Of all the arguments you can start just for kicks, anything that includes the words “recycling,” “environment” or “greenhouse gas” is sure to be a doozy. As designers, this is a subject we run into a lot, either as a request for eco-friendly designs from clients or within industry discussions over price and sustainability as it impacts the design field. When it comes to beverage packaging design, what’s the earth-friendly answer? What’s that you say in your self-assured smugness? You know the answer? Let’s test that theory.
Paper or Plastic?
People love to use those thin, lightweight plastic grocery bags as the perfect example of why plastic is the worst thing ever invented. EVER. You see them stuck in tree branches, clogging sewer drains and playing the lead role in homemade videos filmed by “misunderstood” teenagers. There’s also the complaint about the pollution aspect of plastic bag production to think about. After all, plastics are petroleum-based, so the process of making them is another contributor to air and water pollution.
For everyone who’s second-guessing their plastic bags right now, know that it’s not too late to tell the grocery clerk you want paper instead. Yet, is paper really a more environmentally friendly choice? Paper comes from cutting down trees, and deforestation is another one of those buzzwords environmentalists like to shake their fists at. Plus, paper bags are heavier than plastic bags, so it’s likely that their shipping and distribution requires more (or bigger) trucks, which in turn means more emissions and fists getting pumped into the atmosphere. And plastic bags are so handy for things like picking up dog poop or lining your bathroom garbage can—thus preventing the need to purchase actual plastic garbage bags.
Many of these same arguments apply to product packaging design. Both paper and plastic are recyclable. However, one of the arguments about packaging plastic in particular is that it’s rarely recycled into something else usable. Water bottles and plastic bags are turned into things like carpet fiber, which ends up in a landfill anyway because it can’t be recycled in that incarnation. Paper typically ends up recycled into other paper products like cardboard, which can then be recycled again, or that could be composted.
Then there’s the question of biodegradability. Plastic sticks around pretty much forever, while paper is biodegradable. Yet, both substances end up in landfills more often than not, which are designed to be as anaerobic as possible, so it really doesn’t matter if one is more decomposable than the other; neither one really gets the chance to die a natural death.
How’s that theory holding up, partner?
What about other materials for containers, like glass? Reusable glass water bottles are one of the new trends on the shelves of many an eco-conscious grocery store or merchant. Unlike plastic or paper, glass is infinitely recyclable: It can take on new forms over and over again, pretty much forever. However (and also unlike plastic or paper), glass is super impractical as a packaging material. First of all, it’s absurdly heavy, which brings up the more-delivery-trucks argument from a minute ago. Secondly, it’s really breakable, so for those of us who are particularly clumsy, or even those of us who go hiking anywhere other than on top of a giant marshmallow, glass doesn’t seem like the safest choice.
One wine manufacturer has rethought wine bottles completely in response to these arguments. The Truett-Hurst winery from California introduced fully recyclable wine bottles with a molded-pulp paper-based outer shell and lined with a recyclable inner plastic film. Called the PaperBoy bottle, it comes with instructions for disassembling the container after use to recycle both portions. Its lighter weight means fewer trucks can carry larger loads, and it’s obviously way more conducive to tossing into a backpack for an impromptu picnic.
Yet, despite the innovation of the PaperBoy, its product base of paper and plastic land us right back where we started.
The Future of Packaging
The truth is, the most innovative environmentally-conscious packaging ploys aren’t looking just at new materials; they’re looking at ways to use less packaging overall. Or, alternatively, they’re making packaging that’s actually designed to be sturdier and longer-lasting so that it can be repurposed for other uses, and kept out of landfills for longer. Even major grocery store chains that aren’t focused on organic absolutely everything now offer cloth bags these days for just a dollar or two–bags that can be used for years and years of grocery trips.
As more states, counties and cities place taxes on plastic grocery bags, as fewer stores carry paper alternatives, and as retail giants like Amazon continue to offer a “hassle-free” eco-friendly packaging that’s as minimal as possible, the real trend is one you may not realize exists: designing packaging to be not just minimal, but moving toward absent. Now that will be a real design challenge.