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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Embracing Digital Tools, EPR to Achieve Sustainable Design

The future of sustainable packaging and design lies in our ability to do most of the important work in a digital space. Manufacturers will be left behind if they fail to embrace tools such as digital twins, 3D product and packaging visualization, and consumer packaging buyback.

This is an excerpt adapted from Practical Sustainability (Houndstooth Press, 2022).

When taking a new product out of plastic packaging, do you ever wonder how much consideration went into all that plastic you’re about to toss? Could it have been designed in a more sustainable way?

Unnecessary packaging is a contentious issue for companies trying to become more sustainable. The good news is that more and more organizations are becoming more thoughtful with design, packaging and reusability of their products.

Digital product life cycle management is an integral part of our sustainable future, and design decisions lock in a large percentage of product cost early in the life cycle. Less obvious — yet just as important — is the packaging that surrounds, protects, and brands the product inside.

One crucial component of sustainable design involves digital twins — or digital models of assets, systems or processes. The digital twin uses analytics to deliver specific sustainability outcomes using environmental and operational data, which enables the digital twin model to continually adapt to changes in the environment or operations and deliver optimal results.

How can ideas such as digital twins, packaging visualization, and consumer packaging buyback help reduce waste and enhance sustainable practices?

Digital twins

Practical Sustainability is a physical and digital journey; and at the core is the digital twin — which collects wide-ranging data from smart spaces, manufacturing, maintenance and operating environments. It then uses this data to create a unique model of each asset, system or process; focusing on a critical behavior such as life, efficiency or flexibility.

Put more simply, digital twins allow us to observe, model and interact with our system or systems in an intelligent space or supply chain network in a meaningful and practical manner. We can use this data to create product designs that meet sustainability requirements from the get-go.

Growth of the digital twin is inevitable, since the data we can now harvest will continue to increase dramatically; and the digital twin uses data to create incremental sources of value. We will become 100 percent dependent on systems that can visualize historical, real-time and future simulations — so, digital twins are an important tool when exploring new ways to make product packaging more sustainable.

3D product and packaging visualization

One way to be more thoughtful about packaging is through a process called 3D product and packaging visualization, which reduces the carbon footprint by eliminating physical models — instead using digital twins for rich modeling and simulation. Cloud-based visualization platforms enable 3D assets to flow from product asset to virtual store or even fixture-setting.

With 3D technologies, e-commerce platforms showcase the product in multiple sellable forms in a complete virtual experience on web, augmented reality and virtual reality at scale. Use cases range from internal design activities to customers selling in a highly immersive experience that is low carbon and low waste.

Digital twins makes possible 3D product and packaging visualization and review, visual merchandising, and an immersive digital showroom. They are an effective alternative to traditional packaging and merchandising development, since they do not create physical packaging during conceptual design and marketing, and no physical store is required to showcase the product to consumers. They can also be integrated into circular supply chain workflows — creating a sustainable alternative across design, sourcing, creation, merchandising and sell stages.

These tools make a real difference. A leading consumer goods company that deployed an XR visualization platform (developed by Infosys) reduced time to market by 30 percent, reduced 80 percent costs in logistics and transportation, and decreased physical sample setup by 60 percent. Other manufacturers have used this and similar platforms to improve safety management, guide workers through complex assembly instructions, and superimpose maintenance manuals over automobiles for repair.

But what about when the product has been purchased and opened? Can anything be done with the packaging then?

Consumer packaging buyback is a win-win

According to the EPA, containers and packaging used to wrap or protect consumer goods generated 82 million tons of waste in 2018. These containers and packaging shipped, stored and protected products; yet they provide little direct value to consumers.

Physical packaging should be designed for circularity, not for landfills — or, even worse, our oceans. Consumer packaging buyback is an emerging example of a responsible design concept that requires leaders to develop reverse logistics programs and integrate them with their sales network to improve packaging reuse or recycling.

They then create a secondary value stream for the network — such as carbon credits linked to container return. Beyond sustainability, the consumer packaging buyback model improves connection with consumers who increasingly value brands that provide this convenient service.

Create programs where the distributor of goods can accept returns and issue reward credits to customers who participate in the program. Reward the sales network with additional earnings for handling the reverse logistics. Expand the program for customers by accepting returns of reusable or recyclable packaging of competitor products. Benefits include:

  • Reduces waste

  • Reduces packaging footprint

  • Builds sustainability of brand

  • Generates consumer loyalty

  • Creates additional revenue streams for sales network

  • Earns carbon credits from returned packaging

Embracing digital tools to achieve sustainable design

The future of sustainable packaging and design lies in our ability to do most of the important work in a digital space, creating no physical byproducts and ensuring that all sustainability parameters are met. The only way forward for all of us is to embrace sustainable design wherever possible, reducing environmental harm and embracing more efficient means of production.

For more advice, read the rest of Practical Sustainability.