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Do frozen foods heat up the planet?

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Lean Cuisine frozen food in pouch packagingPeople are constantly on the go and searching for something convenient and affordable. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the frozen food industry has grown to $22 billion since its emergence back in the 1930s. With the average American consuming 72 frozen meals per year, the amount of packaging waste generated contributes greatly to the millions of tons of municipal sold waste (MSW) each year. Given this, I ask: Can sustainable packaging exist in the frozen food industry?

Like any business, profit and revenue are the goals. The less the cost in manufacturing a package, ultimately the bigger the profit. Some frozen food manufacturers have taken notice. Instead of opting for packing food in plastic then in cardboard, many foods now are simply packaged in thin, lightweight plastic bags. This is beneficial for everyone. These plastic bags not only reduce overall MSW, but they also preserve freshness, ensuring that the food you’re consuming is at its best quality.

However, there are other ways frozen food manufacturers can contribute and participate in sustainable packaging. The first includes slowly including biodegradable supplies in the packaging itself. Let’s look at the generic TV dinner. Usually it consists of an entrée packaged in plastic with two sides wrapped in more plastic. This tray is then placed into the cardboard box to look appealing to consumers. Although it may be a bit far-fetched to convince manufacturers to make an entire TV dinner package biodegradable, basic steps can be taken to reduce MSW, one of which is making some portion of the actual food tray eco-friendly. This alone can greatly reduce what ends up in landfills for decades on end.

Another solution for frozen food manufacturers is to take the TerraCycle approach and recycle packaging. Frozen food manufacturers must explore the option to implement their own collection programs among their consumers that in turn can reduce the cost of producing new packaging as well as reduce the overall rate of waste generated.

Municipal recycling will always lag behind plastic advancements and this is especially true in regards to the very lightweight plastic formats used in many frozen products. Now it should be noted that the use of these types of plastic is very commendable, after all the first “R” is Reduce, then Reuse and Recycle. The lightweight plastics the industry is moving towards are less plastic, less packaging weight, which creates drastic carbon savings during shipping.

However, these packaging types also are not commonly recycled anywhere in the US. Since “reuse” is not a viable option, it appears that frozen food manufactures who truly want to be sustainable will have to explore recycling options, take-back programs or other end of life solutions for their packaging.

Do you think the frozen food industry’s use of lightweight plastics is enough? Or must they do more to increase their sustainability, how do they compare with other pre-packaged food industries? I look forward to your thoughts.

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Giving packaging a second chance at life

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Heineken WOBO bottleProduct packaging is a way of life to us, sure, but to most consumers it has no value. Sure it provides safety, convenience, shelf life, but most consumers are blissfully ignorant of these important tasks. Usually consumers throw product packaging away without much thought; thankfully more and more are starting to recycle it, if possible. Everyone knows about recycling. We’ve been doing it since the 1970s, yet there is much more than can be done to reduce waste in our landfills. Recycling is great, but it is time to look into some of the new end of life solutions that are emerging.

Most product packaging has several aspects to it which provide reasons for a product’s life to end. Physical life, functional life, technical life, economical life, legal life, and loss of desirability lead to products being thrown out or recycled. However, instead of looking at these in a negative way, we can look at each “form of life” individually and find ways to extend them.

Heineken, for example, has found an innovative way to upcycle their product packaging, thus extending its life. Heineken’s “World Block” (WOBO) beer bottles have been “designed for reuse.” The beer bottles interlock so that they can be used for building after their initial purpose of containing beer is done. The WOBO bottle extends the beer bottle’s functional life. Though glass can ultimately be recycled, innovative ideas such as this are paving the path towards a future with less “trash.”

However, innovation is not just emerging in the form of reuse and redesign of product packaging, but in the form of a new initial purpose. For as long as we know, packaging is the part of the product that gets thrown away. Now there are several scientists working to create “edible packaging” for products to help eliminate waste. The idea is controversial, and would require our society to adjust its norms about what is and isn’t considered edible.

