.
New developments in cosmetic and personal
product refills have already begun popping up and other markets are
being explored as well.
Don’t Sacrifice Performance
If you are contemplating a sustainable
shift for your brands’ packaging, there is one rule that should guide
any decision you make: Never sacrifice the technical performance of
the package. While the benefit of certain material strategies such as
lightweighting or changing from a rigid to a flexible platform can have
a clear and measurable impact on your waste platform, they can also
result in the diminished performance of the pack.
Consider the fact that packaging is but
a small fraction of the overall environmental impact of a product. In
the case of many food products, the impact from agricultural production
alone can exceed 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire
production and distribution cycle of the packaging.
Thus if your new sustainable packaging
designs result in any increased loss of product, through breakage, spoilage
or even reduced evacuation during use, the resulting impact can defeat
the goal of the pack in the first place, and perhaps even make your
environmental impact worse than it was. This may seem like an obvious
consideration, but it requires a disciplined approach to the design
of new packaging.
It is deceptively easy to become wrapped
up in the excitement around emergent materials and processes. But unless
these new technologies can meet or exceed the requirements of your current
product, they can be a major pitfall in the quest to become more sustainable.
Peter Clarke is president and founder
of Product Ventures, a packaging and product design and development
agency. Aaron Penn is a technologist at Product Ventures. Contact them
at 203.319.1119 or visit www.productventures.com.