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Packaging is inescapable: nearly every product produced and sold comes in packaging, a lot of which is used once and thrown away. How can businesses improve their approach to packaging, maximising its value and eliminating waste?
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This is part one of our series on the great packaging pileup: finding better ways to wrap up our goods. How can businesses improve their approach to packaging, maximising its value and eliminating waste?
In this episode, we look at the concrete realities of packaging, hear a cautionary tale about the humble plastic carrier bag, and look at a case study about Heinz ketchup bottles. We examine one framework - the life cycle assessment - and share some practical advice to businesses getting started on improving their packaging. Featuring insights from interviewed guests Anna Ross (Kester Black) and Monica Becker (Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute).
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Gillian Pereira: [00:00:00] This is part one of our series on the great packaging pile up and how businesses can find better ways to wrap up our goods. If you like what you hear, there's plenty more to come in future episodes.
Gill & Simon: Hey Simon. Good to be back together again today.
Good to see you, Gill.
And we're talking about packaging. And, you know, on my way in today, I got myself some breakfast and suddenly my hands are filled with so many different types of packaging. It's just an [00:00:30] inescapable problem, it seems.
Yeah. I on the other hand was perfect human today.
Well done, full marks.
I was trying to think of what packaging I used and I didn't really use any. It's probably as I haven't done much today, but that's not common, and I have lots of packaging at home from the eCommerce purchases we do, all the way through to walking through the train station to get here and, you know, cardboard on the street. So today we're talking about packaging.
Yeah. We're gonna look at the practical challenges of packaging and some ways that businesses are helping to tackle the problem. [00:01:00] We'll hear about how Heinz have changed the cap on their ubiquitous squeezy sauce bottle.
We'll also hear from Anna Ross, who's the founder of Kester Black, a cosmetics company, on what they're doing to improve their packaging.
Awesome. Yeah. I've learned the packaging is way more complicated than I thought. I thought plastic was bad, glass was good. Paper and cardboard was good, but maybe it's bad. And a lot of challenges that come out in the design process, making sure packaging protects products and helps move them around the world, but they also need to look good as [00:01:30] well. And you can't just separate these out and make the perfect packaging or low waste packaging. It's really complicated.
It really is. And one of the frameworks we'll look at today will actually help businesses to deal with all that complexity called the life cycle assessment.
Yeah. Awesome. Let's get into it.
Gillian Pereira: Packaging is inescapable, nearly every product produced and sold comes in some kind of packaging, a lot of which is used once and thrown away.
How many of these [00:02:00] packaging examples have you seen or touched in the past week?
A shipping satchel or box from an online purchase, a coffee cup, a reusable shopping bag, a tin of mints, a bottle of sanitizer, a protective sleeve around a product, a tube of lip balm, a bottled beverage, that frustrating clamshell packaging you need scissors to open, an individually wrapped teabag, a box of medication with a blister pack inside, a squeezy sauce bottle, a sticky label, a tissue box, [00:02:30] cling film, a bottle of perfume, a coffee pod.
I'm sure you could list more just by looking around you right now.
Gill & Simon: that list is exhaustive and I think a lot of stuff I don't think of as packaging is packaging. I feel it most viscerally when I have e-com packages arrive and there's a box inside a box with wrapping and packaging with a box for a tiny little cable from an electronics company. It just feels so wrong and it's all piled up there at the front door.
Gillian Pereira: [00:03:00] Packaging serves a form and function, and it isn't a case of one size fits all. For every product there's a different set of requirements. Added to that, packaging can be a branding tool for businesses right into customer's hands. But as any product business, retailer or customer knows, the amount of secondary and primary packaging waste we're generating every day is untenable.
So with all this in mind, how can businesses clarify their decision making about packaging? How can [00:03:30] businesses reduce the amount of packaging they're using, use better materials and help keep those materials in the economy for longer so they don't become waste or leak into the environment? How can businesses generally improve their packaging approach? These are important questions and they don't always come with easy answers.
Gill & Simon: And there's the issue of , where does all the recycling go? I've seen in Australia in particular where a lot of our recycling just ends up in warehouses, doesn't go anywhere. [00:04:00] Or at best might get sent to China where they pay for it. It's a really confusing space. Looking forward to hearing more.
Gill & Simon: in my research, I came across this fascinating story of the humble plastic carrier bag, and how its origins really don't line up with what we know about it today.
Gillian Pereira: In 1959, a Swedish engineer named Sten Gustaf Thulin struck upon an invention that would change the world, the humble plastic carrier bag. Using high density [00:04:30] polyethylene, or HDPE, which was invented a short time before, Thulin's plastic bag was heralded as an environmentally friendly alternative to the paper carrier bag that was in common use at the time.
