Category Archives: Packaging

IBM takes on the devil in the details

image via ibm.com

One of the greatest challenges to businesses pursuit of sustainability is understanding the vast interconnected supply chains that all products inevitably relay upon.  In truth a company can only claim they are environmentally responsible if they’ve taken into consideration the broader impact of all the individual components, materials, and packaging that contribute to the overall business.  The complexity of trying to measure one’s impact in terms of things like energy use, emissions, and waste is that those metrics exist not only for the company whose name is on the product but also for the myriad of supporting companies whose own products and services go into the making of that final entity.

In the last few years many organizations have attempted to address this challenge through the creation of standardized assessment tools that apply a scorecard approach to each individual product.  These assessments are often based on applying generalized values to various aspects of a product; such as the materials used.  But the utility of such tools is often limited because the amount of information needed to populate the equations is simply unknown or unavailable.  To contend with this issue many of the larger consumer product companies have had to take it upon themselves to organize this information, which means demanding their suppliers provide more accountability.  This is an approach pioneered by Wal-mart which has been able to extract mountains of environmental data from their suppliers by establishing sustainability guidelines for many of the products they sell.  Nothing seems more typically American then a major corporation leveraging its size and dominance in a market to pressure it’s suppliers into meeting demands, But using that power for good, well that’s a new twist.

The New York Times recently reported that IBM has launched a new supply chain initiative requiring all of its suppliers to employ some form of environmental management system and to begin tracking environmental data like energy, water, and greenhouse gas emissions.  The initiative is a first step in cleaning up IBMs global operations which involve suppliers in 90 different countries worldwide.  IBM has thus recognized the fundamental roll that data plays in any sustainability measures.  Once they have a picture of their global impact across the entire supply chain they will be able to create a far more strategic plan for improving their efficiency and reducing waste and emissions.

IBM has taken things a step further by requiring it’s suppliers to publicly publish all their environmental findings and to forward the mandate on to their own subcontractors and suppliers.  The goal to capture any and all environmental data contributing to the massive IBM supply chain will be critical to the companies future decision making with regard to sustainability.  To encourage compliance form it’s suppliers IBM has played that ultimate power-card; If you don’t have a data monitoring system in place  by 2011, you know longer do business with IBM.

link to NYtimes


a better scrubber means goodbye detergent!

Goodbye detergent! is a new line of environmentally friendly scrubs that aim to clean-up your home cleaning habits.  Made with naturally abrasive materials such as recycled corn cobs, peach pits, and walnut shells, the line of reusable scrubs is meant to help reduce the need for conventional soaps and detergents.  By matching the abrasive qualities of these natural materials with specific household cleaning needs, the company has created range of scrubs designed specifically for different home surfaces and cookware materials.  The scrubs also feature minimal packaging made of 100% recycled material.

image via goodbyedetergent.com

It is widely known that many household soaps and detergents contain toxic or otherwise harmful chemicals.  These substances pose a threat not only to our personal health, but also to the environment, as they eventually make there way into our ocean, and river systems.  This is an issue that is currently being addressed by the myriad of “natural” and “non-toxic” cleaning products already available on the market. The eco-friendly scrubs from Goodbye detergent! seek to take this idea a step further by  reducing the need for soaps all together.  So regardless of what soap you use, you can be at least a shade or two greener by simply using less of it, and using a better scrub.

The Scrubs are designed by industrial designer Hiroki Hayashi. All the products are made in Japan and have been awarded numerous international design citations.  Goodbye detergent! scrubs are available at Amazon.com and other major online retailers.

a flexible solution to the plastic bottle glut

Though bottled water is often maligned by the more eco-conscious among us, it’s basic convenience is undeniable. This is the reason that in the U.S. alone we consume around 28 billion bottles of water each year, and that number is increasing.  Luckily there has been a major movement as of late to promote the use of reusable water containers of all shapes, sizes and styles. Now there’s a new option for those “bring your own bottle” types, but this one is hardly a bottle at all.  Vapur is a fully flexible, reusable water container that offers a unique alternative to one-time-use plastic water bottles.  The plastic pouches are designed to be flattened, rolled, and folded away to fit in your pocket, purse, or briefcase for optimum portability and efficiency.  The 16oz containers come in a variety of colors, are dishwasher safe, and come with resealable spouts and sport caps just like conventional bottles. At a cost of just under $9 a pouch Vapur is looking to be an attractive option for those looking to ditch the disposable plastic bottle.

