For a conscious consumer it is a never-ending consideration of what would be the ultimate sustainable option. Without going too deeply into that conversation I would generalise by saying that instead of “the most sustainable option” the best are the ones that are suitable for exact need and have a working infrastructure in place that will be used. It is not worthwhile to use resources in towards having a recyclable product if it won’t be recycled but instead goes to waste-to-energy, or for example having a compostable product if it won’t be composted.
But what is the role of the design? It has been estimated that more than 80% of the environmental impacts of a product are determined at the design stage. Thus the important decisions are made in the beginning. This puts pressure on the designers for two reasons, and rightly so. Firstly, the field of sustainability aspects is wide and it is challenging to decide what would be the best option for a specific product. Secondly, quite often products will be exported and can end-up in regions of the world that have big differences in waste recycling infrastructure.
As there is not a one fits all solution, the key at the design stage from a sustainability perspective is to understand what the brand owner wants from the package, where it will be disposed, what are the existing waste infrastructure opportunities, how the combination of different materials works together when for example recycled and how to guide the consumer and promote to recycle the product correctly. The focus can be on the raw materials used through choosing renewable or recycled materials but it should also cover the end-of-life stage so that consumes have a choice to get rid of the package in a responsible way.
The world is changing and the impacts of climate change and resource scarcity become more and more visible to people around the globe. Also political pressure starts to have an impact. In order to reach the EU target for recycling 75% of the packaging waste by 2030, packaging needs to be recyclable by design. This often requires cross-border cooperation between different value chain members already at the early design stage. The momentum is now for us as an industry and individuals to make sustainable packaging choices and create a smarter future together.