Good design can reduce the environmental impact of packging

There are numerous ways to limit the environmental impact of packaging. A well thought out design is one of them. ‘Designers need to know the environmental impact of packaging on the entire life cycle of their product,’ observes independent packaging expert Raymond Peutz.

Thorough preparation is the first step

In order to develop the most suitable packaging, the designer first needs to know the product thoroughly. What is it sensitive to? What are the circumstances in each phase of the life cycle? Based on the answer to these questions, the designer can put together a requirement programme for each packaging function. ‘What type of protection must the packaging offer? How will the packaging and the product be used? How will it be transported? What commercial support must it offer? The requirement programme defines the minimal requirements,’ states Peutz. Peutz notes that the requirement programme must always take into account the environmental impact of the packaging. ‘Product designers must evaluate the environmental impact of a product during its entire life cycle. They know which materials are used as well as the emission volume during the production, transport, use, and processing as waste,’ explains Peutz. ‘Packaging designers also need to carry out this exercise. They need to carefully evaluate the environmental impact of a packaging concept within the entire life cycle of the packaged product. They need to attach a so-called ecological budget to each separate packaging function. The integral approach of the European Ecolabel is already a step in the right direction.’

Avoid over-packaging

Packaging also has an important effect on the environment. Take into account all the damaged and spoiled goods that would otherwise end up in the garbage bin prematurely if it weren’t for protective packaging. Many companies, however, do not comprehend the exact nature of all of the risks to which their products are exposed. They often take a too conservative approach in their choices, risking over-packaging. Peutz illustrates this point with an example of an air-conditioning manufacturer that was looking for packaging for its new product. Initially, they wanted to use the same packaging material as they had with their older models. ‘An IPS study revealed that the new product was much more robust than its predecessors. Consequently, it requires less packaging without compromising protection,’ cites Peutz. It pays off to look for optimal packaging. Excessive packaging weighs heavily on the cost structure as well as on the environment.


Good to remember

  • A requirement programme must be defined during the first design phase since it accounts for the environmental impact of packaging throughout the product’s life cycle.
  • A well thought out design can substantially cut costs by avoiding over-packaging and limiting the amount of transport.
  • It can also fight product loss and improve the balance between the packaging’s commercial purposes and environmental impact.


Product design needs to consider the packaging

The support that packaging provides a product is clearly shown by the four functions of packaging: protection, use, transport, and commercial support of the product. 

However, packaging and product design can mutually influence each other. The designer should define the dimensions of the packaging as a function of the various phases in the product’s life cycle: production and storage, transport, point of sales presentation, and use by the consumer. Another example: aseptic packaging allows a designer to lower the protection requirements. The product designer needs to take all of these factors 

Packaging plays an important part in the commercial support of the product. This sometimes leads to very original shapes that can have an enormous impact on the environment.

Weighing commercial requirements against care for the environment

Packaging must also support a product’s brand identity. This often leads to expensive designs with a high impact on the environment. Peutz again: ‘In the cosmetics sector, for instance, packaging designers are very creative with perfume bottles. This is necessary to differentiate the perfumes from one another. In this market, the packaging often creates more identity than the actual contents.’ These creative shapes, however, demand additional packaging in order to safely transport them. Moreover, in many cases, a wide choice of materials is used, making recycling more difficult. 

There are, however, always creative solutions available. Peutz recalls that he once designed packaging for a modem manufacturer that used the shape of the modem as its central motif. ‘All of the wiring was hidden beside the modem under a cardboard cover. This approach even offered additional protection. The product’s characteristic design made it possible to limit the commercial function of the packaging and hence reduce its environmental impact.

Well thought out design optimizes transport

Packaging also has a major impact on logistics. A well thought out design can drastically reduce the amount of transport necessary. ‘Designers are able to adapt the dimensions of a rectangular package to the dimensions of a standard Euro pallet. They can also create stackable shapes that are strong enough to use the full height of the truck,’ illustrates Peutz. ‘A designer has ample opportunity to limit the environmental impact of the product’s transport.’

