Sustainability in Packaging Design

Companies across the value chain are looking to sustainability to differentiate from their competitors and win new business. Companies face growing consumer and regulatory pressure to find sustainable packaging options that ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’

In Singapore, the “Circuit Breaker” has made a lot of people look at the amounts of waste generated when they cook at home for every meal.

In my experience, I already grow my own vegetables, bring my own shopping bag when I go to the supermarket. But why do I still end up with so many containers to recycle every week?

Looking at my trash and recyclables, I find the following recyclable after a week.

2 Jars – Pasta Sauce

2 Cartons – heavy Cream

3 Cartons – fruit juice

1 Can – Coconut cream

4 Boxes – frozen food

2 Cartons – Milk

For my trashbag, I find a lot of plastic wrappers and styrofoam meat trays which were mainly food containers.

I also fill up a large container of compostable trash.

This is just cooking 2 meals a day for a family of 2, and the amount of trash generated is huge, and to extrapolate this for 5.7 million people, the amount would be mind blowing.

I often question why are not all the packaging materials used to package food sustainable, and after staring my work at Visibility Design, my engagement with clients quickly realize that they do have a lot of other considerations when it comes to packaging materials.

The big challenge faced is that plastic is great for single use packaging. It is cheap and can be hygienic. So alternatives cost more and may even not do the job as well. Plastics can last a long time, but they hinder sustainability.

So let us understand the different terms used when we discuss these issues.

Recyclable VS. BIODEGRADABLE vs. COMPOSTABLE

Singaporeans threw out about 7.7 million tonnes of waste in 2018, enough to fill about 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. On a daily basis, that works out to about 21,083 tonnes, which is the weight of more than 1,400 double-decker buses. In the last year, Semakau received about 2,088 tonnes of incineration ash and non-incinerable waste daily.

For a city-state like Singapore, waste is a big problem to be solved.

Singaporeans still have problems understanding various terms as many of the new terms can be confusing.

When you have a meal on the plane, your sauce box and your plastic fork say, “Biodegradable.” Your food comes in a “Compostable” box and your water comes in a recyclable container.

The airline talks about sustainability and their commitment to reduce waste, but what does all of it mean?

1) Recyclable

What happens when you put your recyclables in the blue bin?

Long story short, there may be contamination as some people still do not bother cleaning their containers, and most of the waste ends up getting incinerated.

What gets to be recycled depends on the value of the item (cost of tin, cost of plastic pellets, cost of glass, etc) The lower the value, the lower the tolerance for contamination.

With the low cost of oil, it is highly suspect that any plastic gets made into pellets to be reused.

For the cans, the old aunties that rummage through our trash to find our empty drink cans actually account for the high percentage of these cans getting recycled.

Glass and Aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. The average piece of virgin printer paper can now be recycled five to seven times before the fibers get too degraded to be useful as new paper. After that, they can still be made into lower-grade paper-based materials like egg cartons or packaging inserts.

It takes energy to recycle materials, but that energy required is usually only 5 – 50% of the total energy used compared to virgin materials.

2) Biodegradable

Biodegradable means that a product can break down without oxygen and turn into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time. However, everything you put in the soil will eventually break down. It may just take 1000 years.

Because the definition of biodegradable does not have a time limit placed on it, consumers can get easily confused, and companies can hide behind a vague transparency.

3) Compostable

Compostable, on the other hand, means that a product can break down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass in small pieces in about 90 days.

This rate is similar to items you might see in a backyard compost, such as leaves and paper. Compost has many beneficial uses including fertilizing and improving soil health, and it doesn’t leave toxic residue behind.

However, a design is not just about materials, the materials may still require adhesives or other finishing which will affect its ability to be recycled or composted.

Sustainable packaging design is not just using sustainable packaging materials. And a truly sustainable design looks into the whole logistic supply chain to ensure that no waste is created during the whole process as well.

In these challenging time, it is importable that we consider sustainable designs in our product as I would see technology and change accelerating from the result of the pandemic. Global trade will change permanently and I believe that there will also be accelerated focus on sustainability.

Why not take this opportunity to redesign and relook at your product packaging and consider sustainable design and sustainable practices. It would be easier to ease into it now, rather than wait until legislation occurs and it becomes mandatory.