With due apology to our honorable former PM as well as the author and producers of a recent book and film, I believe the packaging industry has a significant problem of The Accidental PM of its own. The PM in this context of course refers to the excessive use of packaging material that is often thoughtlessly used for modern packaging.
The Accidental PM is most vividly evident when online sales companies deliver products via courier parcel delivery. Pre-boxed, consumer retail packaged products are placed in a secondary transit box and then over-wrapped with protective layers of plastic to protect them in transit. The result of such an approach is that the receiver of the package must unwrap layer after layer of packaging material before the product itself is revealed. This process of unwrapping the online delivery package is similar to the popular Russian souvenir ‘nesting dolls’ (actually known as Matryoshka dolls), which is a set of diminishing size wooden dolls contained one within another and then another.
The layers and layers of unnecessary packaging being encountered by consumers have been the subject of many mirthful or sarcastic blogs and social media comments these days. A simple Google search for ‘over-packaging’ brings forth pages of material describing the experience of customers who encountered disproportionate amounts of packaging material (invariably non-recyclable and non-degradable) for insignificant products such as foods, confectionery, garments, accessories, stationery or even books.
As noted in a comment by Madhukar on Packaging Connections.com, “Most of us would object to the use of unnecessary packaging, but at the same time we want the convenience, protection, enhanced shelf-life, aesthetics and information that packaging provides.” I believe this is exactly the crossroads of conflicting packaging requirements that the industry is being challenged with today.
As Madhukar goes on to say in his comment, “The spotlight is turning ever more towards packaging. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the Green Agenda and their personal carbon footprint. It is this awareness that will drive consumer preference and ultimately brand owner strategy. Many brand owners are already communicating their packaging reduction achievements; telling their green tales of sustainability success and claiming carbon footprint data to excite the green consumer. The double benefit of this, of course, is the cost-down nature of these cuts.”
The voices of indignation towards irresponsible and unnecessary packaging are growing louder and becoming audible across media platforms. Consumers are expressing their objections and concern about over-packaging and its consequent harm to our planet and its scarce resources. An example, often repeated across various forums, is that of the toothpaste tube and its mono-carton. As vividly described in an article in Down To Earth magazine, ‘Mita Gupta of Delhi visits a retail shop, goes to the personal care section, looks for the familiar toothpaste, picks it up, brings it home, takes the tube out and throws the carton into a bin. She does not even glance at the elaborate information printed on the carton. And Gupta is not the only one to do so. According to the International Foundation for Research and Development, a UAE-based non-profit, 55% of the Indian population – about 682 million people – uses toothpaste. Given that Gupta uses ten 80 gram toothpaste tubes a year with each carton she discards weighing 3 grams, the country must be generating 20,460 metric tons of paper and cellophane waste a year by using toothpaste. In the absence of strict recycling rules, more often than not, these cartons are found strewn around, polluting the environment.’ (For more, see: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/out-of-the-box-41778)
Obviously, the toothpaste tube box is not the only example of its kind. Many such examples are around us in our everyday lives. ‘Spot the Excessive Plastic Packaging,’ says an article in The Guardian, UK (www.theguardian.com Jul 08, 2018.) It goes on to catalog in pictures various everyday packaged products that are wastefully packaged and eventually ‘add to the 95% of all plastic packaging that is used just once and then discarded as litter. . . . since the 1950’s, about 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced worldwide, and to date, only 9% of that has been recycled.’
In addition to the scourge of non-recyclable, single-use plastics and laminate composites, the other biggest contributor to domestic waste streams is printed paper and cardboard. A figure estimated by the Centre for Environment & Development, Bhubaneshwar, and quoted by Down To Earth is that printed paper and cardboard is as much as 13% of all domestic solid waste generated.
Why this PM?
So, why indeed is all this plastic and extra packaging needed? As quoted in Down To Earth, Dr NC Saha, director, Indian Institute of Packaging says, “Manufacturers claim that outer packaging or double packaging helps stock the product on shelf and in transportation. It also displays the brand name more prominently than the tube or bottle. No matter how sustainable manufacturers claim to be, they would hesitate bringing even minute changes in packaging fearing that their competitors will have an upper hand.” He adds, “However, manufacturers would be compelled to take heed if consumers put their foot down and say they do not want this extra packaging.”
“Modern life is rubbish: we don’t need all this packaging,” says Michele Hanson, emphatically, in another article in The Guardian, UK. She is obviously voicing the opinion of many environmentally aware and concerned consumers. “Modern wrappings annoy and worry me more because I’m old enough to remember a time when we managed without them,” she goes on to say. (See www.theguardian.com 6 December 2016.)
The voices of the consumers, therefore, are coming in loud and clear. Brand marketers need to recognize the need for more responsible packaging. Packaging material manufacturers and convertors must offer better solutions. The list of wasteful and irresponsible packaging culprits is long but easily cataloged via online searches. In broad terms, I believe the following categories of packaging need to be rationalized:
‘Russian Doll’ type packaging
Pre-boxed, ‘retail ready’ product inventories are picked up by eCommerce sites for direct-to-consumer deliveries. In the process of protecting the product during its transit from the eCommerce warehouse to the customer, the product gets over-wrapped (like a Russian Doll) with several more precautionary layers of packaging. This is wasteful and thoughtless, and costs the customer as well as the ravaged environment. With the rapid rate at which the popularity of online shopping is growing, there is a dire need to create ‘online delivery ready’ version packs of popular products.
‘Improve Nature’ type agro-produce packaging
The natural form of packaging of almost all types of agro-produce was often cited as an inspiration for would-be package designers. To name just a few, consider the nature-made packaging of bananas, oranges, peanuts or walnuts. These come in their own beautiful packaging and don’t need anything but a basket or reusable bag. Yet, many ‘modern retailers’ are found to be over-wrapping bananas in poly-film skins or placing fruit and vegetables in pulp trays and stretch-wrapping them. There is a need to avoid such ludicrous attempts to improve nature’s packaging. There is also a need for social media to play a role in awakening consumer conscience.
‘One-way Trip’ type packaging
The most damning criticism of the packaging industry has been that it has pandered to the lazy, self-absorbed, irresponsible consumer and in the name of ‘convenience’ created a ‘use-and-throw’ culture. This creation of ‘one-way, single-trip flexible laminate wrappers and sachets, fast-food disposable trays, plastic cutlery and drinking straws and plastic toothbrush handles has been the single-most cause of pain not only to life on land but also to the furthermost reaches of marine life. Obviously, the time has come for the industry to act responsibly about this. It is time for us to have toothbrushes with steel handles (like cutlery). And it is time to have steel drinking straws in our shirt pockets (like pens).
The accidental canister
This is a familiar concept in almost all Indian homes. Products are purchased in glass or tin packaging and when the pack is empty, it is ‘up cycled’ for other uses such as to store cereals, grains or confectionery. The original packaging becomes the Accidental Canister and the frugality serves not only the customer but the environment as well.
The use-and-reuse of packaging conserves the earth’s resource and saves those used in production and transportation of brand new ones. It is obviously a no-brainer that more packaging with built-in after-use value must find its way to the consumer and Gen Y or Gen Z must be made to feel it is ‘cool’ to choose (and be seen with) the Accidental Canister, just as they seem happy to carry their steel or aluminum water bottles with them to seminars nowadays.
New leadership needed
Clearly, in more ways than one, we are at a threshold of change if we are to act responsibly towards the earth future generations will inherit. We must choose wisely. New brand leadership has to emerge based on the choices we make.
The Accidental PM must fade into the past. We must prepare for the Acche Din of packaging.
Slightly edited at 720pm on 5 March 2019