George Carlin explores in hilarious detial the odd obesession we human beings have with "stuff." A great setup for a spirited discussion of the inevitable revolution in how "stuff" is boxed and bagged.
Just about everywhere you look, you'll find people with an unquenchable thirst for more and more "stuff,” as George Carlin so effectively details in his famous act on this very subject. For as long as there has been stuff, there has been packaging to protect, display and transport that stuff. Some packaging is decidedly clever and necessary. The majority of packaging is archaic and wasteful. Its days are officially numbered.
Changes in the dynamics of consumer behavior, global resource availability and attitudes around product stewardship are catalyzing a major shift in what we consider acceptable ways to package all of our stuff.
Environmental concerns aside, price will be the biggest driver of the packaging revolution. Why pay for packaging when you could be getting more value in the form of the product inside? The big box stores popularized in the 1990's proved that bigger is better. Consumers gobble up opportunities to purchase more product with less packaging. “Refills” have become commonplace for staples such as liquid hand soap and detergent. Wal-Mart successfully worked with suppliers to provide ultra-concentrated detergents that require a fraction of the packaging and shelf space as the original formulations.
The supermarket is an easy target for a thought experiment. The American supermarket carries some 50,000 different items. By weight, packaging accounts for 30 percent of the products we buy and comprises the majority of a person's annual non-organic waste footprint. Considering packaging is made from the same raw resources that we rely on to make the products themselves (oil, paper, metals, glass, etc.), it would make sense to prioritize product over package. In many cases, the package is the product or it creates convenience or some other feature that people are willing to pay for. That's great. This article is about the other 99.9% of packaging, much of it conceived for the sole benefit of the producer with no regard for the end-of-life hassle the consumer is faced with, or the resulting environmental impact.
Up until now, the end-of-life stage of a product's use was not at the forefront of a product or packaging design discussion. If a company has a great idea, it can package that idea up in some flashy, plasticky, heavily armored container in order to attract attention and reduce spoilage. The very moment that the sucker (the consumer) purchases the product, the packaging becomes the consumer's problem. Landfills, backyard bonfires, and ocean dumping are the most visible consequences of what happens when massive amounts of packaging end up in the hands of consumers who have limited options for responsible disposal.
Consumer choice is becoming an increasingly powerful force in just about every product design area, including packaging. The proliferation of the Internet and social media (the Greenophobe included) makes it pleasantly easy for well-intentioned people to trash stupid products. Demand side forces such as consumer choice are just the beginning. As resources become increasingly constrained, we will experience a natural evolution toward bulk and reusable packaging. It's not a new concept. During World War I and Word War II, resources were heavily constrained in order to preserve valuable materials such as tin and aluminum for the war effort. Disposable consumer product packaging practically disappeared.
More recently, because of decades of relative resource abundance and low energy prices, packaging blossomed into a key marketing differentiator. Many products are marketed exclsively under differentiated packaging configurations. Same parent company, same formulation – different package and different price.
If you're not convinced that a revolution in packaging is imminent, peruse The Greenophobe's packaging (s)hit list. Many everyday products are likely to be banned globally if they do not develop product stewardship programs or innovate. "Stuff" that makes our list includes:
1) hopelessly high ratio of packaging to actual product
2) the energy intensity of the packaging is fiendishly high for the benefit delivered by using the product
3) it just has to go. Outdated, inconvenient, annoying. You'll know these products when you see them.
THE GREENOPHOBE'S WASTEFUL
PACKAGING (S)HIT LIST...
PACKAGING (S)HIT LIST...