Packaging as a driver of the transition underway

Packaging was the first non-dangerous product, along with its waste, to be standardised by a European directive in the 1990s (94/62), which essentially obliged all member states to adopt regulations inspired by the principle of expanded responsibility of the various actors that constitute its supply chain.

Here we are speaking about producers, importers, traders and users of packaging (so, all the companies that have to use packaging, whether to sell a tap or a piece of sushi). A whole world of companies that in just a few years had to get to grips with environmental principles and the management and economic responsibilities they entail.
As a designer, I was very curious right from the beginning about this universe of actors, because packaging is made from such a variety of materials and technologies that I never get bored of it.
The challenge to face was very complex, also because the commitments of this set of companies led to the waste separation in cities that we happily live with today.
Thirty years ago it was almost non-existent (except for glass and paper); it was an invention still to be built.
Today it is hardened, mature, and produces environmental benefits, jobs, savings in resources and energy, reductions in damaging emissions.....
And to think that it all started from packaging!
Indeed, packaging waste ends up right in city waste separation, the most iconic waste collection. It was only later that separate collection for other products or supply chains was created (food, textile, electric/electronic, furniture, etc.).
This is why packaging deserves recognition for having provided the main push for the green economy - in other words the recycling industry - which already existed but hadn't yet taken on the characteristics of an industrial system as it then did from the 2000s onwards.
From the end of the 1990s, packaging therefore started to be discussed in every public forum dedicated to environmental topics, and in just a few years it became the number one enemy of the environment. For years, this has been the general perception accompanying these products, whose main defect is and remains that they will soon become WASTE.
They are therefore condemned to being an environmental threat, also because packaging is so pervasive and visible to citizens, being present in all domestic waste.
However, packaging is also a product. Not simple at all, but rather very complex: indeed, it is based on sophisticated, advanced technologies, and must condense performance and a lot of information into very few square centimetres.
And it is also ethical, because all too often we forget that its ability to preserve food products also helps us not to waste food and to increase its shelf life, improving its transport and conservation.
However, its bad reputation has caused a continuous race for solutions on the part of the packaging industry, pushed and supported in this aim also by the CONAI Consorzio Nazionale Imballaggi, National Packaging Consortium.
The latter has invested resources to help companies produce and use lighter packaging that is more easily recyclable, also turning to new, renewably sourced materials (in particular those that are biodegradable and compostable).
All this cannot be accomplished in just a few months.
The research necessary to create better-constructed packaging takes years.

We see it almost as just a stupid piece of rubbish that we have to worry about, but in fact, packaging is the real silent seller: it describes its contents and tells the story of companies' commitment to improving their impact on the ecosystem, and displays more and more environmental claims (by law, the material it is made from, and from next year it will also be mandatory to display information on where/how to classify it as waste) and certifications (where they exist).

And all this without losing consumer appeal: packaging has for a long time been part of the marketing mix, as a cross-cutting component that forms part of the product, the distribution and the communication; today, it is one of the most important promotional channels. Original, innovative packaging can increase the value of a product, making it more visible and more desirable than others. The product is presented and appears through the packaging, which therefore becomes a fundamental element in the shopping experience, stimulating the emotional sphere of the consumer and contributing to the gratification of the purchase.

The difference lies in the elements that creatives have available:  fonts, logos, colours and images must be combined strategically; these are all elements able to arouse positive emotions and sensations in the consumer that can influence the amount they are prepared to spend to buy a product. The graphic design for packaging requires real psychological analysis of the client, who must be stimulated on all fronts. The entire sensory spectrum must be satisfied.

These many responsabilities are accompanied by a more driven search for materials that aren't only recycled, but also made from renewable resources deriving from agricultural waste. A never-ending quest!

And in the meantime, which new characteristics, in terms of ethics, sustainability and marketing, will absolve packaging so that it can be part of the ecological transition?
The signs I see lead me to believe that a variety of efforts in design and application will go in the direction of re-use. The time is ripe, then, to start reinvesting in packaging that can withstand multiple use cycles. This is already the case for transport and logistics packaging (so-called tertiary packaging), but it will become more frequent in primary packaging too. Indeed, distributing loose products, wherever possible, has become a viral sensation and an eco-friendly must. Shops are being created that distinguish themselves with this hallmark, loose produce is expanding in urban contexts thanks to water banks and milk vending machines, and in parks and protected areas there is competition between who can offer the most refill options, often along with bans on single-use products.
Loose and reusable, despite being different concepts, make it necessary to use reusable packaging for certain goods, such as detergents, water, milk and dishware, therefore leading to a new generation of containers able to fulfill this requirement.
This is how the sustainable packaging of the future will also become refillable.
But today, thanks to new printing and recognition technology, packaging could become more easily readable by the optical scanners that send it for recycling at the end of its life. This is a sector that is really moving forward, and could give us big surprises in a short amount of time.
Another innovation in this regard is the new types of city rubbish bins that are able to read packaging, and therefore identify its material and weight, and maybe attribute a lower impact to its correct categorisation, calculated in CO2 saved. Even now, all this technology can therefore assign a spendable ethical and environmental value to virtuous behaviour.
So packaging can be a vector and an enabler of innovations in technology and behaviour, in line with the transition already in our midst.


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