The Long Read

The Case for Repackaging


9 December 2016

Online shopping experiences often end the same way. A parcel arrives, packed within other parcels like cardboard Russian dolls. Already too large to t through a letterbox, the item travels additionally cushioned by air-filled plastic bags, coils of thick brown paper, or on a soft bedding of foam peanuts. Sometimes all three. The mound of packaging that results is the physical manifestation of buying habits driven by convenience. These proportions of packaging to product are the unhappy consequence of e-commerce.

Although still just a fraction of the packaging waste produced by the food and drink industry, the discarded packing materials generated by the rise of internet shopping has become a visible focus for the online generation. Every year more than 3.7bn disposable packages are delivered to consumers in Europe solely from e-commerce. Along with other streams of consumer packaging waste, the increasing volume of goods ordered online is having a considerable impact on the environment. Around a third of all domestic rubbish is packaging and the average European wastes more than 150kg of it per year. With only a small percentage recovered, the rest is sent to landfill or incinerated. Aside from cardboard and paper, only two types of plastic commonly used in packaging – PE (polyethylene) and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – are widely recycled. Polystyrene and polypropylene films are not. In the UK, some 1.2m tonnes of plastic lm ends up in the waste stream every year. Meanwhile, discarded polystyrene is such a problem in the US that several states have banned the substance because of the difficulty of recycling it.

The situation is wasteful in terms of material, but also energy. Producing raw materials for packaging, transporting packages and recycling all contribute to global carbon emissions. The problem has prompted a number of investigations by designers seeking to provide alternatives. Some believe biomaterials can answer the call. Made from natural and biodegradable substances, these materials are designed to mimic the capabilities of the plastic products society has come to depend on. Others take a structural approach, questioning throwaway culture and proposing re-useable products that require systemic change across the supply chain. Neither group can suggest a quick fix, but these inroads suggest a desire to re-evaluate why we use certain materials and how we value them. Could designers and entrepreneurs trigger a shift towards a more responsible material culture and are consumers ready for change?

“Plastic is not often reckoned as valuable in daily life, but it is a precious material,” says Kosuke Araki, a designer based in Tokyo who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2013. As part of design group AMAM, alongside Noriaki Maetani and Akira Muraoka, Araki won the 2016 Lexus Design Award with Agar Plasticity, a project investigating agar (a seaweed- derived foodstuff) as an organic alternative to synthetic plastic. Araki labels the contemporary culture of disposability a “seemingly ignored problem”. The group discovered that more than 36 per cent of all packing material is plastic and that 288m tonnes of plastic were produced worldwide in 2012.

Agar Plasticity, a research project by Kosuke Araki, Noriaki Maetani and Akira Muraoka, of AMAM.

Agar is commonly sold in a dried state – as a block, flakes or powder – and is used for making Japanese sweets. “When we visited a local supermarket in Tokyo, we were attracted by its material qualities: delicacy, crispness and airiness,” says Araki. A series of experiments led the team to a range of packing material prototypes. By dissolving pure agar powder in hot water, pouring it into a mould, freezing, thawing and then air-drying it, the team found that it expands to take on a spongy texture. By varying concentrations and freezing speeds, they were able to produce a prototype transparent lm, a loose-fill cushioning and a package with integrated cushioning. The team also found that they could mix agar with extracted red-algae fibre to make thicker and harder mouldable products, suitable for packing plant pots and wine bottles, or wrapping flowers. The versatility of the material, its natural abundance and easy decomposition are its most promising advantages over synthetic plastic, which takes years to degrade.

Given that the 2016 edition of the Lexus Design Award was themed “Anticipation”, it is telling that
the agar project was chosen. The proposal has the romantic sense of discovering an intelligent solution based on a resource that is right in front of us. Yet to frame designers as providers of scientific breakthroughs can be problematic given that such ideas rarely get the testing required for them to become feasible. The agar team hope that the recognition they have won will facilitate prototype development with research partners. So far, the cost of harvesting agar from the sea is prohibitive, but Araki believes that there is potential to grow the material in an aquaculture system that could reduce the price and thereby create a more realistic product. “The production process has to be industrialised, and that is what we are desperately aiming for,” he says. “What we can produce now is something functional, yet a bit like craft. We are making all the prototypes with our own freezers and do not have a big facility to produce it in quantity.”

