How the Plastic Free Movement Impacts Packaging and Product Design

Packaging and product design are integral to consumerism as we know it. Discover how the plastic-free movement is creating a shift in how products are displayed, made, and disposed of.

Every time you go into a retail or grocery store, you see food products or other items packaged in a way to appeal to the senses. Packaging is a way to differentiate one brand from another; it gives the customer a first impression of the product. Some packages are vibrant and bold, whereas others are neutral and muted. The design of the packaging is more than the aesthetics. It also encapsulates the brand message in a single product.

How the Plastic Free Movement Impacts Packaging and Product Design — Packaging Trends

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At first glance, packaging is simply a means to present a specific product on the shelf. It’s opened once and then trashed or recycled. But what happens to the packaging when it has been discarded? That oh-so-carefully designed container ends up in landfills, oceans, and rivers, causing harm to surrounding wildlife and ecosystems. In fact, it’s estimated that around forty percent of all plastics produced is packaging. That’s more than the plastic created and used for building and construction! Surely, there’s a way to reduce package and plastic pollution while still appealing to consumers.

How the Plastic Free Movement Impacts Packaging and Product Design — Plastic Contamination

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After being exposed to images and videos of wildlife harmed by plastics, consumers and business alike are stepping up to face plastic pollution. The up-and-coming plastic-free movement has gained momentum in making others aware of the effects of excessive plastic use. It has achieved so much traction that many businesses are changing how they approach product and packaging design in order to take more responsibility of how the product is being discarded.

What’s the Plastic-Free Movement All About?

This trending movement, also coined “zero waste” or “low waste,” is currently gaining traction. It’s catching everyone’s eyes due to viral images and videos showing wildlife and sea life harmed by the overconsumption of plastic. What was once a revolutionary material is now so heavily consumed that it’s wreaking havoc on our environment, due to its infinite lifespan.

So, the goal of the plastic-free movement is to bring awareness to the amounts of plastic that is used on a daily basis. From straws to coffee cups to food packaging, plastic is everywhere. This durable yet flexible material is heavily embedded in most cultures worldwide; in some areas, you simply cannot escape plastic.

How the Plastic Free Movement Impacts Packaging and Product Design — Escaping Plastic

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The good news is, there are many areas where plastic consumption can be reduced. More and more consumers are opting for reusable items over disposable items, including reusable water bottles, straws, produce bags, or grocery bags. While switching over to something as small as a reusable straw may not mean much, using one product over and over again instead of its single-use counterpart diverts a lot of plastic from landfills and oceans.

How the Plastic Free Movement Impacts Packaging and Product Design — Reusable Products

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The plastic-free movement has become so well known that brands are stepping up their sustainability efforts, from the manufacturing to the disposal of a product. Many companies have changed their packaging to reduce plastic, switched to recycled or reusable materials, or ditched traditional packaging altogether.

The Rise of Package-Free Goods

In addition to the increasing trend of consumers opting for plastic-free goods, many are opting for package-free goods. Consumers can find package-free goods in the bulk sections of many grocery stores, in farmers markets, in specialty stores, or in zero waste-oriented stores. This concept forgoes the traditional packaging that most products would typically have, such as a label, container, or design component, thus eliminating the packaging design and experience altogether.

How the Plastic Free Movement Impacts Packaging and Product Design — Package-Free Goods

Image via Newman Studio.

While typical packaging is used to lure customers to a specific products, more and more businesses are offering items without packaging in order to reduce total cost of goods and materials. Still, going package-free is not ideal for every product. Many items are required to have some sort of packaging component, such as oral hygiene products.

Even though many products are unable to go package-free, the plastic-free movement has motivated many brands to think twice about their packaging and product design’s overall impact.

Companies That Are Reducing Their Products’ Impact

While many brands still have a lot of work to do in order to make their packaging and product more sustainable, there are quite a few companies that are doing it right. From creating thread from recycled plastics, to using only compostable materials, these businesses prioritize sustainability throughout the product’s lifecycle and advocate for making the world a cleaner place.

