Biomimicry is a fascinating branch of science that turns to the brilliance of Nature to look for design clues. When biologists and designers work together they can come up with ideas for new materials and products that take inspiration from the genius of Nature.
We may now need to turn to Nature to review and redesign one aspect that is leading to a massive waste problem.
The core purpose of packaging is to prevent damage to the product that it is protecting, through the vagaries of weather and temperature change to sustaining the wear and tear of transportation.
However once the product reaches the consumer , the role of packaging is over. It is then discarded with no thought of what will happen to it further.
The contribution of packaging to solid waste is nearly 30% in the USA and apparently Americans will discard an equivalent of their own weight in packaging waste every month according to a study by Stanford University.
Packaging constitutes a problem in itself because
1. It is usually made of non biodegradable materials such as plastic and thermocol.
2. It is used for a very short duration.
3. The form of the packaging depends on the form of the product and therefore it cannot be used on its own.
4. It may have layers of material fused together such as paper and plastic and aluminium foil make up Tetrapack – this makes it very difficult to break down to recycle.
5. The role of the packaging to attract customers also ends up in packets that are larger than necessary simply to be attractive.
6. Once packaging is contaminated, say by a food product, it becomes very challenging to clean it, to recycle it.
On the other hand, consider the packaging that Nature designs for eg. fruit peels.
1. Peels protect the flesh of the fruit and further the seed within the fruit.
2. Fruit peels are an integral part of the fruit itself not an external material added on later after the product is complete. They grow along with the fruit.
3. They are completely biodegradable.
4. They have properties of their own independent of the fruit within – and sometimes have more to offer in terms of health benefits than the fruit!
5. They are attractive and totally adapted to the needs of the tree they grow on, bringing in the customers ( read animals and insects ) the tree needs.
6. Sometimes they can also play a role in transporting the seeds to further distances.
Innovators abroad are now looking at packaging the way Nature does. They are exploring materials made of bamboo, mushroom and cornstarch to address the need for packaging to degrade fully. Materials that are sensitive to microbes and moisture allow the packaging to degrade and add to soil.
Companies are now looking at ways of engaging consumers to help recollect all their packaging and recycle them. For a small fee the packaging waste can be sent back to the company to reuse.
And finally, as the retail market shifts from physical stores to online networks, the need for the packaging to be attractive is reduced once the product has already been purchased and simply has to be delivered to the consumer.
Here in India, packaging design can also take into consideration cultural habits. The Ganesh idols during the Ganesh festival have always been sold without any packaging. The tradition has been that the family would go to the sculptors home or shop, choose the idol and then bring it home, ritually through a procession. As the market for Ganesh idols shifts online and there is a demand that they be brought closer to peoples homes, the question of packaging comes in. Since the ecofriendly idols are very fragile adding packaging would increase the cost tremendously. The tradition of a procession may perhaps best not be changed!
In Japan, traditionally goods were wrapped in a piece of cloth called Furoshiki. This cloth was used again and again for various purposes and could also be carried by way of the knot on top.
The packaging of food in natural materials such as banana leaves and sugarcane leaves is still prevalent in Thailand and are now also seeing some innovation. Areca nut palm leaves are being used for making boxes.
For a generation that is beginning to rely more and more on ‘the cover of the book to judge its content’, packaging plays a crucial role in making the decision to buy or not. The packaging of the future will have to be responsible to a sustainable vision and consumers will finally judge a company’s authentic intention to conserve, by the way it treats its packaging.
For us to succeed at redesigning the way we perceive packaging, both end consumers and business owners need to take ownership of the issue.
These articles form a series in the Green Idea campaign called The Beauty of Recycling conducted by eCoexist and Studio Alternatives and sponsored by the Government of Maharashtra, Environment Department. They aim to raise awareness about the aesthetic and financial potential of recycling. To read more visit www.beautyofrecycling.in