Some biomaterial discoveries, however, have led to industrial success. In 2006, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre invented a mouldable material using agricultural waste and mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus. Mycelium is mixed with cleaned agricultural waste (such as corn stalks), which it attaches to through a network of fibres and thereby forms a composite. After a few days, the composite is broken into small particles that can be shaped ina mould. The material is then dried to prevent further growth. In 2014, New York-based architects The Living used 10,000 bricks made from the material in order to construct a 12m-tall installation for MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program. “We think it’s interesting and important that when you start designing a building it’s not only about that single project, but also about things that are contextual,” remarked the practice’s founder David Benjamin. “Not only its relation to other structures in the area and its relation to the people occupying it, but also its relation to the physical world. Where did that stuff it’s made from come from?”

Mushroom® Packaging, a material made from mycelium by Ecovative.

Bayer and McIntyre’s company, Ecovative, also produces their mycelium material as Mushroom® Packaging. In this form, it becomes a substitute for expanded polystyrene, a lightweight shipping foam formed from pre-expanded polystyrene beads. Backed with grants and capital from partners such as the US materials and technology conglomerate 3M, Ecovative has customers that include Dell, Crate & Barrel and New York-based lighting manufacturer Rich Brilliant Willing. Like foam or polystyrene, its material can be moulded to t irregularly shaped items and it can be composted at home by the end user.

Crucially, Ecovative says its price is competitive with synthetic plastic. “The cost and economic value proposition are typically the primary reasons customers switch to Mushroom® Packaging,” says McIntyre. “We’re able to deliver custom-designed parts that are grown using a fraction of the energy of plastic foams and using locally sourced raw materials.” The energy required to produce materials represents the biggest advantage of Mushroom® Packaging: producing it takes one- fth to one-eighth of the energy used to make the equivalent volume of foam plastic. Charles Brill, co-founder of Rich Brilliant Willing, says that Ecovative’s products are used to pack his studio’s aluminium Monocle wall light, but others still require bubble wrap: “We always use the best solutions for each application. For items that are fragile, like hand-blown glass, we use a recycled plastic bubble wrap that we produce on-demand at our shop.” The cost of Mushroom® Packaging varies, but Brill says it “was less expensive by 15 per cent and also improved labour times. The only challenge is to balance lead time because the material has to grow into the mould.”

Dell is a particularly prominent customer in the green-packaging market. Alongside using Ecovative’s Mushroom® Packaging, the Texas-based computer manufacturer has pioneered packaging made using wheat straw, bamboo and protection bags filled with captured methane. While many large companies are expected to address sustainability within their business, Dell goes further than most by partnering with start-ups to help scale their ideas. It has also pledged to make its packaging totally waste-free
by 2020. Its next area of research is recycled ocean plastics – harvested from the great swirls of debris floating in the Paci c and Atlantic that were first found in the 1970s. According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, at least 8m tonnes of waste is dumped annually into the ocean. In 2015, China alone was thought to account for 2.4m tonnes. “We are in the process of conducting a feasibility study to determine if we will be able to use recycled plastics from oceans and waterways in Dell product packaging, which is our goal,” says Oliver Campbell, the rm’s director of packaging. The study will test supplier samples for the characteristics needed to comply with regulations and in-house requirements. “The ultimate goal is to establish a commercial-scale ‘ocean plastics’ supply chain.”