In addition to the obvious fact that finding new uses for and redesigning product packaging is beneficial to the environment and supports innovation, it can also be good for business. Brand logos are printed all over product packaging, so if it just gets thrown out or recycled, people will no longer see it, and brand equity is lost. Packaging that is redesigned or designed for reuse helps to preserve the brand equity of those products for a little longer. For example, creating pencil cases out used CapriSun drink pouches, like TerraCycle does, provides the brand with a new way of promoting not only the product, but the brand. Why literally throw away your company’s hard work when you can extend the life of your products?

Reduce, reuse, recycle…redesign. Redesign is the fourth “R” of the future when it comes to eliminating waste. Whether it’s redesigning packaging to be completely edible, creating no waste, or finding a way to design product packaging for new purpose and extend its life long term, there is no doubt that we are taking steps towards innovation in the future of waste management.
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The most wasteful time of the year

H&M reusable gift packagingThe amount of waste generated by U.S. consumers leaps by 25 percent around the holidays, bumping our yearly output of garbage up from 199.9 million pounds to 249.9 million, based on calculations from the EPA’s 2010 measurements. A whopping one fifth of our annual trash load is produced during the holidays, making this not only the most wonderful time of the year, but also the most wasteful.

With people buying more products in more packaging every day, fiscally, this is a bonanza–a gold mine, really. This time of giving is a chance for us, the packaging professionals of America, to think about responsibility and sustainability in addition to the fiscal pressure placed on us all. These three things can go hand in hand-profit doesn’t have to be separated from responsibility and sustainability. If we think about creative ways to offset this packaging problem, we can also think of ways that packaging could be more appealing to consumers and help cut down on the waste mess during future holiday seasons.

Think about holiday-specific packaging: gifts, packages, boxes, gift-wrap etc. What if, instead of making promotional holiday packaging that didn’t really enhance the product itself too much, designers created a package that came ready to put under the tree-no pointless, wasteful gift-wrap needed.

What about packaging that can be reused immediately to spread holiday cheer? Food items (especially for kids) could have decorations in them to be cut out, or packaging could include directions on how to craft the box into a holiday decoration. The packaging from a Christmas or Chanukah gift becomes a decoration or favor for a New Year’s Eve party.

We also need to remember that post-consumer waste isn’t the only type of waste that grows around the holidays. Seasonal packaging often is printed in bulk for the holidays, with unused packaging getting discarded when the merriment ends. Couldn’t companies design such packaging to be used year after year, so leftovers wouldn’t need to be thrown out? The seasonal implementation would make for great marketing and holiday spirit, but right now, it adds far too much to the packaging waste stream.

Now, when the paper and boxes surrounding our holiday gifts have been discarded but visions of sugarplums are still fresh in our heads, is an ideal time to think about what we can do for next year: observe packaging-related behavior, monitor habits, hold a holiday gift in our hands, and think: how can we make this better for next year? Can we make the packaging look as if it’s already gift wrapped? Can we make packaging that is designed for reusability? Can we cut down on that 25 percent? Accomplishing those goals will help make our holiday seasons a little bit brighter.

Resolutions for a packaging addict

TerraCycle ReTote shopping bag

As both packaging professionals and consumers, we live lives dominated by packaging and its science. When we pick up a product at the grocery store or order something new online, we think about what the item itself is packaged in, how it was or will be sent to its destination, and what will happen to it after we use it. What are the possibilities? What are the limitations? 2012 brings an entire new year of searching for packaging solutions and creating new options for consumers and the eco-minded.

Because we’re both producers and users of packaging, we see both sides of the problem: the science and the facts, and the problems consumers face in choosing a product with eco-friendly packaging, and employing the solutions available for that packaging. For 2012, I have four packaging resolutions for TerraCycle and five packaging resolutions for myself-something to think about as we head into the New Year.

TerraCycle Resolutions

1. Work on the packaging of our own products, and solutions for the products themselves. As we evaluate and change our own habits and science, we can improve our processes and packaging along with the recycling solutions available to the consumer.

2. Help support the compostable packaging movement.
In order for consumers to appreciate compostable packaging and compost it correctly, they need to understand how the packaging can be eco-friendly and learn to overlook the potentially noisy side effects.

3. Develop a TerraCycle composting solution for our partners.
Some people aren’t interested in composting, even if their product packaging is compostable. Hopefully, the movement will grow, and we can support it by offering composting solutions for our partners in addition to our traditional TerraCycle processes.