Adidas x Parley

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The EQT Support ADV; using Parley Ocean Plastic @adidasoriginals and @parley.tv unite to turn a problem into progress. Watch our Instagram story for more. #adidasParley #EQT

A post shared by adidas (@adidas) on Oct 14, 2017 at 2:59am PDT

In order to combat the heaping patches of ocean plastic, Adidas and Parley have collaborated to make athletic wear from recycled plastics. This collaboration effort tackles the increasing issue of littered plastics on beaches and coastlines while creating something new from trash.

Many other brands have taken this approach of creating thread from plastic, including Rothy’s, Girlfriend Collective, and Everlane.

Numi Tea

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When choosing a premium tea, do you go beyond the bag?⁣ 🤷🏽‍♀️⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ Creating an ethically sourced, 100% organic tea is not about appearances. Sure, those silky "sachet" bags look nice, but do they contain plastic? Do they biodegrade back to the earth once consumed?⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Our tea bags are unbleached, biodegradable filter paper. We fill them with 100% organic tea leaves and other plant-based deliciousness in the highest grade available to steep the most flavorful cup. 🌱 For tea lovers who prefer loose blends, we have many options.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ We don't add "natural" flavors concocted in a lab. We don't add sugar or sweeteners–we leave that choice to you. (No shame in having a sweet tooth, honestly!)⁣ 😋⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ We're committed to direct and ethical sourcing, with 89% of ingredients traceable to the farm and 93% of products sold having Fair Trade or Fair Labor certifications.⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Our 19+ year legacy of keeping it real is unwavering. We thank you for going beyond the tea bag! 🙏⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ 📷 @tothecuriousminded

A post shared by Numi Organic Tea (@numiorganictea) on Dec 19, 2018 at 4:06pm PST

Numi Tea is the gold standard for sustainability efforts. They live and breathe all things earth-friendly, from the teas and herbs they source all the way down to carbon offsetting projects. They also go above and beyond packaging efforts by using soy-based inks, compostable tea bags (most contain plastic!), implementing organic and fair trade practices, and working with local areas to ensure thriving communities.

Pela Case

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"Small choices add up to making a big difference! 🌊⁣ ⁣ That's why I did my research and chose to buy a @pelacase when my Iphone case broke. ⁣ I had to wait a bit for it to get delivered (made in Canada 🇨🇦), but it was totally worth it. It arrived with a minimal packaging (of course) and a hand-written message. ⁣ It's about the little things – just lovely 😍⁣ ⁣ For me, this is just the beginning and it already feels sooo good to know that I'm helping our future 🌎⁣ ⁣ Reducing plastic consumption is just a part, but a big one.⁣ ⁣ How many times do we stop to think about our #footprint? 🌱⁣ How many things do we own and how often do we question what's behind them? who worked on it, who will be impacted once we discard them? .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ Now back to the case… 🧐 if this is not plastic, what is it made of? Flaxstic®, which is comprised of compostable bioplastic elastomer and flax straw materials 👩‍🔬– If this is too 🤓, let's just say it's a sustainable bioplastic, which will decompose in about 6 months to 2 years (depending on the conditions). But it will 100%!.⁣ .⁣ .⁣ It's high time we become conscious about our general consumption levels and choices. ⁣ There's no planet B, and as my good friend @chartedesco would say, let's #savethefuture 🙌💛" – @cooltobegood⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ #believeinbetter #pelacase #savethewaves #ditchsingleuseplastic #ecofriendly #sustainability #cooltobegood #startwhereyouare #consciouschoices

A post shared by Pela Case (@pelacase) on Mar 28, 2019 at 9:05am PDT

Pela Case disrupts the phone case industry by using flax straw, instead of hard plastics or silicone, as the main component of their case material. The flax straw used in their phone cases provides a solution to the flax straw waste from harvesting flax seed oil, while also creating a fully compostable phone case.

