Though over-packaging is often seen as the epitome of excess, it's really only the tip of the iceberg of a resource-hungry process. According to Laurel Miller and Stephen Aldridge, authors of Why Shrink-wrap A Cucumber? The Complete Guide to Environmental Packaging (Laurence King, 2012): "As is befitting in a convenience society, [packaging] is a convenient, high-visibility target that deflects attention from less palatable forms of environmental action, such as reducing our dependence on high-carbon fossil fuels and heavy industry." In their remarkably thorough new book, Miller and Aldridge debunk the common myths of sustainable production, introduce new materials, and help designers navigate the often treacherous waters that lie between manufacturers and the client, providing plenty of case studies for inspiration.
Miller and Aldridge begin by discussing how poor packaging choices are linked with global climate change by breaking down every step of a product's life cycle, from its production to its recycling or disposal. There's even a refresher that's helpful for anyone interested in sustainable design, from the lords of the LCA (life cycle assessment) to the everyday concerned citizen. Miller and Aldridge have included Futerra's invaluable "10 Signs of Greenwash" and they take the time to define terms that are as common as they are misunderstood: green, sustainability, and environmentally friendly.
And for designers struggling to "negotiate the environmental maze [while] balancing profitability and creativity with sensitivity to the environment," there are few first steps you can take to address your client's concerns about brand identity while delivering a design with low environmental impact. The case studies are grouped by packaging categories like shape and weight. The iconic Orangina bottle, for example, evolved from a nondescript glass jar to its current shape as a result of a design that took both branding and cost effective packaging into consideration. The Heinz ketchup bottle, too, has changed from a glass bottle to a plastic squeeze bottle for similar reasons. Weight has also played a huge role in packaging design, especially in metal drink cans, which have become 77% lighter since the 1960s, from 60g down to just 14g.
The push to use recycled materials is a no-brainer, but it's a little surprising that one of the best examples of recycled packaging materials comes from McDonalds, who replaced their styrofoam cartons with 72% recycled cardboard cartons after the heat they received for refusing to change in the first place. Other good examples from big name companies include Coca Cola and their lightweight Ultra glass bottle, and—wait for it—Walmart. The book closes with a glossary of materials, from PET to LDPE, as well as glass, metals, pulp, bioplastics, wood and packaging formats, each with a complete materials profile and LCA to make sure you never get greenwashed again.
And what about that cucumber? Environmentalists thought they had found an easy target in what appeared to be an extravagantly unnecessary and wasteful packaging choice, but it turns out that a shrink-wrapped cucumber lasts three times longer than an unprotected cucumber, and will stay fresh from harvest to delivery until the plastic is cut, reducing food waste in landfills and ultimately saving more on shipping and packaging costs than the other attempts to design what seemed like, at least from the outside, more sustainable packaging solutions.