4. Brainstorm new products to be made from the packaging we collect.
The possibilities are endless, and we’re always excited about new ideas.

My Personal Packaging Resolutions

1. Consider packaging more thoroughly as part of a purchasing decision.
Sometimes when we make purchases in haste, we don’t spend a lot of time considering the packaging, even though we should. Is there another way to get this with less packaging or more eco-friendly packaging?

2. Consider whether buying is necessary.
Do I need this?

3. Never use plastic bags at the store.
It’s easier to forget reusable bags, but having a few extra on hand in the car could be helpful in the long run.

4. Don’t use plastic or styrofoam from restaurants, etc.
Not over-ordering so you can eat your whole main meal goes a long way. I find that most food taken home from a restaurant gets thrown out anyway, so why bother using that extra plastic or styrofoam wasted?
5. Stay more up-to-date on recycling news AND environmental news. One of my favorite sites for this is earth911.com, because I can get information about both consumer recycling and other environmental bits. If I want to keep up my own recycling resolutions, it’s important for me to keep up with the news and the extra efforts I can be making.

What are your company’s resolutions for 2012? Your personal packaging resolutions? Please share your ideas and concerns–I’d love to hear them.

The great green debate: Who's to blame?

To achieve maximum sustainability, whose contribution do you think matters the most: businesses, consumers, or our national and state governments? Rather than playing the blame game with any of these parties, I believe that this question should be approached more proactively. Problem identification is just the first step in any equation; it is the solution that ties the loose ends together. As a company that seeks to eliminate the idea of waste, TerraCycle is very much invested in developing and implementing solutions to remedy our environmental woes–but is one company enough?

TerraCycle’s collection and solution programs operate on a B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) basis to keep waste out of landfills and incinerators. This means that our efforts are based on a substantial amount of cooperation with our clientele; think of it as an interdependent network of environmental sustainability.

This network relies primarily on two components: eco-consciousness and initiative. Although contemporary society is becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, there are still those who will default to traditional (and often hazardous) methods of waste disposal. Privatized waste management systems work through incentive, not directive–in other words, environmental responsibility exists as a choice (and not as a rule) at the B2B and B2C level.

Even this limitation, however, is being solved for–at least in part. RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), for example, offers a mutually advantageous arrangement for reducing GHG emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. By implementing a mandatory, market-based-cap-and-trade system, RGGI is both economically and environmentally beneficial to its participants. Yet RGGI only covers GHG emissions from a limited amount of sources in nine states, and, although another step in the right direction, is by no means a standalone solution to sustainable waste management.

At the consumer level, individuals can choose to participate with programs such as TerraCycle Brigades to simultaneously collect waste and earn money. With products such as VELObill, an energy-tracking utility bill application developed by zerofootprint, consumers can make eco-friendly choices and save money. Even reducing, re-using, and recycling on an individual basis makes an impact, yet these processes still rely on eco-consciousness and initiative.

So, who is at the forefront of sustainability?

All of us are–or rather, all of us should be there, working together for a better (not to mention sustainable) future. Sustainability is a collective effort that brings us closer not only to our environment, but to one another as well. When companies incorporate recycled plastics into their products, when their consumers limit their purchases and carry them in reusable bags, when the government rewards both the public and private sectors for such eco-conscious decisions, then we see sustainability in action.

There are plenty of other ways to practice and encourage environmental sustainability, and on multiple levels–please feel free to share your favorites in the comments section below!

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Is the perfect package a myth?

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Method’s ocean-derived plastic packagingPackaging is ubiquitous, and for good reason. It provides us with a safe, convenient, and highly effective means to store, transport, and market an almost limitless array of goods. Not all containers are created equally, however; there are several advantages to using environmentally sustainable packaging. Still, it can be difficult to hit the sweet spot where sustainability and profitability intersect, prompting the pressing question: Does the perfect package really exist?

It’s a difficult question, but I’ve found that the most successful businesses in the packaging industry are the ones most actively searching for an answer - sometimes in ways you wouldn’t ordinarily imagine. Take TerraCycle’s partner Method, for example. Method makes recyclable packages from up to 100% recycled plastic and offers several home products that are C2C, or “cradle-to-cradle,” certified. What’s more, Method and other businesses in pursuit of the perfect package take “good” and make it even better. Just this month Method launched a line of products made from “Ocean Plastic” washed up on Hawaiian beaches.

