The problem of packaging

Few applications of materials attract as much criticism as their use in pack­aging. Packaging ends its functional life as soon as the package is opened. It is ephemeral, it is trite, it generates mountains of waste, and most of the time it is unnecessary. Or is it? Think for a moment about the most highly developed form that packaging takes: the way we package our­selves. Clothes provide protection from heat and cold, from sun and rain. Clothes convey information about gender and ethnic and religious back­ground. Uniforms identify membership and status, most obviously in the military and the church, but also in other hierarchical organizations: air­lines, hotels, department stores, even utility companies. And at a personal level, clothes do much more: they are an essential part of the way we pres­ent ourselves. Though some people make the same clothes last for years, others wear them only once or twice before—for them—they become "waste" and are given to a charity or consignment shop.

Fine, you might say—we need packaging of that sort, but products are inanimate. What’s the point of packaging for them? The brief answer: products are packaged for precisely the same reasons that we need clothes— protection, information, affiliation, status, and presentation.

So let us start with some facts. Packaging makes up about 18% of household waste but only 3% of landfill. Its carbon footprint is 0.2% of the global total. Roughly 60% of packaging in Europe, rather less in the United States, is recovered and used for energy recovery or recycling. Packaging makes possible the lifestyle we now enjoy. Without it, super­markets would not exist. By protecting foodstuffs and controlling the atmosphere that surrounds them, packaging extends product life, allows access to fresh products all year round, and reduces food waste in the sup­ply chain to about 3%; without packaging the waste is far higher. Tamper­proof packaging protects the consumer. Pack information identifies the product and its sell-by date (if it has one) and gives instructions for use. Brands are defined by their packaging—the Coca-Cola bottle, the Campbell’s soup can, Kellogg products—essential for product presentation and recognition.

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The packaging industry[14] is well aware of the negative image that pack­aging, because of its visibility, holds, and it strives to minimize its weight and volume. There are, of course, exceptions, but there has been progress in optimizing it—providing all its functionalities with the minimum use of materials. The most used of these—paper, cardboard, glass, aluminium, and steel—have established recycling markets (see Section 4.5). Much pack­aging ends up in household waste, the most difficult to sort. The answer is better waste-stream management, in which the sorting is done by the con­sumer via marked containers. The protective function of much packaging requires material multilayers that cannot be recycled but that, if sorted, are still a source of energy.

Legislating packaging out of existence would require major adjustment of lifestyle, greatly increase the waste stream, and deprive consumers of convenience, product protection and hygienic handling. The challenge is that of returning as much of it as possible into the materials economy.

The Role of industrial design. What have you discarded lately that still worked or, if it didn’t, could have been fixed? Changing trends, urged on by seductive advertising, reinforce the desire for the new and urge the replace­ment of still-useful objects. Industrial design carries a heavy responsibil­ity here; it has, at certain periods, been directed toward creative obsolesce: designing products that are desirable only if new and urging the consumer to buy the latest models, using marketing techniques that imply that acquiring them is a social and psychological necessity.

But that is only half the picture. A well-designed product can acquire a value with age, and—far from becoming unwanted—can outlive its design life many times over. The auction houses and antique dealers of New York, London, and Paris thrive on the sale of products that, often, were designed for practical purposes but are now valued more highly for their aesthetics, associations, and perceived qualities. People do not throw away products for which they feel emotional attachment. So there you have it: industrial design both as villain and as hero. Where can it provide a lead?

When your house no longer suits you, you have two choices: you can buy a new house or you can adapt the one you have, and in adapting it you make it more personally yours. Houses allow this behavior. Most other products do not; and an old product (unlike an old house) is often perceived to be incapable of change and to have such low value that it is simply discarded.

That highlights a design challenge: to create products that can be adapted and personalized so that they acquire, like a house, a character of their own and transmit the message, "Keep me, I’m part of your life." This suggests a union of technical and industrial design to create produces that can accom­modate evolving technology but at the same time are made with a qual­ity of material, design, and adaptability that creates lasting and individual character, something to pass on to your children.[15]