Elate Cosmetics

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Simplify your beauty ritual with our sustainable Capsule system. Did you know all of our compacts and palettes are made of Bamboo? This is a sustainable fibre that helps defend against soil erosion where it is planted. Our bamboo is water treated, so at the end of it's life it will decompose with no chemicals leeching out. From single eye colour to full PRO size palettes we have you covered! What is in your palette?⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ #ownyourbeauty #loveelate #crueltyfree #greenbeauty #vegan #glutenfree #sustainableliving #toxinfreemakeup #currentlywearing #beauty #selflove #truebeauty #crueltyfreemakeup #cleanmakeup #lipstick #lowwaste #cleanbeauty #cleanmakeup #selfcare #sustainablebeauty⁣ #naturalbeauty⁣

A post shared by Elate Cosmetics (@elatecosmetics) on Apr 14, 2019 at 9:14am PDT

Rather than packaging cosmetics in hard to recycle plastics and mixed materials, Elate Cosmetics uses bamboo to make their packaging more sustainable. Bamboo is known to be a self-regenerating source of timber that relies on less water than other wood. The clean beauty brand also strives to reduce packaging costs by offering refillable palettes shipped in seed paper.

How Brands and Designers Can Implement Low-Waste Strategies

Businesses and designers have the ability to make a lasting impression in terms of sustainability. Just by making tweaks to packaging or by changing the material from virgin to post-consumer recycled content, brands can appeal to consumers while lessening their impact on the environment.

How the Plastic Free Movement Impacts Packaging and Product Design — Low-Waste Strategies

Image via Chaosamran_Studio.

Use Recycled or Post-Consumer Recycled Content Whenever Possible

Many products and packaging use virgin materials, whether it’s new plastic, paper, or metal. The amount of resources and processing needed to create new materials can do more harm than good to the environment. A great way to reduce waste and lessen the product’s impact is to source product materials from recycled or post-consumer recycled content (PCR). Give those recycled items a new life instead of using more resources.

Reduce Excessive and Unnecessary Packaging

There’s nothing worse than opening up a large container and seeing that the product takes up only a small portion of the packaging. Excessive or unnecessary packaging uses up more material than necessary. Drastically reduce packaging waste by thinking about “right sizing” packaging. Is there an element of the packaging that can be removed without affecting the overall branding?

Carlsberg took initiative and noticed the endless amounts of plastic used in securing beverage six-packs. They then switched to the innovative Snap Pack to reduce waste, emissions, and harm to the environment.

Implement a Program to Responsibly Return or Dispose of Products

If package or product redesign is too monumental of a task, there are other ways to reduce your product’s impact. By participating with programs that responsibly recycle packaging, such as Terracycle, your business can ensure the product is disposed of properly.

Another way to reduce packaging costs and impact is by engaging in a return scheme. Smaller businesses partake in a return system where the consumer pays for a deposit on the packaging, such as a growler or milk bottle, then returns the packaging to the business to be sterilized and sanitized for refill. In larger businesses, this can create logistical issues, but companies such as Loop are creating a new standard for returnable packaging.

Incorporate Reusable Packaging or Encourage Consumers to Reuse

Most packages are made to be thrown away or recycled once opened. Businesses can extend the lifecycle of the packaging alone by using materials that can be reused or upcycled. Glass, metal, cotton, or sturdy cardboard can often be reused to fit other needs, such as storage for food or personal items. When using reusable containers such as glass jars, encourage your consumers to reuse the packaging by showing them simple ways to upcycle the item.

Stick to a Single Packaging Material

Packaging that contains more than one type of material, or mixed materials, often make it more difficult to recycle. For instance, lining a cardboard box with a thin plastic window can reduce the probability of the package being recycled. By using only cardboard or any other easily recyclable materials, consumers can simply put the package in the recycling bin rather than having to separate all materials.

Cover image via maramorosz

Searching for more earth-friendly content? Check out these articles:

Workflow Tips for the Environmentally Conscious Designer
5 Designers Who Use Their Work to Promote Environmental Issues
10 Free Nature-Themed Icons for Eco-Friendly Branding

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