Thinking outside the box
- Pollution & Waste Management
the environmentalist reports on the award-winning precycling approach used by Less Packaging to minimise waste for its clients
The Less Packaging Company (Less) is a consultancy that advises large companies on how to optimise their packaging to benefit the environment and commercial interests. Less, which has design facilities in Bishop’s Stortford, Hong Kong and Delhi, was founded in 2010 by two people who had worked in the packaging industry for 20 years and wanted to promote an ethos of sustainability in the sector.
“Every person in the UK spends more than £470 a year on packaging – about £28 billion in total – and we dump more than 10 million tonnes of packaging waste each year. That’s why Less was set up,” says client relations director Ian Bates. “The Less mantra is: love packaging, hate waste.”
Less works with leading retailers, such as John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Toys R Us, to help them reduce packaging without the changes having any negative impact on products, brand performance and value.
The Less mission cuts across the grain of what has been accepted methodology in the packaging industry, however. Like the rest of the sector, its two founding members had previously operated on the basis that the more packaging sold, the more profit the suppliers would make.
Now, Less works with the principle that reducing packaging can actually help to enhance organisations’ profitability, by improving resource efficiency and cutting costs associated with transport and storage.
The Less view is that, although consumer packaging is an essential component of everyday living, it should be designed to avoid unnecessary waste across the whole supply chain.
The value of packaging
Packaging plays a vital role in protecting and transporting goods from factory to point of use by the consumer, but the value chain of a product is often long and complex and is not purely functional. Packaging has to fulfil a complex mix of requirements for retailers, brand owners and consumers, including sensory appeal, high-level branding and perceived value.
As Bates explains, packaging holds certain “value triggers” and consumers typically attach more worth to a product with a large amount of packaging. Manufacturers and retailers are obviously motivated to sell more products and so cannot ignore the aesthetic aspect of packaging.
Other factors influencing the way products are packed include the growth of supermarket and home shopping over the past 20 years, which has seen a rise in packaging to enable products to be delivered with minimal damage.
The drive towards retail-ready packaging to ease the unpacking process and retailers’ ability to sell multiple products has reduced costly in-store handling, but is also driving the need for more packaging if it is not designed optimally, according to Less.
Branded packaging design often sits in the marketing area of a business and, because of this, aesthetics can have a higher priority than production and supply-chain efficiency.
“Brand awareness and creative design often take precedence over standardisation and sustainability in packaging,” says Bates. “Without packaging, life would be a lot messier and less exciting, but it can often be done more efficiently, reducing environmental impacts and consumers’ frustration.”
Less focuses on packaging optimisation by removing waste in the design of packaging products and throughout the supply chain. It is not a manufacturer, but designs packaging solutions for clients. Typically, the consultancy works with the customer’s suppliers to help them create packaging products based on Less designs. With design facilities in several countries, Less is able to support its clients globally.
Bates says the best kind of packaging is minimal, sustainable, recyclable and, where possible, reusable. “Anything made from non-renewable materials or those that are difficult to recover and recycle, is ultimately going to place a burden on society,” he says.
According to Less principles, the components of packaging should be easy to separate – for example, plastic should not be glued to cardboard if possible. In an ideal world, plastic would not be used for packaging at all, but many products need a window for visibility. There are, however, more sustainable options than the traditionally used PVC, confirms Less, including PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is more recyclable.
Weight has been the most common metric for packaging optimisation so far, and still is, but Less promotes a more holistic approach throughout the supply chain. Pack size, material source, use of space and productivity are all equally important, says Bates, as are material source, waste and energy recovery.
Scoring the sustainability of packaging, and understanding what good packaging looks and feels like, requires more in-depth analysis. To this end, Less promotes a more sophisticated and sustainable approach to packaging. It is a member of the advisory committee for packaging, an independent body that advises Defra on matters relating to packaging and packaging waste, and acts as an adviser to Wrap.
Cradle to cradle precycling
Less applies a simple philosophy to its packaging designs, called precycling, using foresight rather than hindsight to design out packaging waste before it happens.
Precycling is a process as well as an ethos, and instils a “cradle-to-cradle” approach into design activities to ensure that the environmental impact of packaging is taken into account throughout the life cycle of a product.
For example, as part of the design process, Less measures the impact of the energy used to produce different packaging materials so that an informed decision can be made as to which has the least embedded carbon.
Taking a holistic approach means that designers do not consider the packaging in isolation, but analyse the product and packaging as a whole. Less has put this technique into practice many times.