Good design avoids waste

Good design can assist in making a product more userfriendly and in avoiding product loss. Consider for instance the upside-down plastic ketchup bottles (see also the Rexona testimonial). Thanks to gravity, the contents flow out of the container more easily. Moreover, less product residue remains inside at the end of use. At first sight, it is a dead simple concept, but one with a brilliant result. In short, a designer has ample opportunity to optimize the various functions of packaging.

For additional information

  • Peutz Industrial Design, a specialist in the design and implementation of consumer-oriented and industrial packaging:
  • Packaging People, the Belgian federation of packaging experts:
  • IPS, Industrial Packing Support:


Example - Rexona : Innovative design cuts waste and packaging while keeping the same product volume

Example - Soudal : New hose reduces product waste


Packaging informs and promotes

But how to limit the impact on the environment?

Regulators are obliging companies to clearly inform consumers about their products. While the list of mandatory notifications is constantly expanding, it is also taking up ever more space. Packaging, however, also has an important promotional function to fulfil. Companies are facing the challenge to match growing legal obligations with commercial aspirations without increasing the amount and environmental impact of packaging.

An ever increasing number of mandatory notifications

Companies are obliged to communicate voluminous  amounts of information about their products. For instance, they have to state the manufacturer’s or distributor’s contact information in the event of problems. They also need to communicate the product’s composition in all languages used in the countries in which it is sold. In addition to these mandatory notifications, there are also specific national obligations. In France, for instance, producers of alcoholic beverages must notify pregnant women that they should not use their products.

The list of mandatory legal notifications will certainly expand in the future. There are already new regulations being drawn up on the international and European level. These include requiring a minimal character size of 3 mm on product labels. Such regulations pose a tremendous challenge to manufacturers who are attempting to meet all of these obligations without increasing the impact of packaging on the environment. 

Informing via alternative channels

One solution is spreading the mandatory legal information via channels other than the packaging. For instance, this might be via a dedicated website. But is this a viable alternative? The mandatory information needs to be available to everyone, and not just to those who have access to the Internet. Companies could also opt to inform customers at the point of sales, for instance via advertising boards or information panels. But in that case, the information is not available at home. Clearly, it is not easy to come up with a comprehensive alternative information channel.

Digits identify the packaging material used

All packaging features a digit code at the bottom. This is the result of the European Commission Decision 97/129/EG of 28 January 1997 establishing the identification system for packaging materials. It is not obligatory to communicate this information, but it does clarify the nature of the packaging materials used. This helps simplify the sorting, and recycling of the packaging. The materials used are identified through digit codes. For instance, ‘1’ at the bottom of a plastic soda bottle indicates the bottle is made out of PET, whereas ‘20’ at the bottom of a cardboard box indicates the material used is corrugated cardboard. 


Good to remember 

  • International, European, and national legislation oblige companies to provide more and more information about their products. It will pose a serious challenge to meet these obligations without increasing the amount of packaging. 
  • Packaging fulfils a crucial commercial role. It supports the brand identity and simplifies comparability with the competition.
  • Alternative information channels, relying on commercial elements or a new design can tackle the challenge of the everincreasing information volume.


Inform versus promote 

Companies may choose to make room on the packaging for mandatory information. But is this really a good idea? Packaging supports brand identity. Consumers recognize a product by its logo, pictures, and other promotional elements incorporated in the packaging. These elements cannot just be eliminated.

Often, packaging also contains commercial information that does not specifically support the brand identity. However, this does not mean that this information can simply disappear. For instance, the packaging of consumer electronics often features information that enhances the comparability with direct competitors. This information is of vital importance. It not only enables the manufacturer to differentiate its product, it also enables the consumer to take an intelligent purchasing decision.

Packaging labels contain more and more information. This will only increase in the future.


Alternative packaging of the future

New developments in the field of packaging offer possible solutions. “Augmented reality” enables the innovative integration of information on the packaging. For instance, a chip that can transmit the information to the customer’s cell phone. Or a video application playing an infomercial. The question, however, is how companies can incorporate these electronic mechanisms without increasing their impact on the environment. Will the packaging still be recyclable? It is clear that packaging experts are facing quite a few challenges.


For additional information