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Verschlimmbessern: Making it Worse with Good Intention

Uwe Melichar, Sustainble Packaging Expert, President of European Brand & Packaging Design Association (epda)

Sometimes it is far better to do nothing than doing wrong things. This article is about the status quo in packaging and greenwashing traps.
Global warming is not only raising the water level of the world's oceans, it is also increasing the pressure on companies to act more sustainably and do something about climate change. For companies, this means facts and stories are needed - for the CSR report and PR in search of quick solutions that communicate to customers: "We are doing something! We are sustainable!"

But why is that? Because it’s complicated.

Bending the truth

Marketeers fall into frantic actionism, desperately looking for simple, impactful solutions, not knowing if it’s right or wrong in the context of their project. They need results and pounce on the supposedly good offers from the packaging industry. And that's where they gloss over, conceal, tinker and even lie.

The attribute 'compostable' is a wonderful example. It’s about biomaterial from renewable sources to be allowed to end up on a compost pile. Ideally it decomposes and that's just great. But unfortunately it’s not always the case. The word 'compostable' or 'biodegradable' is also used for packaging that only decomposes in an industrial process. That means settling for 6 weeks at 90 degrees. Very few recyclers can map this today. The material falls in small pieces, but it cannot be returned to the biological cycle, with components that are not biomass. It can be even plastic particles and they remain and harm our environment and habitat. This is called 'cold incineration‘ in which no nutrient is produced for the cycle. So 'compostable' is a big word that is often used incorrectly.

If bioplastics (so-called agro-plastics - agro comes from agrarian, not aggression!) already fail to deliver what they promise, then surely paper or cellulose-based material is the solution to our problems, right?

If one asks, "Is paper sustainable?" the answer is, "It depends."
It really depends on where, how and why it is used. It's a matter of developing the right criteria and coming up with the right solutions to meet them. It's tedious, but well worth the effort.
A material per se is not 'green' and the packaging made from it should also be regarded in its context. Production, energy input, transport and logistics all play a role, but so does the 'end of life'. What are the actual requirements for this piece of packaging? And what happens when the packaging has done its job and reaches its end of life?

Lost in transformation

Customers in stores, in front of the shelves or at the screen while shopping online know little about circular economy, LCA reports, recycling processes, material definitions and communication about it is weak. There are no standards, there are few reliable seals, icons and reliable signposts in the sustainability jungle.
If you look at the shelves of supermarkets, organic markets, department stores and specialty stores, you will find the entire spectrum of what the packaging industry offers. For good and for bad. To sum it up, you can find about
50 shades of green.

Green Painting - e.g. wrapping paper structure printed on plastic

Green Washing - e.g. the Danone yogurt cup made of recycled plastic. But not from plastic that has already been in circulation as packaging, but from material that has fallen off in the manufacturing process of yogurt cups in the factory and that is 'recycled' into new material. PCW is post consumer waste, PIW is post industrial waste. If it is communicated well it’s good but mixing things up suddenly makes a big difference and creates shitstorms.

Green Design - The omission of packaging components (e.g. the outer packaging), material conservation (e.g. light engineering), design for reuse, design for recycling, design for the circle.

Green Systems - We need a drastic change and we need to think in systems and to install them. We have to change processes and involve all stakeholders along the value chain. Just to give you an example it needs many different disciplines creating a reusable package. Interface designers, IT people, logistics, marketing, packaging engineers and sales experts just to name a few.

To master systems with so many different players requires streamlined workflows, transparency and efficiency. And if this is done right, it saves human resources, energy and money. With a holistic approach and well managed processes and communication we can avoid 'verschlimmbessern' and come closer to our goal: Less but better packaging.


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