It did away with the need to cut down trees to produce the bags. It was made from a lightweight material that was water resistant, economical to produce and could be used over and over again. The plastic bag quickly rose to prominence. By 1979 plastic bags accounted for [00:05:00] four in five carrier bags in Europe and began making waves across the pond in the States where major supermarket chains made the switch.
By the end of the 1980s, plastic bags were well and truly dominant globally. This meteoric rise in the production of these bags and their association as single use items is not at all what their inventor had pictured. As his son told the BBC, 'To my dad, the idea that people would simply throw these away would be [00:05:30] bizarre.'
In 1997, avid sailor Charles Moore was making his return journey across the Pacific Ocean following the Transpacific Yacht Race. Diverting off the usual course, Moore discovered what we now know as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area filled with plastic waste, estimated to cover 1.6 million square kilometers, roughly the area of Iran. A scientific review of plastic pollution in the world's oceans found that the plastic [00:06:00] bags and other filmlike items were the most commonly ingested type of plastic and a major cause of death for marine life.
The impacts of single use plastic bags extends beyond the problem of ocean plastics. But this example alone shows that this story is a cautionary one. Once seen as an environmentally promising alternative to paper and intended for repeated use the present environmental harm of these items is difficult to quantify.
While the plastic [00:06:30] bag was Thulin's invention, what happened next was largely out of his hands and down to the decision making of major businesses across the globe.
Gill & Simon: I will say it seems these days there's been such a push against single use plastic bags that we've all gone to single use paper bags. And I wonder what the environmental impacts will be of that over the next few years.
Yeah. Even just the switching to a reusable bag. I often wonder with those bags what's gonna happen [00:07:00] with them when they're finished, they look like they're gonna take longer to break down.
Just so surprising that the invention was sustainability in mind. They wanted to make up a sustainable thing and it became one of the symbols of the problems of packaging today, packaging. In the past few years, the world who's woken up to the fact our reliance on single use packaging is wreaking all kinds of havoc on the environment.
Gillian Pereira: Customers are becoming increasingly concerned with the impacts of packaging and businesses alike are under [00:07:30] increasing scrutiny to opt for eco-friendly alternatives.
Monica Becker: Increasingly, packaging has come into sharp focus I think because we are recognising the impact of the packaging, in addition to the product itself. Plastics in the ocean and packaging building up in landfills and resource use and many other aspects that we are concerned about with packaging.
Gill & Simon: That was Monica Becker. She [00:08:00] works for the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
Gillian Pereira: As your business may already know customer perceptions of what eco-friendly means, don't always line up with the reality of a particular type of packaging. The solutions and alternatives are not always straightforward.
Not only do we see a proliferation of different types of packaging to fit the form and function of various products, but businesses and customers alike must navigate a way through the complexities of packaging materials [00:08:30] and their claims, which create more questions than answers: is biodegradable packaging more sustainable? Is recycled packaging up to the task? What does compostable really mean? Are closed loop systems really financially viable for our business?
Anna Ross: I think it's important to communicate the problem to the customer. Plastic free or biodegradable is a great buzzword, but most people don't know that biodegradable doesn't mean compostable. There's a difference there.
Gill & Simon: [00:09:00] That's Anna Ross. She's the Founder and Managing Director of Kester Black. They're an ethical beauty brand that produces nail polish, nail care and all kinds of different products.
Awesome brand, awesome human.
I can relate to that. I personally feel 'em. I dunno what to do. I'm trying to do the right thing, but as a consumer, I'm not sure what to do with these items.
Gillian Pereira: And context matters as well. Recyclable doesn't mean much without access to functional recycling infrastructure. The most environmentally sound packaging choice in one location may not work in another.
Anna Ross: For [00:09:30] example, in New Zealand, we only recycle PET, which is like those plastic milk bottles and HDPE plastics. So we can make post-consumer recycled plastics in New Zealand with those two materials. But they're the only ones. So essentially in New Zealand, only two types of material for plastic are recyclable.
Gillian Pereira: Before we take a closer look at what businesses can do about the great packaging pileup, let's remind ourselves of the concrete realities of packaging. [00:10:00] There's no doubt about it. We demand a lot from the stuff.
It needs to contain the product contents. protect the products being transported and stored from any damage. Extend the shelf life of products, particularly for food and cosmetics. It needs to be safe and easy to use. Cost effective, obviously, which includes the cost of production, transportation, storage. It needs to be made of readily available materials and to align with the product's brand [00:10:30] identity and marketing. It needs to encourage repeat purchases. And of course take into account the environmental impacts of the packaging.
