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Less is more – but tell that to a product designer…

We’ve all marvelled at the strange ways products are presented to us on the shelves of our local supermarket. I wanted some chocolate chip cookies with my afternoon tea last weekend. I quickly realised the ones I bought came with four layers of packaging: a shiny plastic outer layer holding a thin cardboard box with a plastic tray inside holding individually wrapped cookies. What madness is this?

It’s not the first time. I’ve seen individual bananas wrapped in layers of foil, peeled fruits stored in plastic containers and new sneakers arriving in double cardboard boxes twice their size filled with styrofoam beans and bubble wrap. OK I admit it; I roll my eyes, enjoy the product and separate my recyclables.

But I can’t shake a nagging feeling that it isn’t supposed to be this way. Of course, packaging has its benefits. It protects products during transport, keeps food fresh for longer and makes it easy for us to spot our favourite brands amid the sea of other options. There seem to be more products every day!

Ordering a cell battery by Dell online and this is what you may get.

Some marketing people favour black plastic trays for meats to make them look more juicy and appetising. We’re talking about smart people who know exactly how to affect our mood and, ultimately, our buying decisions. Why then can’t they undress the product so that it only has the necessary packaging?

Google ‘over-packaging’ and you’ll see what I mean. Examples are so bizarre they’re almost funny. Cola cans on a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. An avocado split in two, packaged in plastic and cardboard. A single egg held tightly in place in a plastic container. A melon sitting on shiny paper in its own open cardboard box. Why open? Just too look pretty, I suppose.

Am I watching a bad comedy in which retailers and brand ambassadors are trying to outdo each other? It’s a strange reality. On the one hand, ‘sustainable’ is becoming more of a priority for big companies around the world. At the same time, some of their most popular products are known for their unsustainable design.

Take Pringles, for example. The crisps come in a complex construction with a metal base, plastic cap, metal tear-off lid, and foil-lined cardboard sleeve. The tall container may be the perfect shape for stacking but is hard to crush and dispose of, too. Bear in mind that over three million Pringles tubes are manufactured in Europe alone every single day.

These crisps have been on the market since the 1960s. Surely, they could have come up with a solution by now? In the UK, brand owner Kellogg’s is trialling a tube using recycled paper so at least it’s a start.

Let me point out that the total value of the packaging globally exceeded US$ 917 billion (EUR 759 billion) in 2020, according to market analysts at Smithers. They expect that worldwide packaging demand will grow steadily at 2.8% to reach US$ 1.05 trillion (EUR 828 billion) in 2024, as detailed in the report “The Future of Global Packaging”.

At the moment, Asia is dominates the market; it accounts for at least 40% of worldwide consumption. North America is in second place with roughly 22%, ahead of Western Europe with 20%.

A helpful development is that the terms ‘eco-friendly design’ and ‘design-for-recycling’ are gaining momentum as consumers voice their criticism on social media. This, paired with the fact that big companies are expected to present annual sustainability reports, may finally convince brands to stop creating packaging that is not just impossibly wasteful but often also a recycling nightmare.

When packaging goes bananas…

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