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

and functionality.  

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

design strategy.  

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

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