That's a lot it needs to do. So for any business aiming to improve its existing products' packaging, or is introducing a new product to market the early design phase of a product or packaging punches above its weight in terms of its potential environmental impact.
As one study explains, "Although only 5 to 7% of the [00:11:00] entire product cost is attributable to early design, the decisions made during this stage lock in 70 to 80% of the total product cost. One can hypothesize the same to be the case for environmental impacts."
That is, whether or not a product is relatively sustainable is largely determined during the early design stage.
Gill & Simon: it's so interesting. How much time do you spend designing and refining packaging to make a more sustainable product?
For what I understand as well with packaging design is it is highly dependent on the [00:11:30] manufacturer and the materials. And so there's an interplay there between the brand who's designing the packaging, and then who their manufacturers are, what the available materials, timelines, costs. So design is one thing, but execution is also really important.
Yeah, a great example of that is Heinz.
Gillian Pereira: Heinz is famous for their tomato ketchup, with the iconic squeezy bottle synonymous with the category. While the bottle itself has long been made from recyclable PET plastic, the bottle cap has been a mix of two components, [00:12:00] the plastic twist top, and also a silicone leakproof valve.
This mixed componentry has prevented the recyclability of the bottle cap for the 1 billion units sold globally each year.
Gill & Simon: That is a crazy number of units.
Who knew there was that much ketchup being eaten every day?
Gillian Pereira: As part of its public commitment to make all of its packaging recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025, Heinz needed to find a way to make the ketchup up bottle [00:12:30] lid recyclable.
Heinz went through an extensive range of options to develop the optimal design. They created 45 different designs in total on the mission to create this new cap, which were then printed in house on a 3D printer. After all the prototypes were created, Heinz followed a rigorous testing procedure to make sure that the cap met the highest quality standards.
Gill & Simon: And that took 185,000 hours and over 1.2 million US dollars.[00:13:00]
That cost is huge, and in that time other businesses would've invented new products or stopped producing that product, let alone redesigning its packaging. So many companies don't have that much at their disposal in terms of money and time. So you can see how this is really challenging.
Gillian Pereira: The time and money spent by Heinz in developing a recyclable bottle cap is impressive. And given the volume of their annual product sales, this seemingly minor change may go on to create a major positive impact at scale.
Gill & Simon: It's pretty exciting to me, [00:13:30] just that the fact that a company like Heinz and their parent company is committed to such a big goal, whether they deliver or not, whether that's actually good for the planet or not, I'm interested to learn. But that's still pretty positive step forward I feel.
Gillian Pereira: But this kind of investment in research and development for a single component is out of reach for most businesses. For companies that can afford to do so, the potential for industrywide acceleration towards less environmentally harmful packaging could be profound if they chose to make [00:14:00] their particular innovations publicly available.
Anna Ross: I think that when you come up with something that's innovative in packaging design, it needs to be open sourced.
Gillian Pereira: While that may seem counterintuitive to simply give away an element of a brand's competitive advantage. It sends a clear signal that the company's motivations behind their sustainability commitments are truly for the good of the planet, and it also positions that business as a leading innovator in their field.[00:14:30]
Gill & Simon: My background is in software and technology and I know that opensourcing technology has actually led to more revenue for companies. It's really counterintuitive. It can actually be seen as they become experts on it. They consult on it. They advise on it. It doesn't mean you're just giving away money. But I know that's not the case for, or the perception of many organizations they're trying to patent stuff, lock things down and control them.
If anyone listening knows of open source platforms for packaging innovations, please let us know. We'd love to hear about it.
Yeah. Or just any examples of brands that have done it. [00:15:00]
Gillian Pereira: While some packaging redesigns may require years of testing and millions of dollars as in the case of Heinz, many do not. A business team can make the time to review existing packaging, analyze the reasons for selecting its particular materials and design, and then critically examine the reasons why a packaging choice may have been made in the past and also to research whether better alternatives now exist.
Anna Ross: We've gone back to our roots, I guess, and [00:15:30] revisited our sustainability plan. And then that's prompted me to go back and go, 'and so why are we doing all of this stuff?'
And some of the reasons why we're doing it is because there's no other option at the moment. And some of it's because I hadn't thought about it. And as a small business there's only a limited amount of time. So it, it does take time to think through all of this stuff, but it's given me a really good grounding process to make sure that we meet all our criteria before we even launch a product this time, instead of trying to [00:16:00] retrofit it.
