In my honor of #PlasticFreeJuly, I made a number of changes in my home: I bought beeswax cloths and hid the plastic wrap, invested in a set of mesh produce bags that I keep with my reusable totes for grocery runs, and ordered some bamboo toilet paper packaged in tissue paper instead of plastic. Before I took the leap to get some of these products, I first did a trash self-audit – an exercise where I made it a point to be more mindful of what I’m throwing away. In my home of two adults and one toddler, we generally produce twice the amount of recycling as we do trash (we also compost in our own backyard, so I’m not counting food scraps as waste). Of course, this trash-to-recycling imbalance in my home is not unusual, and it is mostly the direct result of the issues with packaging. On average, a third of America’s trash is packaging, and 40% of that is plastic according to “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage”. But as Tanya Streeter asked in her TED Talk, “How can a disposable product be made of a material that is indestructible?”

In my honor of #PlasticFreeJuly, I made a number of changes in my home: I bought beeswax cloths and hid the plastic wrap, invested in a set of mesh produce bags that I keep with my reusable totes for grocery runs, and ordered some bamboo toilet paper packaged in tissue paper instead of plastic. Before I took the leap to get some of these products, I first did a trash self-audit – an exercise where I made it a point to be more mindful of what I’m throwing away. In my home of two adults and one toddler, we generally produce twice the amount of recycling as we do trash (we also compost in our own backyard, so I’m not counting food scraps as waste). Of course, this trash-to-recycling imbalance in my home is not unusual, and it is mostly the direct result of the issues with packaging. On average, a third of America’s trash is packaging, and 40% of that is plastic according to “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage”. But as Tanya Streeter asked in her TED Talk, “How can a disposable product be made of a material that is indestructible?”

The answer here is not a simple one – it’s not as easy as making everything from cardboard and cornstarch, or just avoiding the use of plastics altogether. The answer is for companies and designers to think critically about the design of a product, taking into account how and where the customer will use it, what materials it’s made of and packaged in, and what the end-of-life plan is for that product and its packaging. (Basically think about the design from a Designed for Life perspective 😉)

Bales of plastic form consumer product packaging meeting their end of life

Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Food packaging is a unique challenge because it’s also such a large contributor to littering. The packaging that comes around my toilet paper – whether it’s the plastic from Charmin or the tissue paper and cardboard from Reel – it’s most likely to be properly disposed of in a recycling bin or the trash, simply because I’m unlikely to unwrap my toilet paper anywhere besides my home. A small bag of chips or a bottle of water however, someone is more likely to use while on the go in a park, or on a hike. And while many of us, like me, certainly try to leave only footprints, I understand it often requires more effort and personal accountability to make sure those packaging items are properly recycled. Designers and manufacturers understand that too. So why is it that this conversation is framed around personal accountability rather than around companies needing to design better packaging?

This advertisement from the 1970s illustrates the personal accountability Keep America Beautiful instilled in not only Americans, but specifically in children.

Post WWII, as people moved to the suburbs, the country was “modernizing” and businesses were adopting planned obsolescence as a strategic practice. This led to a growing problem with garbage. In the early 1950s, states like Vermont were looking to enact regulations around single use packaging to counteract the problem. Many business owners were concerned about these regulations, so, instead of actually tackling the issue within their business models or through product packaging technologies, a group of packaging companies and industry leaders, including Coca Cola, formed an organization called Keep America Beautiful (KAB). KAB invented the concept of the “litterbug,” with advertising campaigns reaching 32 states in its first few years. The campaigns changed the national conversation and shifted the responsibility for the garbage problem from that brand to the individual. By the end of the 1950s, states across America were passing laws against individuals littering instead of enacting regulations or guidelines for consumer packaging.

Imagine the 60+ years of waste that could have been prevented from entering our landfills and ecosystems. The good news is there is a small glimmer of hope, the global focus on climate change means companies are being forced to adopt meaningful, long-term plans and they’re beginning to invest in alternative strategies. Companies are doing this, not because they developed a sense of altruism, but, as the MIT Sloan Management review article points out, because “empty bags discarded in parks and on roadsides were ‘branded litter’ — items which publicly link the company to waste and negatively impact its brands’ image for consumers.” Better designed packaging would be better for the Brand, the consumer, and the environment.

