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Rethinking premium packaging from a recycling viewpoint

Rethinking premium packaging from a recycling viewpoint
Avoid the quagmire of using excessive packaging materials that often can't be recycled for premium products.

Upscale, elaborate and excessive packaging that is often unrecyclable is one of the most preventable sources of waste. Sustainability leader Tom Szaky reminds us that packaging can say “special” in sustainable ways, too.

While lightweighted packaging iterations generate items that are too small or complex to recycle, the other end of the production spectrum presents its own issues. Enter a concept I’d like to call “The Quagmire of Premium”: the trend of premium product and service configurations featuring upscale, elaborate and excessive packaging that is often unrecyclable.

Gift boxes of, say, perfume sets, for example, communicate value as a premium product in several ways. To begin with, they often contain several units of product, such as numerous types of perfume, matching lotions and bath gels, or other special items marketed as being exclusive to the offer. Part of the marketing that communicates the exclusivity and “specialness” of this multi-unit product has to do with external information delivery (that is point of sale, catalog); the other part is the way it’s packaged.

Irregularly shaped units are held in place by thin plastic molded to fit and display; these units in themselves are works of art, glass perfume bottles designed to sit pretty on a vanity with sculptural caps to cover the atomizer spray pumps. This thin plastic sits inside a box, which is often lined on the inside and outside with some sort of aesthetically pleasing fabric or tactile material, or treated with some sort of textural finish. To tease at the value of the product inside, the box features a clear plastic window, and other decorative elements like appliqués and ribbons, marketing value.

This extra packaging is one of the most preventable sources of waste. Often taking up more than half of a product’s unit volume, some studies indicate that product packaging accounts for nearly half of all household waste, and most of it, of course, ends up in the landfill.

Many decorative, tactile and attractive aspects of premium packaging render it unrecyclable. Foil wrapping paper, matte paperboard boxes, flexible plastic pouches with a multi-textured finish and paper envelopes with clear plastic windows are examples of packaging comprised of different material elements that lend items a connection to all senses, a level of perceived quality and, unfortunately, a design without end-of-life solutions in the current recycling infrastructure.

Let’s stay on the gift concept for a moment: why would a gift be wrapped up in so many layers of packaging, when the product inside stands on its own? The short answer is that it makes people happy. According to an oft cited 1992 psychological study by Dr. Daniel Howard, gift wrapping influences the recipient to have a more favorable attitude to owning the item inside, creating a positive bias towards the product—before it is even revealed. Extra special packaging for an extra special response.

Taking a look at the functions of standard and premium packaging alongside the practices of companies that package more sustainably may reveal ways to reduce waste in this preventable stream and create a premium product that consumers still highly value. There can be beauty and elegance in packaging without over-packing or creating an item that is unrecyclable.

Marketing, information delivery and merchandising were not sacrificed in Puma’s elimination of the shoebox with its Clever Little Bag, a reusable bag with corrugated board inserts that hold the shoes in place. Recognizable as ever in a retail setting, the design of the bag sits well on a shelf and stands out with the same visual delivery of information. In addition to reducing material (the bag uses 65% less board than the standard shoebox) and shipping costs, Puma created a powerful branding statement by “reducing its paw print.”

Boxed Water made a splash as a disruptor of the packaged water industry in when it came out with its simple, white cartons with text that boldly states (literally and figuratively) that “Boxed Water Is Better.” Not only is the packaging recyclable in municipalities where cartons are accepted, it scores high on reduced packaging, both when packed flat and full, and delivers a message to warrant a premium price tag that exceeds standard bottled brands.

Innovating out of the box with packaging that is both impressive and recyclable reduces waste and creates value by standing out from competitors. With so much available via desktop, on a store’s app, at the checkout counter and hanging at eye-level alongside the pre-cut produce in the grocery store, if one function of packaging is to differentiate products as premium, designing more sustainably can be a simple way to rise above the rest.

Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, writes blogs for Treehugger and The Huffington Post, published a book called “Make Garbage Great” in July 2015 and is the star of the television show “Human Resources.”


MinnPack 2017 (Nov. 8-9; Minneapolis) celebrates its 15th year to bring you the latest developments in sustainable packaging, and all things packaging, as part of a comprehensive advanced manufacturing event. Register today!

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