Designers and companies have already noticed the potential for reclaimed ocean plastics. Gyrecraft was a 2015 project by Studio Swine that transformed cheap plastic into luxury items, reflecting the difficulty of recovering plastics once they have entered the ocean. In June 2016, Adidas and designer Alexander Taylor released a limited-edition shoe with an upper made from recovered ocean plastic. Yet the editioned nature of these examples means that both projects served to highlight the problem, rather than taking steps to resolve it. A designer’s instinct on discovering a new material is invariably to use it to create new objects – the 20th-century mechanism that has led to rampant consumption and waste. Describing the dilemma in Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek writes: “With new processes and an endless list of materials at his disposal, the artist, craftsman and designer now su er from the tyranny of absolute choice. When everything becomes possible, when all limitations are gone, design and art can easily become a never-ending search for novelty, until newness-for-the-sake-of-newness becomes the only measure.” Yet Dell’s large-scale and long-term ambition for recycled ocean plastics as packaging might prove a more legitimate use.

Dell’s commitment to the environment also makes business sense. Incorporating sustainable materials and reducing overall usage has saved the company more than $53m and avoided 14,000 tonnes of packaging since 2009. Vitally, Campbell says the impetus for this change has come from consumers. “Customers on social media were providing feedback on the size of the boxes and the material we were using in our packaging,” he says. “That spurred us to look at how we could apply principles of the circular economy to design out waste and obtain the most value from the resources we use.” Social media has fuelled consumer activism; customers tweet companies with the hashtag #packagingfail and shaming pictures of outrageously outsized packaging. In Dell’s case, this drove change, but it also shows a disconnect between conventional buying habits and their consequences. While people are happy to accept the convenience of ordering products straight to our doorsteps (and the need for packaging and extra transport miles that this entails), we cannot accept the physical intrusion when this excess packaging enters our homes.

Textures, shapes and colours taken from packaging material.

This trope plays out in other forms too: fast fashion without acknowledgement of the sweat shops that create it; meat consumption without reflection on the processes behind it. In a chapter titled ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ from the book Designing for Zero Waste, Dr Robert Crocker calls it “a conceptual distancing or ‘distantiation’”. He writes: “The ‘stuff’ we use and enjoy in our lives appears almost magically[...] the real origins, lifecycle, technical function in use, and ‘end-of-life’ destination of[...] products and services has been skilfully airbrushed out of the picture.” Crocker believes this isn’t a “corporate conspiracy”, but the consequence of a transformed relationship with goods. Over 150 years society has gone from a small population of face-to-face customers to an “army of consumers, dependent on vast, often global mass-production and mass-distribution systems, whose complexity and lengthy supply chains render them opaque to us”. He argues that this distanced global activity makes asking individual customers to change their habits ineffective on a grand scale: we don’t have enough knowledge to act clearly and are easily misinformed about what and how we buy.

The greater system, then, requires a structural re-organisation – one that designers and innovators might influence. One example is RePack, a Finnish sustainable design company that provides e-commerce sites with re-useable returnable packets for shipping. Co-founder Jonne Hellgren describes the lightbulb moment that came to the company in 2011 while it was working with the logistics centres of the Finnish post office: “One of our designers just blurted out: ‘Why is all this [packaging] disposable?’ In the Nordics, when you buy a beer and return the bottle you get some money back. We thought, why couldn’t we apply the same system to e-commerce deliveries?”

