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Planning Your E-Comm Package’s Funeral: Considerations for Designing for End of Life

Fuseneo’s Brent Lindberg advises E-Pack Europe attendees on how to design packaging for composting, reuse, and especially recycling, rather than for burial in a landfill.

Brent Lindberg, founder and Head of Curiosity, Fuseneo
Brent Lindberg, founder and Head of Curiosity, Fuseneo

As is the case with virtually every topic that relates to packaging today, sustainability was a major focus of this year’s E-Pack Europe conference, held June 14 and 15 in Amsterdam. In fact, sustainability was such a large part of the discussion at the Smithers-produced event that nearly every one of the 21 presentations addressed the issue. Among them was one provocatively titled, “Die with dignity: Planning your e-commerce packaging’s funeral,” presented by Brent Lindberg, founder and Head of Curiosity for packaging and development firm Fuseneo.

Said Lindberg, “We all must realize that our packaging is going to have an end of life. And so at Fuseneo, we take the approach of thinking about the end and backing into it. If we don’t plan for this, we wind up with what we call zombie packaging. What is zombie packaging? It’s packaging that’s roaming the earth with no purpose and just aimlessly wandering and blowing across the ground. None of us wants that, so we need to think about where our packaging can go and where it should go.”

He noted that while the industry talks about reusing and recycling materials, there are cases where packaging will end up in landfill—in fact is designed for landfill. “When we talk about reducing the amount of material, then oftentimes that is planning for disposal and landfill of our packaging,” Lindberg said. 

Another way packaging goes “straight to burial,” he added, is when it’s designed for either industrial or home composting, since there is such a lack of solid industrial composting systems and structures in the U.S., or really anywhere else, that can actually handle the materials. “So we can design for compostability if some brands really want to, but there’s a lot of considerations that have to be made when we’re planning for composting as the end of life, specifically around the environment that we’re in,” he said.

One place where composting is effective, he noted, is in large, controlled environments, such as a stadium or arena, where the package can be gathered on a wide scale and brought to a specific composting facility.

When it comes to reuse, Lindberg noted that there are two approaches: reuse by brand or reuse by customer. While there have been many successful examples of reuse by the brand, such as the milkman model or Coca-Cola’s use of reusable glass bottles, there are a lot of considerations around this model. Among them, the frequency of reuse, the cost, and the carbon footprint of reuse versus straight-up disposal.


   Read how Fuseneo helped Lenox optimize its wine glass packaging for Amazon shipping.


In the area of reuse by customer, Lindberg noted that sometimes brands use consumers as an “out,” saying, “Well, this is something they can reuse, so we’ll go ahead and make it more robust or do something else with it.” To demonstrate the point, Lindberg used the example of a yogurt brand that uses beautiful and robust glass jars for their product that they market as being reusable. The disconnect is that when it’s a product that is consumed every day, “how many of these jars are people going to collect?” Lindberg questioned. “Are they going to reuse a jar every day? We have to think about all these things, how often they’re being reused, in order to make this make sense, not just have it as an excuse. I think we see reuse as an excuse used way too often by brands.”

One of the biggest end-of-life scenarios for which brands need to design their packaging, however, is recycling. “We’re [the industry is] asking for more reuse of materials, we’re asking for more recycled content in things,” noted Lindberg. “And so, if we’re asking for recycled content, and we’re really demanding it, we’ve got to make sure that we are providing recycled content. And so, when we’re planning for our packaging’s funeral, and we’re planning for that end of life, we need to plan for recyclability. The bin is the customer, and we have to plan for that customer.”  

Among those things a brand needs to consider when it comes to recycling, Lindberg advised, are the following:

·     Do we have national recycling availability?

·      Do we have the ability to sort the material?

·      Do we have the ability to process the material?

·      Is there a market for it all? Is there value in the material we want to recycle?

“We have to understand a little bit about the journey packaging takes at the end of its life when it goes to a recycler to make sure that what we’re designing is truly recyclable,” he said.

Recycling is all about money, Lindberg told E-Pack attendees. If a material or package can’t be recycled, then there’s no value in it. “There’s no point in recycling something that doesn’t add value back to the stream,” he emphasized. Therefore, brands need to understand the journey packaging takes at the end of its life when it goes to a recycler to ensure that what’s being designed is truly recyclable. And, to design for recycling involves a range of considerations, including materials, processes, and products.

Materials: Certain materials, such as EPS (expanded polystyrene) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride), are so inexpensive, there’s no value in recovering the material. So, explained Lindberg, there are really only a handful of materials that have large, international acceptance for recycling. Among them are polyethylene, PET, polypropylene, paper, glass, and aluminum.