Many are surprised to hear that nearly half of all bottled water comes from municipal sources, in other words its just tap water put I a bottle and sold at the store.  Even more striking is the fact that in many instances there are lower health and quality standards placed upon bottled water than those placed on public sources.  But the primary issue of course is the waste generated by disposable plastic bottles.  Though they are recyclable, four out of five bottles still make their way to the landfill.  And considering the plastic required to make them is a petroleum derived material, there is plenty of reason to just steer clear of the bottle option all together.  Here in New York City we are blest with some of the best tap water in the country.  Even more reason to consider shifting your hydration needs over to a reusable option such as Vapur.

turning garbage into green

Earlier this fall the Montgomery County Solid Waste Transfer Station in Derwood, Maryland was host to the first public performance of the Envion Oil Generator (EOG). What makes this new technology so intriguing is that the EOG can actually make usable oil product directly out of our own plastic garbage that would otherwise be buried it in a landfill or incinerated. Envion also claims that it can create this light to medium grade synthetic oil at an operational cost of around USD$10 per barrel. The concept of recapturing some of the energy that is trapped in the approximately 60 million tons of plastic waste produced each year could mean a whole new way of looking at the countries solid waste stream.

In my experience as a designer there has been hardly a single product or package I have dealt with that wasn’t composed of one or several types of plastic. Plastics have innumerable advantages in both manufacturing and performance which has led to their rise to become a truly ubiquitous aspect of our built environment and the objects that fill it.  It is therefore very frustrating that plastic also presents on of the greatest challenges to managing our solid waste reality.  Much of the problem has to do with plastic’s ability to far outlast the intended life of the products and packaging for which it is used. Not only does it degrade extremely slowly, but it can also release harmful chemicals in the process.  Even more troubling is the fact that most plastic is derived directly from the limited, costly, and non-renewable resource of oil and natural gas, two carbon-intensive fuels at the very core of the current fight for improved sustainability.

In my past posts I have addressed some of the issues concerning plastics by examining stories of improved or expanded recycling.  The last few years have seen an absolute explosion in consumer products containing recycled content.  Riding a tide of consumer demand, or at least expectation of “green”,  the use of recycled content has become a standard strategy for boosting a products’ green credentials.  However, designing something that is recyclable or made from some portion of recycled material remains a somewhat limited solution to improving overall sustainability.  This is because each time something plastic is recycled the performance and appearance attributes of the resulting material is significantly diminished, limiting the amount of times a given type of material can be reused and what types of new products it can be used for.

This conundrum surrounding how we handle our mounting reliance on plastic illustrates just how exciting the new Envion Oil Generator technology is for the future of plastic waste handling.  What Envion has created is a way to reconstitute bulk, unsorted plastic waste back into a usable petroleum product from which commercial fuels or even new plastic can be derived. This suggest that what was previously considered garbage can actually be turned into a source of renewable energy.  This is the type of solution that could actually shift consumers and producers’ perspectives on how we look at waste in general – as a potential resource.

The EOG works by using a reactor that converts waste plastic into oil through low temperature thermal cracking in a vacuum, extracting the hydrocarbons embedded in petroleum-based plastic waste. Each EOG unit is assembled on 47ft x 13ft mobile platform and can process up to 10,000 tons of plastic waste annually. The system converts roughly 62 percent of the plastic (by weight) into usable oil – three to five barrels of refined oil per ton of plastic waste.  The remaining by-product consists of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ash.  Envion even re-uses some of these by-products in the conversion process, utilizing vent gas to provide electricity and recirculating excess oil residue back into the system to improve efficiency.

Envion has been working on this technology for almost 15 years, and is now confidently promoting what they claim is a fully scalable, carbon negative oil production system.  They have already begun work on similar reactors to handle other forms of petroleum based waste, such as used tires.  Time will tell weather this new technology will prove a sustainable new boom amongst the world of waste. Regardless, seeing someone bold enough to snatch new sources of energy right out of the garbage bin sure is exciting.

guide to sustainable packaging

screenshotOne of the greatest challenges to sustainable design is finding credible and accurate information regarding the individual environmental impacts of the materials and processes that go into creating each and every product.  In the last few decades the complexity of this challenge has grown significantly as the global supply chain has become ever more vast and interconnected.  The same developments that allowed for better performing, cheaper, and more plentiful products have made tracking their environmental impact extremely difficult.  This has been particularly vexing for the packaging industry, which is consistently singled-out for their contribution to the problems facing the environment.  With the demand for more responsibly designed packaging on the rise, designers have realized that without accountability throughout the supply chain it is difficult to make truly quantifiable decisions early in the design-phase, because the information available is either unsubstantiated, or simply nonexistent.