Packets are made from durable and recyclable polypropylene (similar to Ikea bags), polyethylene
and cardboard, and can be re-used between 20 and 50 times. The cost of return is prepaid by the company, and the customer is given a small discount on their next purchase as an incentive to comply. Designed for the postal system, the largest packet has a capacity of up to 45l, but still folds down to letter size after use. About 20 companies currently use RePack, most offering it as a delivery option rather than the sole means. It’s a soft start to changing behaviour, indicating that the solution works for ecologically minded buyers, rather than for everyone. It also demonstrates that even companies with sustainable brand values aren’t ready to make a total break with disposable packaging. The carrot method represented by RePack – rather than the stick of, for instance, the taxes on plastic bags that are increasingly common in Europe, and bans in India, China and across swathes of Africa – is not likely to effect profound change in the short term. Yet if RePack, or schemes like it, were offered as a free or cheaper delivery option than those that prioritise speed, behavioural change might be possible. Hellgren notes that options regarding packaging remain limited and how customers receive their purchase is down to individual companies. “We also see people who use RePack are often the ones who shop online the most[...] the e-commerce heavy users,” he says. “It’s in the best interest of any e-commerce company to give them a better service and if that’s having a re-useable returnable package, then it makes sense to o er it.” In this respect, e-commerce and RePack might look for forebears in a number of small-scale initiatives from the food and drink industry. Shops such as Original Unverpackt in Berlin and In.gredients in Austin, Texas, style themselves as zero-waste supermarkets. The food on sale is not packaged. Rather, customers bring their own containers and pay by the weight of the groceries they purchase. The context is different to RePack, but the basic idea is the same.

RePack, a recyclable polypropylene package for shipping goods.

The giants of e-commerce don’t yet o er such alternatives, because packaging is not a priority.
The sheer scale of their operations means that other factors come to the fore. Asos sources more than 2,000 tonnes of cardboard and over 400 tonnes of plastic a year, yet packaging makes up only 11 per cent of its carbon footprint, compared to the 68 per cent of emissions generated by air, land and sea transport. Amazon’s sights are voraciously set on reducing its own shipping costs, which last year rose more than 18 per cent to $11.5bn. And while Amazon is piloting automated systems for reducing packaging, far more activity is geared towards faster and leaner delivery modes that cut out third-party couriers: drones that can deliver products from warehouse to doorstep within 30 minutes and Europe-wide expansion of its locker collection system. Both schemes eliminate the need for a package’s final transport miles and indicate a move to more efficient, re-useable systems. If drone delivery takes o in the way that Amazon projects, the need for disposable packaging could reduce dramatically. A promo video of the Amazon Prime Air service shows products rolling o conveyor belts into Tupperware-like plastic cartons that could potentially be sent back to Amazon or collected for future re-use.

Amazon’s locker system – a series of designated public collection points – also has wider potential. Designer Mireia Gordi i Vila had such a system in mind for Fragile, a flexible packaging product she designed in 2014 while studying at the Royal College of Art. Fragile consists of a case that grips objects within a membrane of mesh and Technogel – a tactile polyurethane currently used for cushioning in mattresses – and which could be delivered to the end user wholesale. Neither disposable nor bespoke, her solution is adaptable for a range of objects. The customer would then remove their item and return the case to a locker for collection. Since 2014, Gordi i Vila has received offers to produce her design, but says that none of the interested companies have understood the infrastructure required to make it widespread, such as that involved in the recycling of glass bottles. “What’s really important for me is that the whole project must be understood,” she says. “You can put a very nice product out there and say it’s re-useable. But if there’s no logistics to actually make it happen, then it just won’t be re-used. You will have a very long-lasting piece of plastic that’s going to end up in landfill. That’s definitely not what this project is about.” She believes that it would be more productive for a large company like Amazon to trial Fragile. If this were successful, smaller and medium-sized firms could be tempted to change their systems too.

In 2007, UK recycling charity carried out a similar trial with the catalogue retailer Argos, testing the feasibility of a re-useable protective sofa bag. Argos sells more than 10m pieces of upholstered furniture a year, generating 30,000 tonnes of packaging. The bag, made bespoke for the trial, resembles an outsized ji y envelope with an outer of low-density polyethylene and an inner of non-woven polypropylene tissue. Three thousand bags were used during the trial, which showed them capable of at least seven uses. The results were mostly positive: Argos saw reduced product damage and packaging spend, eliminating the use of at least 17 tonnes of cardboard and plastic packaging during the trial. Consumers were happy not to deal with bulky waste as the delivery driver was responsible for returning the bag to Argos. Nevertheless, getting retailers to commit to re-useables has proven di cult. “It’s a big investment to get a re-useable system fully working,” says Claire Shrewsbury, packaging programme manager at “You need to control bags getting lost and leaked out of the system, because invariably that packaging is at a higher cost per unit than one that can go o and be recycled. A business would have to weigh up whether the reduced cost of returns would be better than a cheaper, less protective one-way system.”

