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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Sustainable Packaging Innovation Case Study:
Pfeiffer Lab Wine Packaging

Today there are three ways to ship wine in the mail: cardboard, molded pulp or expanded polystyrene (EPS). Pfeiffer Lab, a Bay Area design firm, has been working on a design strategy project to re-envision wine packaging using new bio-based materials developed by Malama Composites, a materials manufacturer in San Diego.

The new wine package is a modular, stackable system that was developed to protect premium bottles of wine during shipping, and store them indefinitely upon arrival.

Pfeiffer Lab is addressing sustainable packaging innovation in two ways though design. “First, we found an ideal material for shipping wine and it’s unlike anything out there from a performance and materials standpoint. We are also trying to extend the useful life of wine packaging by creating an important secondary function rather than a one-way trip to the local landfill,” said Eric Pfeiffer, president of Pfeiffer Lab.

Lots of design challenges

Existing packages for wine have been highly evolved through decades of clever engineering to make them strong, durable and light. Most notably, they are cheap. Corrugated boxes, molded pulp trays or expanded polystyrene all have useful attributes, but none are ideal for shipping premium wine.

EPS - While EPS does provide reasonably effective impact resistance and insulation value, it is an environmental nightmare: made from non-renewable resources, generates air and water pollution during manufacturing, poses human health risks during use, becomes imbedded in the food chain, remains in the environment for centuries.

Paper- Cardboard and molded pulp packaging can be recycled, but provide only marginal impact protection. A single broken bottle can ruin an entire shipment. Besides impact resistance, the thermal properties of paper are relatively poor. If the winery ships too early, they risk freezing the wine. Ship in the middle of summer and a $200 bottle of wine can be ruined in the back of a sweltering delivery truck.

Typically, bottles are packed in an internal cardboard, molded pulp or EPS structure, then enclosed in another exterior box. When the wine finally does arrive, the packaging looks terrible from a design perspective and is a poor ambassador of the high value product the customer expects to receive.

What about the customer experience?

In interviews conducted by Pfeiffer Lab with wine shipping companies and end users, we found that many wine lovers were using the shipping boxes to store their bottles. In essence, they were creating temporary DIY wine racks. Then they were just throwing away the boxes when empty. This insight stimulated our creative thinking: How could we address the issue with more than just a material replacement? Rather than filling the trash bin with paper or polystyrene, could the packaging be a companion product with value of its own? What materials and what design could enable this innovation?

The evolution of a design solution

New materials often enable new solutions. Pfeiffer Lab identified Malama Composites as a development partner for the project by looking to industries beyond packaging. Today, Malama's foams are being used in everything from boat hulls to wind turbine blades, Hollywood movie sets to structural insulated panels in green homes and buildings. Their bio-based foams can provide vastly superior insulation, impact protection and functionality, and be molded into elegant, customized forms.

Malama’s proprietary technology platform enables the manufacturing of rigid polyurethane foams made from plant-based polyols rather than petroleum-based chemicals. The resulting products perform as good as, or better than traditional foams, but are made from renewable resources. They shape and surface beautifully, have zero toxic emissions, and can be easily reused or recycled. The way that the material is manufactured offers customized design and branding opportunities. Also, the structural and thermal qualities of these foams are an ideal medium for the shipping and storage of fine wines. Importantly, Malama’s foams are cost competitive with existing wine packaging materials.

"Everyone wants to use more environmentally responsible materials, but then they get sticker shock when it’s not as cheap as cardboard or EPS. We are trying to take that discussion off the table. Our goal is to fuse high-performance bio-composites with multi-functional design. It’s an integrated solution for the wineries and their customers," concluded Pfeiffer.

Direct-to-consumer wine shipping is the fastest growing category of wine sales. Some wineries structure their entire business around this segment and buyers are both domestic and international.

Pfeiffer Lab and Malama Composites are completing the pilot program this spring, and will be actively seeking partners in the wine industry to scale production and transform the premium segment of the wine packaging industry later this fall.

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