Packaging plays a fundamental role in the delivery of goods and foodstuffs to consumers.
A key function is to protect the packaged goods against mechanical damage and other stressors such as oxygen, dust and dirt, biological contamination, humidity and temperature in order to maintain perfect functioning and quality of the product including, for instance, guaranteeing a minimum shelf life and the genuine flavour of the product.
In addition, there are several more functions packaging performs, such as
- Allowing safe and easy product use for consumers
- Providing helpful consumer information and promotional messages, and
- Supporting optimised logistics.
To some extent, these functions are subject to legal requirements.
Beyond these “traditional” key requirements, well known to anyone involved in the design and development of packaging, any meaningful attempt at Eco Design needs to include another key requirement in this multi-dimensional set of functions – minimising negative environmental impacts.
Eco Design of plastic packaging includes a holistic view of the entire packaging system (primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging) from incremental improvements to packaging to fundamental system innovations, e.g. establishing return logistics for used packages or setting up recycling systems.
Eco Design of plastic packaging needs to deal with conflicting objectives at different levels. Conflicts may arise between different environmental goals as well as between environmental goals and other key aspects of packaging.
As a result of the variety of functions outlined above, today‘s packaging often requires complex and highly specialised products. As with all products, natural resources are used over the entire life cycle, which is something that affects the environment. Impacts occur during feedstock production, processing of the actual packaging material and the packaging itself, the filling/packaging process, during the use of the packaged goods and the collection, sorting and subsequent recycling of the packaging waste.
On the one hand, packaging itself thus has an environmental impact during its own life cycle. On the other hand, it also helps reduce the environmental impacts of packed goods through its protective function.
In the implementation of the different functional requirements in the packaging design process, designers make a variety of decisions that largely determine environmental impacts. The decisions relate to the manner in which functional requirements for the packaging are met, how the materials are selected and how they are combined, which labels and coatings are applied as well as the weight and geometry of the packaging.
From an environmental protection point of view, the use of natural resources should be minimised as far as possible without compromising protective functions. It must be noted here that the environmental footprint of the packed good is typically much higher than that of the packaging. With food, for example, packaging accounts for five to ten percent of total energy consumption, while over 90 percent relates to the manufacturing, transport, storage and preparation of the food.
It would be counterproductive from an overall ecological perspective if the necessary protection of the packed goods were impaired as a result of a reduced use of resources for the packaging. If packed goods are damaged, resources used in their production are wasted.
It goes without saying that excessive packaging must also be avoided. Overpackaging designs will Lead to increased resource consumption that is not required for the protection of the packed goods. In addition to an extreme protective function, which is unnecessary under the relevant logistical and usage conditions, overpackaging can also result from excessive requirements in the information and marketing function of packaging.
It should be noted that when packaging designs are being optimised, the entire system of packaging and packed goods (“packaging solution”) must be considered.