Ideas Amplified™ | The Flink Blog

Zero Packaging Waste: It’s Possible. But Barely.

Packaging stores, displays and protects our products. It extends shelf life and makes products portable. What we don't need? Oceans of Trash.

A lofty goal, but is “Zero Waste Packaging” even possible? Yes. Sort of.

We need packaging to store and display our products where people buy them. Packaging protects our products from sunlight, dust, dirt and contamination. It extends shelf life and makes them portable, so the Greek olives you love can be enjoyed in Canada. Not just Greece.

Packaging helps us market our products too, of course. Its the last chance you’ll have to display brand messaging, product differentiation and your last opportunity to close a sale. 

What we don’t need, though, is landfills and oceans full of discarded packaging.

What Can You Do To Reduce Waste?

Well, even starting to ask the question is a good first step when it comes to making better environmental choices about your packaging.

Awareness of the issue is critical because the choices you make will be multiplied by all the products you’ll package this year (and for years to come). And that can amount to tonnes of additional garbage!

Here Are A Few Ideas That’ll Reduce
Your Impact On The Planet.

First. Use Less Packaging, Of Course.

Thank you, “Captain Obvious”. — But it’s true that not all packaging has been designed efficiently. That can mean remeasuring the product that goes in the boxes, for example. You may find your boxes are larger than they need to be.

I’ve worked on reducing the size of a snack bar box once, saving between 20-25% of the package’s size. The upside?

  • Smaller boxes allowed for more product in the same shelf space.
  • They also had more product per truckload.
  • They had reduced shipping costs.
  • They had a fabulous sustainability story to share

Your product may not need to be fully wrapped or boxed at all. 
Take, for example, the newly Swiss-designed “Coffee Balls” from Migros. Invented just last year, the Migros Coffee Balls are packaging-free coffee pressed into balls instead of plastic pods and are held together by compression and a thin film made of algae.

I’ve also seen laundry soap and toothpaste pressed into tablets with considerably less packaging.

Or maybe you can re-think the default choice.
You might find that a belly band or tag may be sufficient in lieu of a bag, box or wrapper. Or you may be able to move to waxed paperboard instead of glass or plastic, like the folks at It’s light, recyclable and plastic-free. And definitely a novel approach in bottled (errrr, um boxed) water. *

Or you may be able to cut back on materials:
You can also look at the thickness of your packaging and the dimensions. Can the pack be thinner? Sometimes the card weight is required for structural integrity. But not always. 

Or remove a layer of the protective film:
Do you need to wrap each item to indicate it’s a single serving? Do items really need to be wrapped singly and then wrapped again as a larger group?

Consider Recyclability

Glass, metal and paper are recyclable, as are many plastics. Not all of them, though, unfortunately. Composite plastics that have different layers laminated together are not recyclable, nor are plastic laminated cardboards, cling films, blister packs, bioplastics, or thermoset plastics.

Biodegradable Plastics
Rather than remaining stable for ages, like typical plastics, biodegradable plastics can be broken down by microbes in the solid and turned into biomass, water and C02 (or methane). Some biodegradable plastics are actually compostable too, meaning that when combined with other food matter and organic waste, they can be turned into compost. It’s a very small percentage of typical packaging waste that can be composted though.

Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are made from plants and are fully biodegradable. They make up only about 5% of biodegradable plastics worldwide.* The remaining 95% claiming to be biodegradable, compostable, or oxo-biodegradable break down into microscopically small pieces of plastic and end up in the food chain as they end up in the stomachs of progressively larger and larger animals (like you).

Not ideal. — Research your plastics!

There’s a very good article at BBC Future about plastics if you’d like to dig deeper.

Built-in Recycling Programs:
Terra Cycle has worked with a wide variety of North American CPG companies to create recycling programs and a global reuse platform called Loop that allows consumers to buy their favourite products in refillable versions. It’s a circular supply chain with consumers reusing packaging and companies refilling rather than recreating.

A complicated idea for some, but an innovative way to reduce waste.

“Of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic we’ve thrown away since we started mass-producing it in the 1950s, just 600 million tonnes have been recycled — and 4.9 billion tonnes have been sent to landfill or left in the natural environment.”


Design To Be Reused

Glass jars and bottles have long held been put to work holding stuff in workshops and garages but some companies design their packaging to be more meaningfully reused — and even cherished.

