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Jul 13, 2021

Packaging and a circular economy: An interview with Bernd Draser, lecturer at ecosign/Akademie für Gestaltung

“There is still plenty of potential to improve packaging”

Designer draws a packaging template.

   

What does the ideal sustainable packaging look like? "No packaging at all" is what many would say. But is that the best solution for every product? Which truly sustainable and viable alternatives exist? We discuss these and many other questions in an interview with packaging expert Bernd Draser from the Cologne-based ecosign/Akademie für Gestaltung.

Opinions on packaging tend to differ considerably. Some want hygienic and sterile packaging, while others say that minimal packaging is the way forward. So, which is better?

Bernd Draser: The answer is more complicated than you think. If a lack of packaging will not lead to a reduction in product quality, then we can confidently buy these products without packaging. As consumers, we can also send a message to retailers by avoiding buying products with excessive packaging. However, there are also a lot of products that are not suited to being sold without packaging as their durability, effectiveness and quality would suffer considerably. You then either have to use a lot more preservatives or have to account for a much higher level of waste, as would be the case with food – neither of which, in my view, is an acceptable alternative. In most cases, the ecological rucksack of discarded food is much more significant than the ecological rucksack of packaging. In this scenario, it makes sense to choose the lesser of the two evils. However, there is still plenty of potential to improve packaging.

Bernd Draser, lecturer at ecosign/Akademie für Gestaltung

   

As consumers, we can send a message to retailers by avoiding buying products with excessive packaging.

What exactly is meant by the term circular economy when talking about packaging?

Bernd Draser: The life cycle of packaging begins with the extraction of the required raw materials. These materials are then transported and processed until they finally become packaging. They tend to be disposed of immediately after use. This is where the circular economy comes into play: We want to take much fewer materials directly from nature so that we can avoid damaging ecosystems and so we can leave sufficient resources for future generations. That is why, once these materials have been used once, we want to try to keep using them as often and for as long as possible. The more we reuse them, the less we need to keep taking from nature. Let’s use a simple yogurt container as an example. The container is often made from polypropylene (PP) and sealed using aluminum foil. The PP granulate used to make the container is made from crude oil. The aluminum for the foil is extracted from bauxite, a process that requires a considerable amount of energy. It takes just a matter of seconds to remove the foil from the container and separate the materials by type. The container is then turned back into a granulate, which can then be mixed with other materials to create detergent packaging, for example. The aim is to design as many products and packaging types as possible that enable the majority of the materials to be reused.

Hand holds a bottle of fabric softener Vernel with a "zipper" for easy separation and sorting of the packaging material.

Often, product packaging is required due to regulatory labeling obligations, such as the declaration of ingredients. Here, it is important that packaging designers think about developing packaging that is easy to separate and sort.

Unfortunately, we live in a throw-away society – can this behavior be influenced by smart product design?

Bernd Draser: Yes, and on a number of different levels: A first step would be to design single-use packaging in such a way that it can be separated by type, i.e. it is made of just one material, or it can be easily separated into its individual materials. When designing packaging, it is important to think about the use of recycled plastics. A recyclate does not have the same quality as fresh plastic but is often still suitable for packaging purposes. Packaging designers should also think about whether a reusable solution would be practical. Such a product-service system keeps the packaging in circulation for longer and means that less new materials are required. Finally, I would like to mention an esthetic aspect: In most cases, we consider packaging to be a disposable product, especially if it is made of plastic. While reusing jars in our homes is considered quite normal, this kind of reuse is still difficult to imagine when it comes to plastic packaging. An attractive design can be used to counteract this.

Bernd Draser, lecturer at ecosign/Akademie für Gestaltung

   

We want to take fewer materials directly from nature so that we can avoid damaging ecosystems and so we can leave sufficient resources for future generations.

Do you think that consumers are adequately informed about the topic of packaging?

Bernd Draser: Consumers already have to deal with a lot of information about the contents of the packaging and I think that making them consider the packaging too might be a step too far. The responsibility for packaging, its quality, sustainability and recyclability lies with manufacturers and retailers. For example, retailers are much more than just neutral distributors of goods: They decide which products go on the shelves and therefore which products are produced, packaged and consumed. In my view, both manufacturers and retailers should be more involved in terms of regulatory requirements. However, any individuals who want to make a difference can follow these simple rules of thumb:

  • If possible, use products with little to no packaging
  • Where possible, use packaging made of single-variety materials
  • Returnable and reusable solutions are generally better than single-use ones
  • In most cases, compostable packaging is often no better than plastic packaging from an ecological perspective as it often does not fully compost down in the fermenters
  • Choose packaging made from recyclates as often as possible – the manufacturers usually make this very visible on the packaging
Bernd Draser, lecturer at ecosign/Akademie für Gestaltung

   

The aim is to design as many products and packaging types as possible that enable the majority of the materials to be reused.

Do current trends in sustainability also have an impact on the development of packaging?

Bernd Draser: A trend that has gained significant traction in recent times is the overwhelming rejection of plastic, predominantly motivated by the images of plastic-polluted oceans. Manufacturers and retailers are therefore increasingly using bioplastics or plant-based raw materials such as corn starch. However, where plastics are concerned, “bio” does not necessarily mean that they are of particular ecological value. Often, the ecological footprint of these materials is significantly larger than that of plastics. It is important to know that plastic itself is an incredibly versatile and lightweight material that, in principle, can be recycled very well. The plastic waste in our seas is therefore not a material problem, it is a waste management problem. In conclusion, the trend toward packaging-free products is nevertheless a positive one. It puts pressure on retailers and manufacturers to think about the packaging they are using and its ability to be recycled.

Bernd Draser, lecturer at ecosign/Akademie für Gestaltung

   

Plastic itself is an incredibly versatile and lightweight material that, in principle, can be recycled very well.

You often work together with your students on projects for real clients. Can you give us an example of these?

Bernd Draser: Each semester, we have a number of such collaborative projects with various institutions and companies. These cooperations always generate exciting new ideas that are often actually implemented by the clients. For example, a student developed a reusable solution for street- and fast-food products such as falafel, fries and burgers – the innovative ReWrap. This simple and intuitive packaging is made from silicone and features a number of die cuts that allow it to be folded in many different ways, while also making the snacks look attractive. It is ideal for both deposit systems at restaurants and use as an individual product for consumers who do not want to use disposable packaging. This design fits perfectly with our topic: A conventional but recyclable plastic with very favorable properties and an appealing esthetic solves a real everyday problem – and at the same time contributes to the prevention of waste. Sustainable design does not always have to be associated with considerable technical effort. Careful research, intelligent thinking and a significant degree of creativity are often the much better route to take.

The ReWrap is a reusable packaging made of silicone.

Developed by ecosign student Sarah Klein, the ReWrap is a reusable packaging that is made of silicone, which is highly durable, food safe, dishwasher safe and recyclable. Its die cuts make it versatile for different types of street and fast food. It works in a deposit system and shows that a sustainable design does not always have to involve a lot of technical effort.

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