One example is where the consultancy worked with a client to redesign the packaging for a piece of lighting. The packaging was large and cumbersome, partly because of a protuberant part of the lamp. Less advised the client to change the product design so it could be packaged much more efficiently, and the manufacturer did so.
Another example comes from the packaging of fireplaces made in China. Less advised the client to ship the product in two parts rather than pre-assembled as one piece, which considerably reduced the amount and size of the packaging that was needed.
More efficient packaging has a big impact not only on the potential creation of waste, but also on the whole supply chain and, ultimately, the manufacturer’s or retailer’s bottom line, says Bates. Reducing the amount of packaging for products can have a significant, positive impact on the amount spent on freight and shelf space, for example.
One of Less’s more recent projects involved working with supermarket Tesco to design the packaging for around 100 pre-school toys in its Carousel range, for which the consultancy won a major commendation at the 2012 BCE environmental leadership awards.
According to Bates, manufacturers of gadgets and toys often face some of the biggest challenges when trying to optimise their packaging because size is everything when it comes to perceived value. All consumer packaging has a role to play in creating appeal for a product, but toy packaging has a particular need to generate delight and excitement.
“The challenge is to reduce the volume of packaging without diminishing the experience of seeing, touching, choosing, anticipating and opening,” explains Bates. “At the same time, many parents will despair when trying to access some toys through the layers of robust packaging, twisty ties and metal screws.”
Less’s work with Tesco’s Carousel toys cut the average weight of packaging by 15% and resulted in a 5% decrease in cube size (the box packaging). The consultancy was also able to design out other waste, including metal screws, plastic ties and plastic windows, while making the packs more supply-chain and consumer friendly.
“The new packaging is eye-catching, easy to navigate, minimal, safe, secure, frustration-free, sustainable and recyclable,” says Bates.
Less estimates that it can take up to four minutes to unpack a typical toy; the brief from Tesco was to reduce unpacking times to 45 seconds. The Less design replaced the fiddly metal and plastic ties with cardboard engineering techniques to keep the toys securely in their presentation boxes.
This approach ensured that the toys retained their “touch me, try me” tactile appeal to children and consumers, but significantly reduced the impact of the packaging on the environment.
The Carousel toys and packaging are manufactured in the Far East where Less’s Hong Kong team partnered with Tesco’s local sourcing office and their supply base to ensure that the packaging was designed and produced “right first time”. According to Bates, this involved working closely with 10 local suppliers to guide them step by step through the new packaging processes.
Less is growing steadily, from two founding partners in the UK three years ago to now employing more than 20 people globally. Its aim, says Bates, aside from changing the behaviour of business to reduce the impact of packaging on the planet, is to increase the consultancy’s international presence. Less has just secured its first French client, a major retailer, and there are many more projects with well-known companies in the pipeline.
The biggest challenge Less faces in putting its ambitious vision for packaging into practice is gaining board-level buy-in for packaging optimisation projects at retailers and manufacturers. Bates says: “Large companies still tend to be silo in their thinking and our design solutions require a holistic, birds-eye perspective that unites different functions, such as brand management, marketing and operations.”
Total packaging waste in the UK increased steadily between 2001 and 2009, from 9.3 million tonnes in 2001 to 10.8 million tonnes in 2009, according to a 2011 report from Defra.
Around half of packaging waste is derived from commercial and industrial sources, and half from households. Total recovery and recycling of packaging in the UK has more than doubled from 3.3 million tonnes in 1998 – 33% of all packaging waste – to 7.2 million tonnes in 2009 – the equivalent of 67% of all packaging waste. Despite this, only 24% of the UK’s plastic packaging is currently recycled.
According to Wrap:
- the grocery sector accounts for about 70% of the UK packaging market and uses 10 million tonnes of packaging each year. About 4.9 million tonnes reaches households and, if it is not reused or recycled, can end up in landfill;
- while 73% of packaging can be recycled in England, only 33% is; and
- research indicates that consumers favour sustainable products and want less packaging.
Wrap reports that decisions around material choice for primary, secondary and tertiary packaging are primarily informed by: whether consumers like it; supply-chain constraints; the need to protect the product from damage; and closed-loop approaches to resources through designing for recyclability and recycled content.
Designing packaging so that it can be more easily recycled and specifying the use of recycled content will help to reduce the demand for primary raw materials and generate demand for recovered resources, says Wrap.
Reducing the amount of material used at the outset, through lightweighting, for example, is an important way in which to prevent unnecessary packaging from being manufactured, stored, transported, handled, collected, recycled and disposed of.
The broader environmental advantages of better packaging include lower energy use and fewer greenhouse-gas emissions.
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