Gill & Simon: I know Anna, and she is a very thoughtful and considered business leader. So taking the time to diligently consider the packaging design, how it looks for customers, how it is for the planet. And so I know if it's challenging for someone like Anna to solve, many other businesses won't have that same attention to detail and commitment. I'm really excited to see what Kester Black and Anna do, but hopefully more businesses step up like Anna is.
Anna Ross: We've made a lot of great decisions in the past, with the kinds of [00:16:30] rules that we created around shipping boxes and printed material. So anything that comes in cardboard and all those sorts of things. We've eliminated all of our soft plastics, even if they're a hundred percent carbon neutral recycled bio plastics, we've still removed them because they are not recyclable at the end of life.
Our rules are a hundred percent recycled card or FSC certified.
Gill & Simon: So FSC stands for the Forest Stewardship Council. [00:17:00] They provide a global certification that the paper products that are used are from sustainably managed forests.
Anna Ross: So there are problems with a hundred percent recycled when you're making boxes, for example.
Virgin material has longer strands, and so therefore it creates nicer stock. And when that stock is folded, the folds on the corner of the boxes stay together. But what happens when you've got recycled board and you [00:17:30] fold it, it just splits in half down the seam. So there is limitations in paper stock for making boxes that have rigidity and enough rigidity for shipping products.
We go for a hundred percent recycled if we can. But because of the splitting edges problem, you then have to usually coat it and the coatings are usually plastic.
So we actually go for FSC certified board grade material because at least that is from our [00:18:00] renewable resource, because we can't quite get there with the recycled packaging.
The things that are really difficult is the nail polish and because of the nail polish is our best selling product, that is the one that we have the most challenges with. So, the cap is PP, which is not home recyclable. And then the bristles are made of nylon. And so those kinds of cosmetic packagings are really difficult because they're just not really a solution. So yes, we can make them out of [00:18:30] post-consumer recycled plastics if we have 300,000 MOQs, but then they're still not recyclable at the end of life.
Gill & Simon: For smaller businesses, how can they make a change when they're working with major manufacturers that need huge minimum order quantities in order to make any changes to the way they tool packaging lines or the materials that they use.
It really takes either a ground swell of smaller businesses wanting to adopt more sustainable [00:19:00] packaging options or larger businesses driving this change.
I think that's a theme that's come across a lot of the different people we've spoken to across a range of topics.
There's a supply chain involved in most of this stuff. And whether it's where you buy your chicken feed or electricity, you can't just tell 'em what you want and that won't just magically deliver it the way you want. Because they have other customers, they have other needs and other priorities.
So that in itself, just finding people that can deliver what you want is hard or sometimes impossible. Unless you are maybe Heinz and you do have such a [00:19:30] sway, suppliers have much bigger customers and then they probably have bigger customers again.
A lot of this sounds quite daunting, depressing, and maybe can't be solved. But it does make me more inspired and grateful for those businesses like Kester Black that have invested in trying to improve their packaging.
It may not make commercial sense right now. It may be a long play. But just acknowledge if that packaging has improved a bit, that took a lot of work.
Gillian Pereira: Our opening cautionary tale about the plastic bag started off well. Here was an [00:20:00] invention that reduced the need for trees to be cut down. It was economical to produce. It was durable and lightweight.
The story reminds us that The best intended packaging plans can fall over if they don't take into account the wider system that they're part of. A change in materials may be a good forward step, but understanding how a packaging change fits within the bigger picture is key.
It can be harder to see ahead like that and to mitigate the negative effects of [00:20:30] a new product packaging option. But some frameworks that will explore over this series can really help with that.
One of these is the life cycle assessment.
On the question of environmental impacts, businesses can actually find out which designs and packaging materials they're considering are the most environmentally sound for that particular product through a life cycle assessment.
A lifecycle assessment or an LCA evaluates the impacts of a product from the extraction of raw [00:21:00] materials all the way through to post-consumer use. And it indicates a product's total footprint. A recent review of sustainability in eCommerce packaging recommended that package design should also be subjected to lifecycle assessment in order to ensure that the ensuing solutions are more environmentally friendly than the original ones.
Gill & Simon: Going to that point that you mentioned earlier around not knowing whether compostable is better than biodegradable or which [00:21:30] materials are best for a particular products packaging. The LCA is a way to find the answer through all that complexity. Yeah.
Gillian Pereira: So what are the benefits of a life cycle assessment? One: seeing the whole story.
An LCA prevents the common trap of only thinking about one part of a product's life. For instance, disposal as is often the case.
Two: comparison. An LCA accounts for the resources and emissions invested in a product, and [00:22:00] tables these in a product life cycle inventory, which means a business can clearly compare products against one another in order to assess their impacts.
