There is a shift on the horizon in the packaging world, we can no longer turn a blind eye to single-use packaging/containers and feel that we have done our part by throwing that packaging into the recycling bin. China doesn’t want a good chunk of our recycled waste anymore, this policy change, more than anything, will force the West to completely rethink recycling and single-use packaging/containers. You might be thinking, what has China got to do with recycling? The reality is that the success of many recycling programs around the world has been propped up by Western countries shipping recycled waste to China and others, so China’s latest announcement is set to absolutely rock recycling programs around the world.
We all recycle to varying degrees of success, there are a handful of European countries that are top notch at recycling, Japan (in my experience) is great at recycling, North America is ok but not great (I am Canadian), and China recycles just about everything. For the past 20 year’s we have been educating everyone about how necessary recycling is and we have made a decent effort into domestic recycling programs, albeit a little false as we have relied on outside partners to help deal with our recycled waste. But throughout this entire time period, through all of our recycling efforts, we have never properly addressed the bigger underlying issue, that we (for the most part) are a single-use throwaway society and that single-use packaging/containers are at the centre of all problems associated with waste and recycling.
Cities, states, provinces, territories and entire countries are slowly waking up to the fact that single-use containers and packaging is no longer sustainable. In reality, it has never been sustainable, we just convinced ourselves that recycling solved the problem, out of sight, out of mind. Don’t get me wrong, recycling is great and needs to stay, but it is only the first step in tackling the much bigger problem of single-use packaging waste in our collective societies. Generational changes with millennial driven social media awareness campaigns, along with the reality of governments barely coping with recycling volume, and now China not wanting most of our waste will quickly (hopefully) accelerate solutions to the problem of single-use packaging/containers. On purely ethical and sustainability grounds I am very excited about this emerging debate and movement away from single-use packaging/containers. Too slow to be sure, but it is a start so I will take it. But, from a business point of view, where there is change, I see opportunity.
Today I am only going to talk about one small area, single-use packaging in the retail sector. Water bottles, straws, coffee cups, don’t even get me started on these, partly because I can be as guilty as the next person in this area. How is it possible that….no, no, no, not getting started, deep breath, back to retail packaging
I used to design packaging for a variety of retail products and for a variety of retail settings that required different kinds of packaging for different price points and presentations. The challenge a designer faces with retail packaging is the bottom line, the business goal is typically how to make the cheapest package possible to answer a product/retailer’s needs. While this may be a valid point when you are selling dollar store items with very low-profit margin, I always pushed for better packaging when possible for higher price point items. When I say better, I am specifically saying how to repurpose a throwaway single-use package into a multi-use package. When I see packaging in a retail setting or packaging that is sent to my home I continually see lost opportunity to do it better. Here are some ideas from my past experience on how to make a better multi-use retail package and how you can market that multi-use package to your advantage.
Clamshells – Just stop already, this packaging is terrible. Spend a little bit more and turn that clamshell package into a reusable container for the home, office or workshop. I have done this before for many products and it is pretty easy to design a sustainable reusable container style package that can still hang in a retail setting. The extra cost is often much lower than you think, negligible in many cases with creative design. It also allows you to market the packaging as Multi-Use Packaging. Being able to market the packaging itself as an added value to your customer is a trend that does not really exist yet in the mainstream, but the term single-use will increasingly be seen as a negative term in the near future so market a better way, the multi-use packaging way. *Get on this emerging trend before your competition beats you to it.
Blow Molded Containers – there are many products that can be shipped in a cylindrical blow molded container. Spending just a little more on wall thickness, an opening system that doesn’t destroy the packaging and a better hanging solution for this style of packaging will really open up some creative doors to turn your package into a multi-use value item. I had a project about ten years ago in this area. We silkscreened on some measurement guides, added wall thickness and a strong hanging system (with an optional mounting system) which turned our blow molded packaging into a strong container for use in a workshop. The product being sold was a DIY product, so the packaging enhancements mentioned above worked for our end-use consumer. The additional packaging costs ended up being about 10 cents on a product we were making $8 profit on. *The same approach could work for many different market sectors like fashion or toys, you just need to get creative about how to market your value multi-use container and keep your repurposed multi-use packaging relevant to your end customer.
Thin-Walled Boxes – it might be Lego, it might be a shirt, there are many different things that are shipped and sold in rectangular thin walled boxes. These boxes cannot practically be turned into containers as they do not have the strength to hold much weight. But they can be turned into art projects for kids or decorative options for your household. Consider turning your thin walled box into an origami-style art project using perforation to give that box a second life. CAD file templates are readily available to make the task easier for you. There are many creative ways with colour and patterns to give your thin-walled box a second life. Think Cereal boxes and kids games on the back taken to a whole new level *Remember to give short instructions to the consumer on how to reuse the package you designed. Also be bold in telling them that the packaging is Multi-Use Packaging.
Thick-Walled Boxes – spend just a little extra and you can turn a strong thick-walled shipping box into a stackable box or a box with a lid or a box with drawer. With a bit of creativity, you could integrate your company logo into an attractive silk screen design on your repurposed packaging box that someone would find quite useful in their home, office or workshop. A subliminal reminder that your brand is a sustainable brand, that your brand offers more. The trend is moving towards sustainability, we will still keep consuming new things, but on a small level, we just want to stop throwing away the packaging. *Showing your customers you care about the environment goes a long way towards customer loyalty and retention.
While the ideas above cannot work with 100% of retail packaging these ideas and more can certainly work with a good 75% of retail packaging and that is a step in the right direction for a sustainable world. I really like the term Multi-Use Packaging as a great way to help market your product in a retail setting or through an online channel. As single-use starts to become more and more of a negative term in the coming years, the term multi-use packaging will be perceived as an added value to any product sold. With just a little extra investment and a bit of creativity, most retail packaging can be repurposed into multi-use packaging. Retail packaging is only one part of the problem of waste in our societies but as designers, engineers, product developers and entrepreneurs we collectively can do our part with innovative designs and creativity.
The Goal: Make Multi-Use Packaging a more popular phrase that Recyclable Packaging.