Thinking Outside the Box on Packaging Design

Thinking Outside the Box on Packaging Design

[Editor's Note: is pleased to present the second in a series of excerpts from Dave Douglas's new book, "Citizen Engineer: A Handbook for Socially Responsible Engineering." Read part one: "The Big Picture on Eco-Engineering Our Environmental Impact," and part two: "Beyond the Black Cloud: Looking at Lifecycles."]

Take a look at any consumer product on a store shelf and you'll see why packaging is a growing concern for environmentalists. A simple electric razor, for example, is sold encased in a clear, rigid, molded plastic container (usually unopenable and virtually indestructible!) that houses a variety of separately packaged components: a cardboard box containing the razor blades, a power cord in a shrink-wrapped plastic tube; plastic-wrapped batteries; and another shrink-wrapped packet with various instructions and warranty cards.

Or consider a poorly packaged personal computer, which ships in a box of boxes -- with a separate package for each component (even the power cord) -- layered with molded polystyrene and cushioned by Styrofoam or hundreds of Styrofoam peanuts. And depending on who buys the product, these packaging materials may be headed straight for the landfill right after the goods are unpacked.

Two points here: First, packaging is often almost pure waste. As engineers, we need to stop asking ourselves how to make packaging more efficient and start asking how to get away with less of it. The good side of this is that, just as we have seen in other areas, there is the potential for some significant savings if we can figure out how to package products more effectively and efficiently.

Second, the "product" and the "packaging" have their own separate lifecycles and supply chains, and engineers who are designing for optimal environmental effectiveness need to consider both of them. Why? Regulations covering design and take-back of packaging materials are mushrooming throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, and compliance with these environmental packaging laws requires creative engineering.

Policies related to packaging began to spread rapidly after the E.U. Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste was published in 1994. This measure spawned similar policies in Eastern Europe and eventually Asia, and today environmental packaging requirements apply to products sold in most global markets, including:

• The Americas (United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico);
• Europe (EU member states, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine);
• The Asia/Pacific region (Australia, China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Bangladesh);
• Africa/the Middle East (Tunisia, South Africa, Israel)

The specific regulations for any given product tend to be in a perpetual state of flux. The challenge for engineers is to develop a packaging solution that will be marketable in as many regions as possible, while keeping the cost and complexity of compliance at a minimum. This requires a thorough understanding of the requirements in each jurisdiction.

For example, in the E.U. all packaging is subject to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies, meaning all components and complete packaging systems must be source-reduced, must comply with heavy-metals limits and minimization requirements for other noxious and hazardous substances, and must be recyclable, be compostable, and/or yield a certain energy gain when incinerated.

The Packaging and Waste Directive in Europe also mandates that companies selling products in Europe recover their product's packaging before it enters the waste stream. Many companies satisfy the requirements of the Directive by joining a "GreenDot" program (in Europe a total of 32 countries have national packaging compliance organizations that manage their country's packaging recovery programs).
Restrictions, bans, and phase-out limits also apply to certain materials, particularly expanded polystyrene (EPS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in some jurisdictions and for certain product and packaging types. Several countries limit the percentage of empty space that may be contained within packaged consumer goods.

Certain U.S. states require the use of recycled content materials in plastic packaging containers. In 2004, California's regulation was changed to require all rigid plastic packaging containers to comply regardless of the statewide recycling rate. And companies operating or trading in some markets must file periodic statements outlining packaging reduction efforts, goals, and progress toward existing goals.

In addition, there has been a recent surge in take-back policies, or regulations that require manufacturers to devise or fund a packaging recovery and recycling scheme. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and RoHS directives are the best-known sources of take-back regulations. In many countries, fees are now imposed on packaged goods based primarily on the amount of packaging (by weight) and the type of packaging materials used.

In general, the more packaging a product bears and the more difficult the packaging material is to recycle or manage in a given country, the higher the fees. Companies are required to calculate the quantities of each packaging material used and to file periodic reports -- which, of course, requires detailed packaging data. More detailed information is available online about WEEE regulations and the RoHS Directive on take-back regulations.

Clearly, engineers need to consider the full range of environmental issues related to packaging -- across the full lifecycle of the product, across the entire supply chain -- and be more creative in designing eco-effective packaging. But we must do so in a way that is economically practical, not just ecologically sensitive. We must find new ways to extract waste from the equation at the same time we devise better alternatives in terms of materials and production processes.

It is a common misconception that packaging design is typically an afterthought or a mundane chore for an engineer. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, the package design for many products can be far more ingenious than the product itself.

Consider the challenge of creating the packaging for Pop'n'Fresh dough. The mathematics involved in creating an airtight tube that will pop open easily when tapped against a hard surface -- but not so easily that it will open prematurely in a refrigerator -- would stagger many a rocket scientist. Even designing a cardboard box for shipping a refrigerator involves extremely complex calculations of "axial compression strength," formsboard options, paper grades, and post thicknesses to keep the refrigerator free from dents and scratches during shipment.

The point is that since packaging is already a sophisticated science, the time has come to apply a greater proportion of engineering ingenuity to ecoeffective packaging. If we can optimize the axial compression strength of a refrigerator carton, surely we can reimagine the design, materials, and production processes to optimize for eco-effectiveness -- throughout the product lifecycle, across the supply chain.