Better packaging isn’t always just about packaging. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Here’s another way of saying it: “how” you package is just as important as “what” you package. Let’s take a look at Method again, this time with a specific focus on its new, ultra-concentrated detergents. By increasing the potency of its cleaning products, Method was able to reduce the total amount of packaging needed to store and sell them per bottle, resulting in a 35% smaller carbon footprint. Furthermore, Method offers refill pouches for most of their cleaning goods, encouraging product reuse.

These are good examples of how companies can effectively reduce, reuse, and recycle how and what they package. That’s just the first step toward developing the perfect package. The next step is just as important, if not more; it’s typically called a life cycle assessment, or “LCA” for short, and it’s a crucial strategy in sustainable business. Essentially, an LCA is a sustainability assessment that accounts for every stage within a product’s supply chain. Sourcing, shipping, selling, and everything after and in-between all present opportunities to make your business more cost-effective and sustainable.

LCA’s allow us to pinpoint and eliminate inefficiencies throughout the supply chain, essentially saving money by cutting unnecessary costs. Not only that, however, they can help to generate revenue. Let’s take a look at the pouch package design, for example. A recent study by The Freedonia Group has predicted that the demand for pouches in the U.S. will see an annual increase of 5.1%, reaching $8.8 billion in 2016. Freedonia credits this rise in pouch popularity to “superior aesthetic appeal, portability, light weight, reduced material use, and significantly lower shipping costs than rigid containers.”

Immediately, we can point out three stages of a pouch’s life cycle that have been optimized by adopting sustainable business practices: “reduced material use” during sourcing, “significantly lower shipping costs” and “aesthetic appeal” to aid in selling the product. To take it one step further, pouches (or any sort of packaging) can often be recycled or upcycled through companies like TerraCycle when municipal programs fall short. Of course, if the package is also designed for reuse, that’s even better.

So, does perfect packaging really exist? I believe it does, but more as an idea than anything else. Striving to create a practical, profitable, and, above all else, sustainable package is what brings going green and making green together.
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Do ecolabels enthuse or confuse?

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TerraCycle eco-label on diaper packagingAs TerraCycle grows, our label can be seen on an increasing amount of consumer packaging. What’s even more exciting is the fact that consumers are becoming more aware of our label and what that means. However, this got me thinking about other ecolabels. There are hundreds of different ones out there, and each is trying to convey to the consumer some environmental benefit by purchasing their product. With so much variance and lack of standardization, do ecolabels mean anything at all? Or is it just a cheap way to make your product look sustainable to consumers?

This being said, the idea of labeling consumer products and food is incredibly important since the labels help consumers make environmentally friendly decisions while shopping. This in turn can help stimulate a higher demand for green products, therefore influencing companies to become more sustainable and help shape a better future. However, the lack of regulation has made it possible for an abundance of seals to evolve, thus depreciating the value of ecolabels in the mind of the consumer. It may not be fair, but many companies have taken full advantage of this differentiation tool in an attempt to greenwash clients. It’s no wonder that consumers have grown tired of the multiple logos on each item they pick up. With this is mind, is there any way we can decrease this stigma so consumers can trust ecolabels again?

A 2012 BBMG study showed that consumers favored certifications as the trusted source for whether a product is sustainable or socially responsible, with more than 40 percent of consumer surveyed selecting seals or labels as the most trusted source. However the same study showed that 65 percent of consumers feel that company’s CSR claims were not believable. This is an interesting dichotomy, showing that many consumers use eco-labeling as a reference point put are still quite skeptical on company claims of responsibility.

To understand this gap, it’s crucial to know where all these green seals are coming from. Besides the appliance and automobile industries, ecolabels are voluntary sustainability measurements that companies apply for from an objective third party. As consumers grow more eco-conscious, the ecolabel is a way for companies to differentiate their products from their competitors. For example, the intent of the TerraCycle logo is to let consumers know that the packaging is recyclable by visiting our website and signing up for a Brigade. Our logo even looks like the recycling symbol to help further simplify our message. However, it became more complicated when industry associations began to set their own standards and any company that complied would be granted the label. This all sounds great, but some industry associations set minimum stipulations for sustainability and all companies that follow it will get the ecolabel. Because of this, many companies appear to be more sustainable then they really are.