French preserves company Bonne Mamman puts their preserves in heavy glass jars that beg to be re-used. They’re great for your own preserves and many people keep them as drinking glasses. If you’re a lover of boho-chic and canning jars, you’ll love them. And Pom Wonderful made a tea that came in its own drinking glass instead of a throw-away bottle. (sadly, it looks like they no longer offer it)

To do this, you have to think like the customer and not the brand manager for a moment and design the package as if you were going to reuse it.

Minimal messaging coverage, logos etc or have removable branding leaving a cleaner package for customers to repurpose. Kids cereal boxes, for example, could have board games and puzzles printed inside. Packaging for adults could be reversible turning your box into a gift box (see examples).

Design To Be Repurposed

Glass jars and bottles have long held been put to work holding stuff in workshops and garages but some companies design their packaging to be more meaningfully reused — and even cherished.

Packaging As Decor Items:
When design becomes a part of the experience, home-oriented packaging can itself become decor. Kitchen and bath brands succeed at this by including design as an integral part of product development and often employ a “heritage look” in their labelling. Gift shops are full of brands like this, where the product is less important than its presentation. Customers buy decor over functionality in these cases.

Method, by comparison, has made stunning industrial design a cornerstone of their brand. They employ a very clean and minimalist aesthetic to create a line that many people feel belongs out there on the counter for all to see.

Design Future ReIncarnations

Plantable Packaging:
Some paper and card stock manufacturers have begun embedding seeds into the pulp that makes their paper. The result? Plantable packages that sprout wildflowers when buried in your garden. An excellent choice for home decor and female-oriented products — but it may not be great for power tools.

Paper for greeting cards and correspondence is readily available online from various sources. For packaging paper, ask your packaging supplier for help sourcing a supplier. (note: papers made from hemp, bamboo, wheat stalks and other materials are also available) — “rein-carnations… lol!”

Design To Disappear

Edible Packaging:
It’s not here (in your neighbourhood and mine), but it’s coming. Edible packaging! Yes. It’s real. 

There are 5 categories of edible packaging; food wrapped in food, food paired with an edible and/or biodegradable container, a cup or container to be eaten with its beverage, packaging that disappears, and edible packaging served at quick-service restaurants. 

Stonyfield Farms launched a frozen novelty called WikiPearls that were tiny frozen yogurt balls encacsed in an edible gel skin.

(Left to right:) Loliware edible cups, Oooh Water Balls, KFC edible coffee cups, rice packaging made from rice. Impact Statement

A Swedish company is currently developing a packaging line that will closely align with the foods they contain. Their “oil package”, is made of caramelized sugar coated with wax. It opens like cracking an egg to release the oils inside it. Their “Smoothie Package” is made of a seaweed-based gel called agar and withers away as you drink the smoothie. And lastly, their “Rice Packages” are made of beeswax and are peeled open like a fruit to get to the dry ingredients inside. They’re all both edible and biodegradable, but unfortunately, not yet available commercially.

Loliware is experimenting with edible cups you eat when you’ve finished the drink they hold. A US company called “Ooho!” is working on an edible “water ball” intended to replace disposable water bottles, KFC experimented with edible coffee cups, and LA’s CoolHaus Ice Cream has been serving up edible wrappers on their ice cream treats.

Reduce Chemicals As Well

Did you know you can also specify more Earth-friendly inks too? Vegetable-based inks have been available for years, and most printers can run them on most presses. They are significantly easier on the environment than petroleum-based inks. Some specialty finishes may not be available in vegetable-based, however. Check with your packaging printer.

Then Share Your Progress

Sustainability Stories Build Brands:
People love to hear about companies that are making a difference. If you undergo a packaging overhaul with a view to waste reduction, be sure to share your story! Your journey towards a more eco-friendly brand is newsworthy to your customers. Share stats on resources saved on your packaging, website and social media too.

**Ordering water online for delivery, however? — That’s a whole other ecological can of worms. Carbon Footprint, people! And it’s water! Get it from the tap! Or get a filter! Argh. (rant over…)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR / / / Brent Flink is an award-winning graphic designer, marketer and the founder and Creative Director of Flink Branding, a Vancouver-based food & beverage brand design firm. He specializes in helping food and beverage brands find their authentic voice and build brands that build companies.

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