Zero-waste supermarkets, such as Original Unverpackt in Berlin, operate systems in which customers bring their own packaging to the store.

Where the investment in re-useables for an individual company is a barrier, external companies could be included to fill the gaps and control the movement of packaging. Shrewsbury says there is already a shining example of such a system in the case of shipping pallets. Pallets rarely belong to any one owner; instead they are pooled by specialist companies. “In the UK, CHEP is the organisation that really owns all of those,” she says. “If one gets broken, it’s taken out to be mended and then goes back in.” Across Europe, French provider LPR controls the movement of more than 73m pallets annually; New York-based PECO Pallet operates more than 1,300 depots in the USA, Canada and Mexico.

All the same, systems that rely on consumers for return would require a major cultural shift. In the last 40 years, a disposable attitude has come to largely erase traditional recycling. Many in the UK remember leaving milk bottles out for daily collection. Yet with the rise of the plastic carton, the British rm Dairy Crest announced in 2014 that it would phase out glass milk bottles. In 2012 just 4 per cent of its milk sales were in glass bottles, compared to 94 per cent in 1975.

There is optimism behind this tale, however. In late 2015 Dairy Crest was acquired by the German brand Müller, which reversed the decision, incorporating glass bottles into its fresh milk and grocery delivery service Milk&More. The decision reflected the role that culture plays in determining our willingness to work with returnable systems. Speaking to trade publisher The Grocer, a member of Milk&More reflected on the cultural endurance of glass bottles: “For many they are just what the doorstep delivery service is all about.” After a long period of throwaway culture, the nascent sharing economy is further stimulating the required attitude change among a new generation. “You don’t need to own an object anymore to make use of it,” says Gordi i Vila. “The idea that you just pay for as much as you use[...] is transmitting to the design of objects. They are becoming a bit more flexible and functional.” The “peak stuff” revelations of early 2016, a term coined by Ikea’s head of sustainability Steve Howard, reflected a shift in Western consumer spending from possessions to services. In February, the UK’s Office for National Statistics released data showing a decrease in raw material consumption per person: an average15 tonnes of material in 2001 compared with just over 10 tonnes in 2013. The UK is the first to show the trend, but there are similar patterns in other European countries. Digitisation and increased efficiency are proposed to be behind the slowdown, prompting a re-balancing in our perception of product value. If we reach the state of peak convenience that Amazon’s 30-minute deliveries entail, will we still have the same appetite for accumulation? Soon the problem might not be creating alternatives for packaging, but designing to mitigate the waste we have already created and introduce new uses for it.

When started out its aim was to encourage reduction in packaging waste. But nine years on from the Argos trial it has changed direction to making recycling services more consistent across the UK. The change shows that although returning packaging might be more logical, it is still easier
to throw things away (albeit into the recycling bin) than to re-use them. There is good reason, then,
for designers to keep innovating with materials that can replicate plastic’s properties and usefulness.
The regulation around global packaging, shipping and distribution has grown so complex that it requires expertise to navigate successfully, marginalising the product designer’s influence. Historically, the designer enjoyed more of a total role in this respect – the economy of Robin Day’s Polyprop chair, for example, went beyond form and material to consider efficient shipping, with the designer Ivan Dodd brought in to consider how the chair could be distributed and how its carton might double as display.

Packaging waste, particularly from e-commerce, is the visible tip of a greater problem caused by mass consumption at hyper speed. All of the proposed alternatives essentially come up against the same problem of static consumer and business habit. Media campaigns lay over-packaging complaints at
the retailer’s door, but cultural change on the consumer’s part looks to be a far bigger factor in redressing the balance. In a future where plastic becomes rarer and more valuable, and happiness is no longer linked to possession, that may just start to happen.