Until there is more standardization, there is not much we can do to combat the proliferation of ecolabels except letting the market take its course. In this sense, smaller ecolabels will fade out as more reputable ecolabels gain brand loyalty among consumers. This can already been seen in the business-to-business sector where ecolabels such as Fairtrade and the Marine Stewardship Council are seen as reliable seals. Although market controls might be our only possibility of waning out ecolabels in the US, the European Union has taken steps towards standardization by starting the EU Ecolabel. The EU Ecolabel is voluntary and focuses on the lifecycle of a product. Each product has their own specifications that concentrate on the stages of its lifecycle where it has the highest environmental impact. The EU Ecolabel is used for consumer products and businesses but has not tackled food or medicine. Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction and we can learn a great deal from their efforts.

Whether you are a concerned consumer or a manager worried which ecolabel to place on a product’s packaging, the following labels should be at the top of everyone’s green checklist.

  • Compostable
  • Cradle to Cradle
  • Demeter Biodynamic
  • DFE
  • Fairtrade
  • Forest Stewardship Council
  • Green Seal
  • Marine Stewardship Council
  • NON GMO
  • OMRI Listed
  • Rainforest Alliance Certified
  • SCS Certified Biodegradable
  • USDA Organic

Remember, consumers buy products from companies they feel have the same beliefs as themselves. To avoid consumer mistrust, stick with labels that are clear and align with your company’s mission.
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Are consumers ready to dispose of their waste at retail stores?

The history of retailers collecting recyclables from their costumers is evolving, if slowly. At first this started with small independent grocery stores collecting plastic bags or other items. But, today, consumers are clearly becoming more eco-aware, which is creating a demand for major retailers like Whole Foods Market, Best Buy and Sur La Table to place collections in their stores.

The trend of retailers collecting recyclables started in “crunchy,” more sustainable cities like Portland, OR, and Denver, CO, where there were several small, independent grocers. These were community-based grocery stores where local residents could drop off their recyclables. Inspired by this, other communities began collections as well. These collections, however, were not necessarily for recyclables. One collection was Box Tops for Education. Another type of community-based collection is the Paper Retriever Recycling Bin. This dumpster sized recycling bin is a free collection where students can place their paper recyclables — they are often found in school, city and retailer parking lots.

Recently, this new trend has been popping up more and more. Major retailers are starting collections for a variety of recyclables and even non-recyclables. Whole Foods Market has several collections. They accept corks from wine bottles, plastics made from No.5 polypropylene and plastic bags from other retailers. Of course, I periodically check the bins at my local Whole Foods and they are usually fairly empty — even in a relatively affluent and aware consumer base like Princeton, NJ. They also have recycling bins and compost buckets in their cafeteria.

Best Buy has an e-waste recycle collection. You can bring in your used electronics to any Best Buy location and they will recycle them for you — however, sometimes this service comes at a cost for the consumers. Best Buy also offers other programs to help collect your used electronics. Best Buy will remove your old TV or appliance when you buy a new TV or appliance from them. They will also remove used TVs or appliances from your house for $100, if you are not buying a new TV or appliance from them.

The latest major retailer do start a recycle collection is Sur La Table. Sur La Table has partnered with Illy Caffé to collect Illy Caffé’s iperEspresso capsules. The iperEspresso capsules are made of No.5 polypropylene, which is collected by only about 5 percent of municipalities. Illy Caffé wanted to find a way for their customers to enjoy their coffee and still be environmentally friendly. This is why Illy Caffé introduced iperEspresso Capsule Recycle Program. This program allows the capsules to be recycled.

There are three ways to recycle the capsules.

The first way is for illy a casa members. Illy a casa members receive their capsule recycle program as a complimentary service as part of their free membership.

The second option is to drop off the capsules at their local Sur La Table.

The final option is to buy a recycle kit. If you are not an illy a casa member and there are no Sur La Table locations near you, you can purchase a kit by calling illy Customer Care. There has to be an 80 capsule minimum when sending in your capsules.

