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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
What Is the Role of Packaging in a Sustainable Product System?

What is the appropriate role for packaging in a product system? As a product designer, I ask myself this question often. As a design professor, I ask my students what role packaging should play in a particular product system ... now, in the future, within compromised systems and within idyllic systems. What would an ideal product system even look like? Designing truly sustainable packaging means designing the product and the packaging together within the larger system. In many systems an ideal way to address packaging and product impacts is to design out the physical product and transition to a service model. Netflix and other companies who deal in media independent of format can do this rather easily. Other more inalienably physical products provide opportunity for rental and lease models but many products, consumables and the like, still need to be packaged. So in this Issue in Focus, we are digging into the complexity of system-aware packaging and finding strategies to optimize at each stage.

First, let's discuss what packaging does. Packaging enables our objects and consumables to arrive safely, maintain their freshness, look appealing on the shelf, prevent shrink (in-store theft), convey information, consolidate multiple components, support brand and simply contain the contents within. Sustainable packaging above all needs to appropriately meet all these needs while creating a positive experience every time it's touched in the product chain. Whether from the perspective of the manufacturer filling the package, the shipping company, the inventory manager, the retailer, the consumer and the waste management folks, all of these stakeholders are customers and should be designed for. As guest co-editor for this Issue in Focus on Sustainable Packaging, I asked materials companies, product manufacturers and consultants how packaging can appropriately meet the needs of every person in the product chain while reducing environmental impacts and providing uncompromised customer experiences. We've received a number of responses and case studies that illustrate various strategies, and if there is one takeaway, it's that there is no silver bullet. Each package design needs to be viewed as its own system design challenge. After all, packaging is a product in and of itself and deserves this consideration.

To that end, I want to kick off this Issue by moving beyond packaging itself and examining design process. There are tremendous benefits associated with applying sustainable design strategies to the packaging development process. My good friends at Autodesk have put together an excellent series of short videos that can help us all learn to identify opportunities before products and packaging concepts leave the white board. Please watch them and send them to your packaging engineers, product designers, marketing teams and even your suppliers. Many of the case studies in this Issue are examples of these principles in action. Thanks in advance for your time and attention, and please let us know your thoughts as we would love to collect more relevant case studies to share.


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