And three: the results can be counterintuitive. And that's a good thing. When all the factors are taken into account, sometimes the results of an LCA contradict what our perceptions were telling us about, which would be more environmentally sound.
And in that way, it can help us to act on more than just our good intentions. It can [00:22:30] validate our thinking.
So how do you go about a life cycle assessment? Commonly businesses will contract consultants to carry out the assessment for them. Lifecycle assessments can be highly technical and potentially expensive endeavors. As Packaging Strategies explains:
"traditionally performing one single lifecycle assessment could take months of work due to the large amount of data that needs to be collected from the value chain."
there are no [00:23:00] silver bullets, but the LCA does provide an internationally accepted method for substantiating claims and decisions about a product and its packaging from an environmental standpoint.
Gill & Simon: Even with these frameworks and tools, it requires commitment from a business to want to do this invest time, over duration of time, and number of hours, really resource this.
As we heard in both the cases of Heinz and Kester Black, whatever size or resources your business has at its disposal, there has to be an underlying commitment to [00:23:30] actually want to improve your packaging, to see these things through.
Gillian Pereira: As this is a potentially costy exercise, there are other tools to help businesses to improve their packaging.
Monica Becker: My advice would be to seek some inspiration from other companies and products and packaging that are out there, that were really thoughtfully designed, with sustainability or circularity in mind.
A [00:24:00] report that I wanted to recommend, which could be a nice starting point, it's by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, called Upstream Innovation: a guide to packaging solutions.
This document really has some great strategies and examples of sustainable packaging solutions for a huge range of products to inspire people to think about what might be possible and what other companies have done.
You can really wrap your head around the [00:24:30] vast array of possibilities for beautiful and functional sustainable packaging designs. Starting with a question around whether there's any unnecessary packaging or material, to see what can be done to reduce the amount of packaging for an existing product. They have a framework for mapping out a strategy for packaging.
After looking at some inspiring [00:25:00] examples of sustainable packaging, I would suggest asking peers for names of packaging suppliers that are developing more sustainable packaging solutions.
And then also go to a packaging trade show. I think that's a great place to go to see what's out there and to talk to the suppliers.
Gill & Simon: I think that's great practical advice from Monica on what business people can do starting today. Get out there, meet different suppliers, talk to others that are working [00:25:30] in this space to understand what are the innovations happening, who's really at the cutting edge of improving packaging. We'll also be hearing more from Monica in a future episode about the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, where she works and the framework that they have to help businesses too.
This idea of going to trade shows to me is a bit funny, cause I'm from a technology and marketing background. But for people who make physical products, it's such a tangible place where you can go and touch and feel stuff. Meet manufacturers, designers, other leaders. There's so much good stuff to learn.
Something we've heard through a range of these things is [00:26:00] one or two little innovations can actually have a cascading effect across an industry or lead to a whole range of new changes.
While these massive hurdles and milestones seem almost impossible to achieve, we do end up getting there and then you quickly get mass adoption. And then the next level of innovation happens and we see significant improvements. So I do have hope. How do you feel at this point in the research? Are we feeling like there's a path forward?
Yeah. This really seems like the stickiest problem we've tackled so far in terms of how complex it is. The variety of packaging [00:26:30] supplies and how every product needs a different set of requirements. It feels quite overwhelming. But I think there are signs of change in terms of big businesses investing in these innovation. Smaller businesses really feeling the push from customers to make changes.
So I am hopeful as well that we will see packaging continue to improve. I think if people do use tools like the LCA and other frameworks that we're looking at, it can actually help give more of a bird's eye view to what's happening rather than [00:27:00] making snap decisions as to, you know, 'let's go completely plastic free', well maybe that's not the best option right now.
Yep. Yeah, totally. I think the main outtake for anyone who's considering the stuff is just be quite thoughtful. Don't just do what seems trendy. Don't make the next plastic bag. Yes. Because, you know, switching to cardboard sounds great, may not be.
If you have learned anything you've found interesting, had some different experiences that have challenged what we've said today, or if you've seen great work happening or [00:27:30] seen an open source packaging design, please send it through. We'd love to hear the good and the bad.
Yeah. And we'll be collecting more and more knowledge as we go on this topic. So we really want to hear from you.
Gillian Pereira: This has been part one of our series on the great packaging pile up and how businesses can help find better ways to wrap up our goods. In our next episodes, we'll be exploring more case studies and frameworks to help your business make better packaging decisions. If you want to dig further head to our website, [00:28:00] thebusinesspickle.com. There you'll see a deep dive into our research on this topic.
Thanks for listening to The Business Pickle.
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