The demand for more recycling collections in stores is a new concept. Although many people recycle and try to be more eco-friendly, recycling in your grocery store, your electronic store or your favorite kitchen store is taking green a step further. The question is, are consumers ready for this change? Will they collect their waste and bring it with them to stores? Or box it up to mail it in for recycling? TerraCycle is guessing that enough people will!

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The one big missing option in packaging

With all the talk of making packaging biodegradable, compostable, recycled and recyclable, one option seems to have been left out of the party: reusable.Once a commonplace practice–far before green, sustainability, even environmentalism were a part of the mass consciousness–this simple, practical, common sense use of resources occurred in several sectors, milk being the most common. But even beer often included a 1-2 cent rebate for returning bottles (or so my Pop tells me!)

Now it’s barely a part of the conversation. Why is this? Have we become so convenience oriented that having to do anything more than put something in the blue bin is too much effort?

It’s not completely off the map, as milk in returnable glass jars is still practiced by Strauss Family Creamery on a regional basis. Pay a deposit amount for the bottle, get it credited back when you buy the next bottle. Growlers are another example, being large resealable glass bottles of beer you can buy from brewpubs, getting a deal on subsequent refills.

But in both cases, these are locally focused. Could something like this happen on a national level? I can hear you coming up with a ready list of why not. I say to you, why not work around these obstacles, or create a whole new way to make packaging reusable, “repurposable”?

What if you created packaging that was designed to be reused from the start? Think beyond food here. Think beyond glass jars. And think beyond the green motivated. How can you make reusing your packaging as convenient as throwing it away? This has to be considered, as we can’t expect everybody to be motivated by more than their immediate interests. Could a package being designed so it had a second life after the consumer finished with its first use?

To make packaging that is reusable benefits both the environment and a company’s bottom line. How? Less materials needed for new packaging, goodwill and self generated word of mouth publicity, and repeated exposure to your company’s brand.

Could reusable packaging work for your products? Or tell us why not.

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Is your packaging wasting brand equity?

You as packaging designers manage some amazing feats: Simultaneously satisfy picky company leaders, fickle consumers and just plain crazy marketing people! You’re to be applauded–it’s a tough balancing act.

But I have something further for you to consider.

Your packaging, for the most part, has one use. What you create encompassed countless hours of meetings, designs, redesigns, factory tooling, wrestling matches and so on. It’s the front line of how your company’s products are seen in the world. It’s the final leg of the marathon that began with coming up with the idea for the product, perhaps testing it out with consumers, a final iteration chosen, then finished when someone decides to grab one of your products off the shelf and buy it.

But once the wrapping’s off, the bottle’s empty, the usefulness is done, that’s the end of the story. Some of it gets recycled. A lot of it doesn’t. Either way, all that brand equity you’ve put into the product is being wasted.

Say again?

Yes, when your packaging has no end of life solution, it’s clumsily being made for you, typically. Upcycling it into new products, which often directly uses the packaging in its original form in durable goods, retains brand equity for much longer then one use.

Designing for recyclability is a noble idea and one to be encouraged but, with a fairly limited range of materials, getting recycled in the U.S., it’s just not always possible. Or, in the case of food packaging, safe.

It’s time, both for the sake of saving resources (financial and environmental) to design for reuse where possible, and upcycling where it’s not.

In both cases, you’re benefitting the company due to extended presence in a consumer’s life, showing you’re out for more than just the sale, and you’ve done your part to keep waste out of the landfill, or worse, littering the ground.

Is there a downside to changing/expanding the way you think about packaging? It could cost more. It could take additional time and resources to implement. In the case of SunChips, it could cause consumer backlash.

Yes, sometimes we’re great at coming up with reasons why not. In this economy and any time really, I suggest we all get much less skilled in that arena, and start finding ways to say yes. To better packaging solutions that use less, save more, serve customers just as well, and live on beyond first use. It’s, in my opinion, the only sensible thing to do.

What are your thoughts? Being in the packaging design trenches, where are some opportunities for improvement? Where are the road bumps? Where are the emerging solutions? What are some recent successes to emulate, learn from? Jump into the comments, below.