Overpackaging vs. Underpackaging: Finding the Balance

by | Sep 8, 2011

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A new store called in.gredients is planning to open this fall in Austin, offering high-quality grocery products that include organic grains, natural baking ingredients and local meats. What makes in.gredients different than others is its package, or rather, lack thereof: The grocery store is making its debut as the first package-free and zero-waste grocery store in the United States.

Going packaging-free is not an entirely new concept – Unpackaged in London, for example, has been encouraging shoppers to use their own reusable containers by offering package-free goods since 2006. The Whole Foods bulk aisle has already gotten Americans into the habit of buying products like grains, dried beans and fruits, nuts, and spices in quantities as small or as large as needed. And bans in the West coast on plastic bags and polystyrene takeout containers are slowly weeding out harmful packaging to make room for more sustainable alternatives.

It’s no surprise that these green trends are continuing to grow and take hold, as the general public becomes more acceptant of the idea that the “necessary evil” of the packaging industry is more evil and less necessary. The plastic bans are one thing – replacing toxic materials with more innovative, sustainable packaging is a step toward a safer, smarter future. But is getting rid of packaging altogether along that same path?

A Closer Look at Overpackaging and Underpackaging

Overpackaging is nothing new. We’ve all seen unfortunate displays of bell peppers wrapped in plastic, cereals packaged in bags packaged in boxes, large cardboard shippers filled with loose fill packaging peanuts. There is no denying that excess packaging is ecologically unfriendly, not to mention costly and oftentimes frustrating (wrap rage, anyone?).

Yet the need for effective packaging remains. When it comes to foods, and especially those with organic and all-natural ingredients that lack shelf-stable preservatives, the right packaging helps maintain freshness and prolong the product’s shelf life. Keeping foods fresher for longer is crucial to reducing wasted products and saving money for grocers and consumers alike. In addition, the packaging around a certain food product will have been tested and approved to protect against potential contaminants, keeping the food safe for consumption. Eco-conscious consumers may be reducing waste by bringing in their own containers, but exactly how safe and effective are the containers that they are bringing from home?

Other factors to consider include tamper resistance and convenience. While extremely tamper-resistant, hard-to-open packaging products like the traditional clamshell have proven to be unsafe and downright infuriating for customers, certain items still require protection against theft, and for food products in particular, protection against damage and tampering. The convenience factor plays a huge role – packaging offers easy storage, detailed product information and nutritional data, and eliminates the need to constantly remember to keep reusable bags and containers readily available. Many eco-conscious consumers may be ready to sacrifice convenience for the health of the environment, but the majority will likely only go so far.

Finding the Balance

Achieving a happy medium between unnecessary overpackaging and ineffective underpackaging requires innovation and a thorough testing and assessment process. Advancing technology and science has allowed for the creation of innovative packaging materials made from renewable sources – for example, the rise of bioplastics.

  • Beverage industry leaders like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are leading the way, replacing virgin PET plastic bottles with those made from plants. Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle is made with 30% plant material, while PepsiCo developed the world’s first 100% plant-based PET bottle.
  • Computer giant Dell recently introduced its mushroom packaging, a cushioning material intended to replace polystyrene and nonrenewable materials. Mushroom spawn is actually grown into molds to become the package’s root structure, saving energy, material and cost.
  • Other innovative packaging products are made from materials ranging from cow bones to sugar cane, chicken feathers to tequila.

Innovative design is changing the way people view packaging. A change as small as redesigning the cap on a bottle of salad dressing can significantly reduce the package’s weight, improving energy efficiency and conservation. PUMA’s Clever Little Bag provided a new look for the traditional shoebox by replacing the paperboard lid with a reusable bag. The new design reduces the use of paper by 65%, reduces water, energy and diesel consumption, reduces carbon emissions, and eliminates the need for an external plastic bag to carry the items. The package successfully reduces waste while maintaining convenience.

A thorough testing and assessment process provides a better understanding of the packages’ life cycle from cradle to grave, and moving forward from there. Are these new materials reducing waste and cost? Are consumers actually composting their compostable bags? How can we continue to improve the process?

Eliminating packaging runs parallel to the belief that if we just get rid of it, the problem is solved. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Effective packaging plays a major role in the greater picture, which is to make safe, affordable, convenient and high-quality goods available to everyone. Too much or too little packaging takes away from each of these factors. Finding a balance allows us to create, educate and improve our way of life.

Jacqui MacKenzie is a writer for Straight North, a Chicago marketing agency that works with Heritage Pioneer, a company providing innovative packaging solutions. For more news and updates in the sustainable packaging industry, follow Pioneer Packaging on Twitter.


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