The Problem With Packaging

Eco-friendly products are springing up all over the place, from toys and games to furniture and electronic devices; consumers are finally forcing manufacturers to make big changes to their products. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to ignore the advertisements and simply look at the items lining the shelves. Chances are, they’re covered in shrink-wrap, protected by cardboard, tied up with plastic, and secured with rubber. Not so eco-friendly after all.

Back in the ‘90s, there were plenty of packaging tricks to get consumers to buy your product. The statement, “Now 20% more!” often referred to the packaging, rather than the product itself. Who wants a larger bag with the same amount of chips? Unfortunately, we’re in a similar situation today in regards to eco-friendly products and packaging. It hardly matters how eco-friendly your product is when it’s covered with layer upon layer of wasteful materials, including rubber, plastic, and cardboard.

Most consumers are familiar with the frustrating “clamshell” shaped packaging, which was designed to make stealing more difficult for shoplifters. While the intentions are good, the results are not. Due to the shell shape, this packaging can be as much as 50 times larger than the products itself, as was the case with Sony’s Memory Stick Pro Duo.

This wasteful-style results in more than just extra garbage. In one year alone, clamshell packaging sent 5,700 Americans to the ER. Eventually, Sony announced, “Death to the Clamshell,” and we can only hope that other big companies will follow suit.

The price of any product includes its packaging cost, which is nearly 10%, resulting in the $429 million-dollar industry. Packaging is a huge part of marketing, and plays a psychological role for adults, children, and even military personnel. About ¼ of the weight of a standard Ready-to-Eat military meal is packaging, and that’s done to help the diner form a more positive opinion of the food inside. As a result, these MREs contribute a whopping 14,000 tons of packaging waste a year. According to Pentagon researchers, converting this waste into fuel could result in an energy self-sufficient military unit.

So when will consumers and manufacturers finally come to a happy medium in the packaging department? Some companies tried to cut their packaging, with unsuccessful results, while others have gained great success for it. For example, when Patagonia removed the packaging from their underwear, sales jumped 30%.

There are several other companies that consider minimalism to be part of their core competency. Vers Audio, for example, is known for eliminating twist ties (5 miles of them!), replacing plastic bags with paper, and using post-consumer recycled paper. They send their earphones in 15% smaller packages now, and continue to find clever ways to cut back on nonrenewable materials whenever possible.

Both Patagonia and Vers Audio have a similar market, which is why their eco-friendly packaging solutions work in their favor. The consumers of Patagonia products are probably environment enthusiasts already, considering the products they sell. As for Vers, they fill a special niche due to their eco-friendly bamboo headphones, attracting the same earth-loving consumers. So how do you get other companies to file suit without suffering fiscal losses? There’s no easy solution, but one major manufacturer is starting the trend.

In 2009, Dell announced the addition of renewable bamboo to its packaging portfolio, and shipped its Mini netbooks in our favorite eco-friendly material. Just four years later, they’ve completed their testing, and are making the switch official. If you buy a Dell tablet, smartphone, or laptop, there’s a good chance you’ll be greeted with bamboo protective packaging rather than paper, foam, plastic, or cardboard.

In addition to the benefits of using bamboo, they’re also saving a lot of energy in transportation costs.  These Dell products are manufactured in China, so the bamboo grown in the region is a smart alternative to shipping in paper pulp from the United States.

A few years ago, Frito-Lay’s SunChips launched a campaign touting a close relationship with Mother Earth, but they did so without actually reducing their packaging sizes. They claimed to have natural ingredients and flavorful chips, served up in a 100% compostable bag. If you can’t reduce, the least you can do is recycle, right?


There are ways to make big differences through small changes, and when huge companies such as Dell and Frito-Lay start the trend, there’s no telling how far it will go.


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