Sustainability was a major focus of this year’s E-Pack Europe conference.Sustainability was a major focus of this year’s E-Pack Europe conference.Color: Said Lindberg, “We can take a lot of the [recycling] value away from a package simply by what we do with color, by applying dark colorants—in particular, black. When we add color to something, we’re actually reducing its usability downstream into something else.” The darker the materials are made, the darker the packaging the recycled materials have to go into—they can’t go into something lighter. While there is some collection of green or blue plastics, by and large, Lindberg advised, the most value is placed on clean, clear materials.

Package shape and size: There are packages that are made out of the right materials, but are the wrong shape and size, and as a result, they fall through conveyors, they don’t transfer well, etc. Items such as flat plastics often wind up being sorted with paper, resulting in contamination. Tiny packages, such as those used for applications such as gum or lip gloss are oftentimes so small that they can’t physically be collected and recycled. So the makeup of a product can influence whether the package can technically be recycled. To say they are recyclable is greenwashing. When plastic bags that are technically recyclable (but only via in-store drop-off) make their way into the recycling stream, they jam up recycling lines, shutting them down and taking value away from the stream.

Mixed materials: “The moment we start bringing materials together, we are making things more challenging for recyclability,” said Lindberg. “The ability to separate and get value from these components gets a lot more challenging.” One of the examples he used was toothpaste tubes, although there are some innovations occurring in the category. “There’s some awesome things happening here, but there are still a lot of brands that are combining materials in a way that make them really challenging to separate and reduce that value,” he added.

Packaging assembly process: For packaging such as blister cards, once they are separated, the result is paper stuck to plastic and plastic stuck to paper, and brands are relying on consumers to separate things. In the meantime, contamination is being added to the plastic, and laminates and resalable materials are contaminating the paper. While it doesn’t mean the components can’t be recycled, it does impact the value of the material. Another similar example is windowed packaging. “A window on something, while it may be able to be pulped and shredded and then disposed of in the paper recycling process, it’s a contaminant,” explained Lindberg. “It’s something that’s adding some complexity and difficulty to that stream, therefore reducing the value of the material.”

Closures: There are recycling processes currently that can handle packaging with a different type of material for the closure and the bottle. For example, separating PP closures from PET bottles or metal closures from glass containers are well established processes. However, some new formats, such as metal closures on plastic jars or rubber components add difficulty to the recycling process.

Labels: “Labeling is a big deal,” emphasized Lindberg. “We can screw up our packaging’s ability to be recycled by the declaration and the labeling that we apply to it.” Something as simple as a shrink wrap on a bottle can mask the ability for vision systems and plastic detection systems to identify what the bottle is made from, preventing a clear, high-quality PET bottle from being recycled, for example. Another label type that presents a problem is pressure-sensitive labels, which oftentimes are so difficult to remove that they contaminate the recycling stream. Another type is in-mold labeling. But, noted Lindberg, there are brands doing interesting things around removable labels. However, that means customers must cooperate. “I don’t like to rely on consumers,” he added. “It requires education and adherence, and consumers just aren’t always that willing to cooperate. So be careful when you go that route. Let’s encourage consumer adoption, but let’s also make sure that if they don’t, the package is still recyclable.”


   Read this interview with Brent Lindberg on omnichannel packaging.


Finishes: Foiling or heavy lamination as well as metallic inks can affect the value of the material.

Tags: When components such as RFID tags are added to a package, recyclability is impacted. “We’ve taken something that’s maybe pure paper, and we’ve thrown metal bits into it. That contaminates that paper stream. Especially if it’s stuck to it, and it’s adhered and not able to separate easily,” explained Lindberg. Alternatives include QR codes and other scannable and visible codes that don’t impact the material.

Product: Brands also need to assess whether their product is capable of being separated from the package. This includes things such as greases and oils, such as those used to lubricate automotive components. In cases such as this, while the package may be recyclable, by sending it into the recycling stream, it introduces contamination.

Ultimately, no matter how well you design your package for recycling, or reuse, or composting, if you don’t clearly communicate to the customer how to properly dispose of the package, it will likely end up in landfill. “This communication piece is really, really important,” said Lindberg. “Things like How2Recycle, where we are trying to communicate to consumers, those are things that are taking small steps. And I encourage each of you to consider these small steps.

“Our brands have scale, and a small amount of something creates a large amount of impact. And so if we’re all taking small steps towards better communication, better value and recyclability, better understanding towards end of life, then all of these small steps are going to create a lot of movement.”

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