The Problem Is Not Packaging Design, It’s Systems Design

This dirty world of waste is part of a bigger problem and an unlikely source may be the solution. Eco-practitioner Wendy Jedlicka cracks the whip on designers and packaging.

Designers Accord


Eco-practitioner Wendy Jedlicka has worked on the frontlines of sustainable design practice for 20 years and recently edited the new book Packaging Sustainability, but don’t you dare call her an eco-packaging guru. “If someone tells you they’re an eco-packaging expert, run screaming,” she says. “There’s no human being who has that much time to do all the research required for that.”

Start with all the different substrates for packaging, then add in the complexities of sustainable design, and you’ve got a nuanced study in systems thinking. Think of it like a computer keyboard, she says. It’s not a single button (everyone wants that “easy button”), it’s a combination of keys, and how you press them. Companies hoping to make a change must renegotiate their product’s appearance as part of an entire system overhaul, a process that most of them aren’t willing to undertake.


You’ve heard of the 3Rs? Jedlicka uses 5Rs (restore, respect, reduce, reuse, recover).


So all that post-consumer, compostable, biodegradable, sugar cane talk? That comes last, she says. Dead last. “You’ll never get me to talk about materials,” says Jedlicka. “If you’ve done everything else you’re supposed to do, the right material will select itself. It’s really a beautiful thing.”

Besides, such misinformed, trigger-happy decisions about materials can lead to catastrophic results. She cites the PLA bottle, a plant-based plastic that can be used instead of PET (PET is the #1 on the bottom of your bottle). When used in a place or on a product that doesn’t have the proper recycling system set up, a PLA bottle can contaminate the otherwise-effective PET recycling system. It has become such an issue that some recyclers declared a moratorium on PLA until systems to collect the PLA properly are in place.

That’s a perfect example of designers not understanding the larger implications of a seemingly virtuous decision because they don’t have the information that can help them understand why they’re making those decisions. “This is a supply chain issue, not just a green box sitting on a shelf,” says Jedlicka. “The thing that kills me about the design books is it’s all about surface beauty, but deadly underneath–fatal beauty.”


Instead, says Jedlicka, companies need to start with a radical idea: No packaging. “Start with nothing as your goal, and just start adding on only what you really need.”


One example Jedlicka loves is Restore Products, a Midwestern cleanser company. “They asked themselves, are we selling bottles of cleaning fluid or selling cleaning fluid?” Restore features filling stations where consumers can refill five of their product bottles. If you think about it, says Jedlicka, buying a huge bottle of detergent for your washing machine shows just how far out of control our packaging has become. The original detergent was soap flakes in a box (and before that, soap in a compact cake!). Consumers are paying for the heaviest, most expensive version possible, says Jedlicka. “You’re paying to move water around.”

To have individual packaging with deeper thinking behind it, encourage a reuse mentality, like the Beer Store, with 440 locations in Canada. Glass is heavy, founders reasoned, and so much energy is needed to just to move it from place to place, not to mention the other energy needed to recycle it. So they’ve harmonized the bottle
structure across their brands. The bottles are returned from consumers as well as from over 16,000 restaurants and bars. They’re washed and reused for every kind of beer they bottle, so a new glass bottle is never made. A recent environmental report says the Beer Store sees a 98% recovery rate for their materials.


The U.S. is still lagging far behind European countries when it comes to legal guidelines and enforcement. Last week, a group met in Sweden to begin to develop global standards, with help from International Organization of Standardization. Groups like the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment and RoHS have been working alongside North American groups like Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which creates tools to make sustainable packaging, including publishing case studies of packaging successes. But aside from a few mandates from governors, which vary from state-to-state, Jedlicka says we can’t look for top-down policy. “Our legislators simply have not shown the spine to get in front of this issue.”


Instead? Look at Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart seems like they finally found religion, and said ‘we’re going to serve the people better,'” says Jedlicka of their Wal-Mart Scorecard, announced three years ago and put in full force last year. In doing so, they also produced the the de facto American guidelines for packaging. “Wal-Mart has become the default standard. They changed my industry.” Where Wal-Mart shines is its embrace of the supply chain, but Wal-Mart is also big enough to make a difference, whether or not other advocates want to see them as a leader. Jedlicka offers them a hugh thanks for getting change stared in the U.S., but says they still need sharper policy to follow. “If the market doesn’t force the bad players out, then legislation will have to step in.”


And don’t forget consumers: Consumers are powerful but only when they, too, can think about the implications of their actions. The first thing Jedlicka tells her students to do is examine their own footprints,
then they begin to realize how their actions ripple through to the bigger picture. “Use The Natural Step as a guide for example, and see how its system conditions apply to your day,” she says. What might be the right environmental choice for one consumer might not be right for another, something designers need to keep in mind.

Still, she moans, designers (she calls them “designosaurs”) constantly email her asking for the “happy list“–that prescribed set of materials they think will be the cure-all for their
environmental ills. “I ask them if they’d like help putting a training
program together. But they just want the list.”

Maybe there’s a better way to get them to think about packaging. How about this? Assume that whatever you produce won’t end up being recycled, or even sitting in a landfill. Assume that it will be incinerated, says Jedlicka reflecting on the garbage burner just down the street from her office. “I think of it that way: Whatever I design, I’ll be breathing.”


More resources at Jedlicka’s site, O2, The Living Principles and Natural Step.

[Wal-Mart photo by Enviromedia]


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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato