Sustainable packaging myths: There is no one-size-fits-all solution

Leyla Acaroglu is a leading sustainability strategist and an expert in life cycle and systems thinking in design, production and consumption. Her TED Talk has been watched by more than one million people. In this interview, she shares her insights about better ways to design packaging and about the most common sustainable packaging myths.

Leyla Acaroglu Packaging

Dr. Leyla Acaroglu is a leading sustainability strategist and an expert in life cycle and systems thinking in design, production and consumption. The New-York-based founder of the Un-school of Disruptive Design and two design agencies, Disrupt Design and Eco Innovators, is a visiting scholar at NYU and an Innovator in Residence at the Center for Social Innovation NYC. Her TED Talk has been watched by more than one million people. In the following interview, she shares her insights about better ways to design packaging and about the most common sustainable packaging myths.

Sustainable packaging is a hot topic. The consumers demand it and companies are trying to find ways to meet the demand. Why do you think sustainable packaging attracts so much attention?

Packaging has a very short lifespan. The consumer buys a product, brings it home and then has to deal with the packaging. One reason consumers are so motivated to ask for more sustainable alternatives is that they want to alleviate the guilt associated with creating waste. As far as sustainability in packaging goes, it is obviously a very complex topic because we live in beautifully complex systems. A lot of times, the packaging design is motivated by factors that have nothing do to with sustainability.

For example?

Take clamshell packaging – the thick plastic packaging that is designed to prevent theft and that is often used for small items such as USB sticks. Big retailers often ask for it but the hard plastic shells are designed for the very small percentage of people who are going to subvert the system. This is frustrating for the 99 % of the people who would do the right thing. I think design decisions like that are part of the problem because consumers get into an emotional state in which the likelihood that they recycle is lower. There is a relationship between the consumer experience and the behavior that follows.

Why is it so difficult to develop sustainable packaging?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We have so many recycling systems around the world that differ greatly. In some, certain plastics can be recycled, in others, they can’t. The same holds true for composites. From a sustainable design perspective, functionality dictates environmental impact. Packaging has one main function: To protect the product. The packaging has to be designed to achieve that with a minimum of materials. That is sustainability 101. The choice of materials should be dictated by the durability and functionality of the product so that it works within the system in which the packaging will exist.

There are some sustainable packaging myths that don’t hold up. Can you name a few?

The biggest misconception is that there is a single best solution. Paper products are good in some situations and terrible in others and the same applies to plastic. Plastic isn’t the worst thing in the world; it is actually very useful because it is infinitely recyclable as long as you don’t damage the polymer strains. In contrast, paper can only be recycled about five times before the fibers become unusable in the current system.

Also, paper contaminated with food can’t be recycled. A lot of people are under the misconception that coffee cups made of paper or paper-based food boxes are recyclable. But they are not because they are lined with a thin plastic film. This is a problem because there are 58 million coffee cups per day used in the U.S. alone for example. Because people assume they are recyclable, they throw them in the paper-recycling bin. Often, the residue of coffee spills on the rest of the paper, damaging it so that it can’t be recycled as well. There is a certain level of ignorance around recyclability and sustainability that is accentuating the problem. There is also a misconception among designers that some materials are intrinsically better because they are biodegradable or natural. Which is not always the case. If the system isn’t set up to recycle and recapture a specific material then you may actually end up having a double negative.

Biodegradable has become a very popular packaging buzzword.

In most industrialized countries, the systems are linear with raw materials coming in, products being created and waste coming out and the waste is lost from the system –and often ends up in a landfill. A landfill environment is anaerobic; it is devoid of air and oxygen. In that anaerobic environment, anything made from a cellulose fiber ends up emitting methane. If the same material would just degrade in nature, it would release the carbon it captured and stored during its life from the atmosphere. But in a landfill, it releases methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, methane is also an incredible power source and could be used to replace fossil fuels if it is captured by a bio-digester. We could actually create really effective systems if we reimagined the way we have this linear waste system set up.

Leyla Acaroglu Packaging 2

How about plant-based, renewable materials?

It depends on how they are produced. In a traditional farming situation where high amounts of fertilizers – petrochemicals – are used to produce the corn for the PLA cup, there could be greater amounts of embedded petrochemicals in that cup than in the plastic alternative. A lot of the producers of biomaterials are becoming aware of that, thanks to the life-cycle-assessment analyses that have been done in the last
10 to 15 years. A lot of producers have shifted to renewable energy and in those cases, PLA tends to be better from a sustainability perspective. But this is not guaranteed, especially when the PLA can’t be composted or turned back into an energy source at the end of life.

So it is really important to do a life-cycle-analysis?

Interestingly, packaging is the reason that life cycle analysis began as a methodology about 20 years ago because there was such an emotional outcry from consumers around litter and waste and packaging thrown on the ground. People complained about how litter pollutes communities and the oceans and companies started to try and find a method of investigating how they could design better packaging.
What we’ve learned from life cycle assessment is that packaging and transportation are often the lowest impact areas in a product’s life. Many people think that packaging is a huge part of the problem but often it isn’t. This goes back to the main function of packaging: To protect the product. If it fulfills the function, it is actually a benefit to the whole lifecycle of the product. But its impact still depends to a certain degree on how the consumer uses it at the end of its life.

And I guess biodegradable materials are not always the top choice?

We also have to look at cultural factors. Do we want biomaterials because it makes it easier for people to throw their trash on the ground? Do we want to make it easier for people to waste stuff and feel not guilty about it? Or would we rather create shifts in the ways we value materials and resources? Again, there is not one simple solution and culture plays a big part in it. I’ve worked on waste mitigation projects in evolving economies like Thailand and the cultural difference is astronomical compared to America, Australia or Europe where people have been raised with a consciousness about litter.

Whereas in Thailand, up until very recently, all packaging was bio-based. Then the plastics industry came in and shifted the market and now, you see people doing the same thing that they have been doing for generations, which is eating something from a food stall and throwing the packaging on the ground. Often, there is no trashcan or municipal trash collection. I think the companies directly benefiting from the shift in the market should be responsible for making sure that there are appropriate end of life options for those products.

I see somewhat diverging trends. There are more retro materials such as paper or glass on the one hand and then there are RFID chips and printed electronics in packaging. What do you make of these trends from a sustainability perspective?

Why do companies add tech to packaging? What’s the advantage? Is it achieving functionality or is it just bells and whistles that you add to sell more products? In some cases, we are creating lazy humans who have no connectivity with the experience of living. So I don’t think the RFID tags or any tags added in plastic packaging is ever going to be a sustainable alternative – someone might be able to argue that it can reduce food waste but I still need to see the scientific validation of that. The loss that the system encounters is not just from a materials perspective but also from a social perspective because we are creating people who are not connected with what’s going on around them – so I don’t think that’s a good idea.

What about flexible packaging?

That’s interesting because if it can reduce food waste, it might actually be ok. So again I want to bring it back to the starting point – designing to maximize functionality.
Materials are changing constantly, knowledge is changing constantly. Having a pioneering approach and being willing to change and being willing to experiment can create shifts in the market place.

What would you recommend as a step toward sustainability?

There is no wrong or right answer. We live in a complex world with complex systems. There is this reductionist idea that one material is going to solve all the problems in packaging or that e-commerce will solve the problems and that’s just such a lazy approach to figuring out how to make things better. The same applies to 3D printing – the technology is amazing but buying a 3D printer and printing things that you don’t need is not going to solve any problems. It’s important to have a bit of a knowledge base that helps you make more informed decisions. Asking questions and being curious is a really good starting point.

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