Packaging: Endless opportunities [Blog by EPEA]

By: Bjorn de Koeijer (EPEA Nederland)        

Packaging is absolutely essential to bridge time and distance between producer and consumer. Without it, there would be no way to protect our valuable goods along their chain of production, retail and consumption.     
In the past century, packaging developed from basic containers for goods to highly complex products that meet complex requirements. Often, packaging became the silent salesman for products. Not only does it act as a source of valuable information for retailers and consumers, it also became an important part of a brand’s identity and image.

Traditionally, design goals are set to create packaging products that are not only convenient, durable, re-sealable, protective and lightweight, but also visually attractive. This approach has been highly optimised and is typically achieved by using lots of different materials and chemicals. For instance; did you know an average chips bag is made up of nine different layers of materials?

The challenge        
When products have long been unpacked and consumed, their packaging often still exists. Of all plastic waste, over 60% consists of packaging plastics. A part of this huge bulk of material ‘disappears’ directly in nature. Distressing news reports of ever growing garbage patches in the Great Pacific have generated much public concern and outrage in recent years. A significant quantity of the plastics in these gyres comes from packaging.   

In Europe, recovered plastics are often directly incinerated because of their high caloric value ór downcycled into lower-grade materials. One could argue that the latter two scenarios are ‘less bad’ than the first one, but essentially, all three scenarios lead to similar effects: valuable materials are lost and human- and environmental health problems are a direct consequence.

There is another urgent need for concern; toxic substances in packaging have been found to not only damage the environment when disposed, but also to contaminate their contents, including our foods, during use. European studies have found mineral oils from recycled cardboard pizzaboxes in pizza and antimony from soda bottles in our drinks. Bisphenol A, a proven endocrine disruptor, can be traced in urine samples of practically every European as a result of its use in canned food packaging.

It is clear from these observations that the packaging industry faces some great challenges.   
The typical approach of industry to answer to these challenges has been that of reduction, or ’eco-efficiency’. Consequently, new packaging solutions have been optimized to meet ‘efficiency’ goals:
the use of energy and materials are reduced, as is the carbon emission during production. Even though this can be a good start, it is only a start at most.           

Endless opportunities

In Cradle to Cradle® we believe in human ingenuity to develop solutions for complex questions. This starts with setting the right design intentions and goals. We aim not to reduce our negative environmental footprint, but to create a positive environmental footprint.

Imagine packaging solutions that not only look good and protect their content, but that offer added beneficial functions.

Already in the 1990`s, Michael Braungart and EPEA worked with a large consumer goods company to create ice-cream packaging that melts at room temperature. The packaging contained seeds so that a plant could grow where the package was disposed.

The idea of plant seeds in biodegradable packaging is put into practice today by a.o. Laladoo, a Dutch company for baby products. Not only are all their baby products Cradle to Cradle, their packaging offers a great and playful example of what we like to call ‘eco-effectiveness’.

No longer do we focus all our energy, talent and creativity on reducing our negative environmental impact, but we set clearly defined goals for positive impact.           

Real innovation is a challenge, but one with great opportunities. EPEA works with hundreds of partners worldwide on these transitions.   
Making sure that materials live up to human and environmental health criteria is just the basis. From that solid ground, we investigate how materials may retain their value in biological or technical cycles. This involves setting up circular systems that offer business opportunities for multiple stakeholders. The goal is to drive innovation. This begins with setting the right intentions. After that, every step we take is a step in the right direction.

Bjorn de Koeijer
Project manager / packaging specialist
EPEA Nederland

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