There is now a new tool available to packaging professionals that attempts to address these issues by providing the relevant information needed to make environmentally-based design decisions. The tool is an online software application called COMPASS, developed by the Sustainable Packaging CoalitionCOMPASS allows packaging designers to compare the environmental impacts of their designs based on aspects such as resource consumption, emissions, material health, recycled content, sourcing and solid waste.  The information and metrics used in the software where carefully developed through the detailed, and peer-reviewed input of experts from throughout the industry, as well as environmental authorities like the U.S. EPA.  By using a life-cycle approach, COMPASS can compare the impact of a package based on the inputs and outputs it creates, beginning with raw resource extraction, all the way through manufacturing, transportation, and disposal.

Because Sustainability within design is hugely complex issue, COMPASS cannot provide a cut and dry solution to any one packaging challenge. Rather, it provides the means to make fair and detailed comparisons of environmental trade-offs that go along with various decisions such as material selection.   The right material and design will still need to meet the needs of the product and the consumer, which are elements that may remain at odds with curbing environmental impact.


Coke wants their garbage back

b2b_21Last month the Coca-Cola Company opened the doors on a brand new 60 million dollar bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in Spartanburg South Carolina.  The plant is designed to produce new PET containers directly from used bottles, and will have a projected capacity of around 100 million pounds of recycled PET, enough for about 20 billion 20-ounce bottles.  The significance of this story is in part due to the fact that the facility is reported to be the largest of its kind in the world. And it draws even more importance when viewed as a potential new model for the consumer packaged goods industry to support more sustainable consumption.

Though many have already lauded Coke for this and other efforts, an equal or greater amount have continued to criticize the organization as a whole, reciting a ‘too little too late’ mantra.  Granted, Coca-Cola must be held to a higher standard when it comes to the consumer waste they produce, but the current problem of more than two thirds of the PET  bottles produced ending up in landfills, is not theirs to shoulder alone.  It is also the responsibility of the consumer and their governments to support policies and behaviors that stem this growing mountain of wasted plastic.  What is most compelling about Coke’s new facility is that it seeks to establish a market-driven solution to the problem, something that if successful may be scalable to farther reaching programs.

To understand the significance of a true bottle-to-bottle system, one must first understand a little bit about the complexity of recycling PET.  Though we have seen bottles on the market in the past that claim to be 100% recycled, these examples are few and far between because achieving such a measure is extremely challenging.  Most consumer plastic recycling is handled by a broad and loosely organized network of private and municipal collectors spread across the country.  When it comes to recycled PET, it can only perform to higher standards if it comes form a clean and reliable waste stream.  The more non-PET material it comes in contact with along it’s journey, the less suitable it becomes for recycling directly back into a food-grade plastic.  This is why most PET is downcycled into things like park benches and other low-end plastic goods, rather than being put back into bottles.

While this may not be well known to the average consumer, who wholeheartedly puts their empty bottles in the recycling bin, it was recognized by Coke as a starting point to improve the system.  This is why the new facility was created in a joint venture with United Resource Recovery Corp, a leading authority in recycled PET.  URRC has a patented process called UnPET that allows them to chemically super clean used PET plastic making it safe for being recycled back into food-grade containers. Thus Coke, by understanding the limitations to recycling, actively found a technology partner who could work with them to create a model system to bring value back into their supplychain from the post-consumer waste stream.

Collecting all those used bottles is another issue.  This is where Coke has taken things a step further and invested through there bottling subsidiary, Coca-Cola enterprises, to create a new recycling organization, Coca-Cola Recycling LLC.  This new entity will recover PET along with other recyclable materials from a variety of sources, including government recycling centers, NASCAR events, college football stadiums, and even their own manufacturing network. This shows just how comprehensive of an initiative this is, that Coke is truly attempting to create a workable construct for reaching the eventual goal of recycling 100% of their packaging.

Whether or not the venture will be profitable is another question.  It is fair to assume that such a program would at least pay-off in the long-term, but the recent dive in the cost of virgin PET surely isn’t helping.  The cost of virgin plastic is at the core of the challange for most businesses interested in recycling. As long as the cost for virgin plastic is low, the business argument for recycling is on very weak footing.  However this passed year has shown us that commodity prices can sky rocket in the blink of an eye (consider the price of oil this past summer) and when that does happen, and it will, we will see if Coke’s bottle-to-bottle brainchild can step up to the plate.

I realize this is story has already been kicked around quite a bit over the last few months. But as a designer who has worked with many large CPGs it is inspiring to see a company rise to the challenges of a complex problem and take a broader look at what their situation could be rather than simply accepting what it is, or what it has been in the past.  On the announcment of the facility opening last month Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America best summerized things by saying “The opening of the Spartanburg plant, coupled with our investment in recycling businesses, programs and a new marketing effort, underscores our belief that our packaging has value and we want it back – both for our own supply chain and to support the myriad of other uses for recycled aluminum and plastic.”