The path to smarter design without greenwashing

Creating a recyclable lid capable of squirting the right amount of ketchup in a single squeeze cost Heinz 185,000 hours and $1.2 million. The resulting 3D-printed polypropylene lid — iteration number 47 in the development process — does the job of sealing the bottle, allowing the consumer to dispense the all-satisfying “controlled dose,” and, importantly, conveying to the consumer that the lid is “100% recyclable.” The payoff? Kraft Heinz claims that the move will save one billion plastic caps from landfill.

Many consumer product companies have made pledges like the U.S. Plastic Pact (goalposting 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025, and an average of 30% recycled or responsibly sourced bio-based content by 2025), out of a commitment to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) objectives and in anticipation of changing consumer and regulatory demands. A 2022 Wharton School study found that consumers value product sustainability ahead of brand name, and that two-thirds of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

However, regulators and consumers alike are increasingly skeptical of “greenwashing.” Around 6 in 10 consumers say disposal instructions are hard to find on packaging, and that there is conflicting guidance on how to recycle, per a survey of 1,000 consumers by packaging company DS Smith. If consumers don’t deposit the materials into the right recycling stream, all the fancy research and development won’t make a difference.

The bottom line is that hitting sustainability targets requires a series of trade-offs around cost, performance, certification, and the consumer experience (see Figure 1). There are a number of levers to utilize in designing eco-friendly packaging, but no simple answers for which will best suit a given case.

One size does not fit all with sustainable packaging options

Materials made with recycled or bio-plastic materials may not be recyclable themselves. The smaller plastic bottle caps introduced in the early 2010s to reduce waste are an infamous example of poor product design: consumers couldn’t undo the lids, or rethread them correctly, which meant that bottles could leak.

Fully recyclable packaging like glass bottles see low rates of recycling and are costly to produce and transport, as well as energy-intensive. The tradeoff may improve, however, with the UK’s first ultra-low carbon hybrid glass furnace slated to produce millions of net-zero alcohol bottles by 2030. 

Facilities such as the UK hydro furnace will allow CP companies to source packaging from less carbon-intensive methods without having to invest in or operate physical infrastructure themselves.

This industry is fast-developing. But as more companies look to reduce waste in the product lifecycle by substituting new plastic, non-renewables, and virgin materials for alternatives, supply could be a challenge. Already, post-consumer recycled resin is in short supply, for example, on top of which recycled plastic currently costs more than new plastic. Changing regulatory requirements could put more pressure on these commodities.

Making a wrong packaging material choice may result in a long, painful, and expensive corrective action. It can also lead to a disrupted product launch and erode the brand image. On the other hand, a thoughtful redesign can enhance the brand.

Weighing short-term costs against long-term gains

Sustainable design will not necessarily present cost savings, at least in the shorter term, but leading companies recognize any additional incurred costs as the price of transition.

Once a company starts a packaging redesign, they should analyze the cost structure to determine how far toward the most sustainable design they need to go to meet their goals without it being cost prohibitive. Heinz may have invested $1.2 million in a polymer ketchup squeeze cap, but sees applications for the feature in sustainable shampoo packaging.

The design team needs to work around key constraints like shelf life, strength, and appearance, taking into account any extraneous components of the packaging that don’t add value.

A great design will incorporate knowledge of the entire value chain, from suppliers’ technical expertise to the current supply of packaging commodities and price volatility. If a material is scarce, it may make sense to pursue strategic alternatives. Consumer behavior is an important piece of the calculus: single-use products have been demonized, but reusable products don’t always hit the breakeven point for number of uses by the consumer, and may have heavy costs in terms of water use during cleaning, only to join the  waste stream.

Scoping out the redesign will focus on a series of questions including:

  • What are the product constraints? Which constraints, like shelf life, are truly fixed and which can be redesigned to accommodate packaging changes?
  • If we were to clean-sheet the packaging, what would the most sustainable version be and what would that cost? How far towards that design do we need to go in order to meet our sustainability goals?
  • What technical expertise can we leverage from our suppliers? How can knowledge across the value chain speed up the design process?
  • How secure is my current supply of packaging commodities and how volatile is the pricing? Are there strategic alternatives to consider introducing now in order to hedge against volatility as well as to secure supply of more scarce resources?
  • Are there any extraneous components of packaging that do not add value to customers?
  • Are there additives or features that are purely cosmetic? Can the appearance of the packaging be outweighed by the enhanced sustainability?

Changing the production process for packaging is no small thing — just ask Heinz. Thousands of man hours and millions of dollars can be worth it though, when you strike the balance of trade-offs and hit on something that, in the squeeze, comes out just right.