One of the original investors in KAB, Coca Cola, is finally looking for sustainable inputs into their packaging. In October 2019, they produced 300 sample bottles made from 25% ocean plastic, with a commitment that all bottles globally will be made from at least 50% recycled plastic by 2030. See a video about the post here. This is especially exciting because it came in the same month that the Ocean Cleanup project announced its first successful launch of a device that captures plastic and debris from the ocean, specifically from the great Pacific Garbage Patch.3 The Debris is captured by this device and later retrieved by a boat and brought back to land for recycling. While this was the first successful launch, the group hopes to launch many of these devices and that by putting a premium on certified-ocean-recovered-recycled plastic will lead to a self-sustaining operation. The idea that we could be harvesting the plastic generations past have put in our environment to produce these single-use bottles, in effect closing, or at least narrowing, the supply system is promising – if the end-of-life plan for a soda bottle is to be chipped to make new soda bottles, that’s certainly better than being lost at sea.

New Greenpeace Campaign Calls out the issue with plastic single use soda bottles in our oceans.

A better solution, though, might be to compost these disposable containers. Perhaps you remember when Sun Chips announced their compostable bag in 2010. The bag was so loud that consumers compared the sound of opening it to glass breaking. It was clocked between 85-95 decibels, where normal bags are closer to 70. Sun Chips sales decreased by 11%, but within a year, the R&D department was able to find a solution that made the bag quieter while maintaining its composability. This is a great example of how sustainability is not enough on its own without good design. It also seems to be a lesson in putting out a good product from the start as Pepsi FritoLay has not moved this innovation to any of its other chip brands.

Instead, Pepsi FritoLay is now focused on recycling, directing consumers to TerraCycle, whom they have partnered with to recycle chip bags. While recycling chip bags is a great step forward, the problem with this strategy is that it continues to shift the responsibility to the individual. Being recyclable is not enough if the consumer will not have easy access to recycling your product or package where they’re using it. If I buy a bag of chips at a baseball park, I now have to bring my bag home, contact TerraCycle to send me a box, wait for it to arrive, just so I can send them back my chip bag. It’s simply not feasible.

I don’t mean to be too harsh of a critic when it comes to TerraCycle, because they are looking for ways to recycle everything by changing the system where possible. One of TerraCycle’s solutions has big brands like Clorox, Haagen-Dazs, and Pantene manufacture and sell their products using multi-use containers. Much like how the bottle deposit system works for cans and bottles in 12 US states, when you buy the product, you pay a deposit. Then, when you send the empty container back, you get that deposit credited towards your account. Today this is working only as a mail-in service, but partnerships with Walgreens, Krogers, and Ulta Beauty mean that consumers can, hopefully soon, bring in empty containers to reclaim the deposit in person.

Info Graphic from Loop Store’s Instagram explaining how the system works.

Companies, instead of striving to make the most cost-effective packaging, should focus on making the most effective packaging, period. Keeping products colder, safer, and fresher – longer. And while this packaging might be more costly at the beginning, in the end, because they can be reused and refilled, the net effect is more cost-efficient, or at least a similar cost with better system efficiency. Also, instead of manufacturers spending time and energy chipping plastic bottles and reconstituting it into a new shape, the containers just need to be cleaned and sterilized before being reused, saving the entire system time, energy and money. This system means the individual needs to participate in the end-of-life cycle, but crucially the system is changed to make the end-of-life participation easy.

Some of the single use items that are covered in Germany’s new law.

So, while I believe designers should be looking for these better packaging alternatives on their own, some municipalities are creating regulations to force them (much like Vermont was before KAB came along). Germany, in an effort to stop throwaway culture, has banned a number of single-use plastic items including: single-use cutlery, plates, stirring sticks, and balloon holders, as well as polystyrene cups and boxes by 2021.4 These regulations may force companies to invest in designing innovative packaging solutions that have more benefits than just the environment, and I look forward to seeing how consumers may benefit.

Sure, you and I, and 100,000 of our closest friends could try to reduce our personal impact and be #PlasticFree, but Pepsi FritoLay could make a better design choice and help millions of people a day make more sustainable choices, saving approximately 500,000,000 chip bags from the trash each year. We need companies to be redesigning their product inputs, their packaging, and their systems with long-term, customer-centric strategies. Companies can be getting ahead of these environmental regulations and build better brands today. Then, as the end-of-life tenet says, “The landfill [or the oceans] should be the last place a product ends up.”

Jessie Schwartz

About Jessie Schwartz

Jessie Schwartz-Kwasnik joined the Product Design team at Lovesac in 2017. Before that she spent six years in management consulting working on PLM implementations including new product launch processes.  Her passion for sustainable design started from reading the Lorax as a child and continued through her education at Dartmouth College. She was excited to put her beliefs into reality while working at Lovesac and to try to live up to the DFL principals.

Leave a Reply

X