The “One Material Myth” vs. Environmental Reality

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We believe that most companies could easily and inexpensively reduce the volume of packaging they use by as much as 15 to 20%. However, to achieve that reduction, companies must be willing to embrace the idea that the best and most cost effective solution may be a combination of packaging materials.

A Multi-Material Opportunity

For example, a worldwide manufacturer of inexpensive writing instruments recently asked us to help them create a greener and more sustainable package design to replace their rack displayed blister cards, which retail customers perceived as being environmentally unfriendly. The young and very talented project engineers had their hands full attempting to process and respond to the wide range – and often conflicting – input they were receiving from key retail customers and various departments within their own company. It seemed everyone had a different concept of the problem and the possible solutions.

One consistent message from the large retailers was a desire for unique packaging using less packaging material. I was confident we could help the manufacturer create a design to meet those demands, provided we utilize a combination of materials. An outstanding option immediately came to mind – a card and shrink film overwrap design, which we have been promoting as a blister and clamshell replacement.

When presenting our design to the engineers, I highlighted several important advantages.

  • By eliminating the blister sealing process, we utilize an uncoated card that is pre-printed with earth friendly and easily recyclable inks.
  • We gain the ability to imprint the cards on an as needed basis, providing flexibility while minimizing unique packaging SKU’s, eliminating waste, and giving retailers the unique packaging they each
    want.
  • By utilizing a cost reducing, polyethylene based, low energy shrink film, we are able to minimize the card thickness for easy package component separation and recycling.
  • Since no expensive tooling or mold charges are needed for our design, we eliminate capital investment and avoid the necessity of warehousing bulky blister or clamshell components.
  • No blister sealing means we eliminate the blister flange, allowing us to reduce the size of the display card, which in turn would result in smaller cases (less corrugated and sealing tape), and reduced fuel/freight costs.  A key additional benefit might be being able to place more product on the same planogram space allowed them by their customers.

After describing our design, one of the engineers stated that retailers did not necessarily want to make the overall package smaller, for visibility and security reasons. “Hmmm. Let me see if I understand, you want less packaging but not necessarily smaller packaging?”

Always appreciating a good challenge, I pressed on. Knowing how relatively slow and labor intensive clamshell and blister packaging can be and realizing the intense and increasing foreign competition my potential client was undoubtedly experiencing, I was glad to have saved a key advantage for the end of our discussion.

I informed them our concept would provide visibility, security, recyclability, and best of all, a package able to run at much faster speeds with less labor than their current design. Most package designers are focused on the way a package looks on the shelf but have absolutely no idea on how it is going to be produced in a plant environment. Our intimate knowledge of packaging equipment and processes helps us to maintain a dual focus on design and production. After all, what good is a “perfect” package design that requires twice as much labor and only runs at half the production speed of the current package being used?

The “One Material Myth” Perception rather than Reality?

We seem to have hit a package design homerun – less material, less labor, higher throughput, lower cost, greater flexibility, easy customization, superior shelf appeal, and reliable security. That is when one of the people mentioned their preference would be a new design utilizing only “one material” for ease of recycling and that they would prefer that one material used was not plastic.

Currently, the manufacturer is considering an all chipboard, die cut solution. To achieve the same retention and security, the design will require more chipboard than a board-shrink film combination. It will almost certainly require a coating making it less recyclable. It will offer less eye appeal, gloss, and sparkle than film would provide. It will do little, really, beyond fulfilling the prophecy of the “one material myth”.

Why Multiple Materials Multiply Benefits

Needs and objectives often conflict, but the fact is that in many if not most situations, two different materials working together, each bringing different characteristics and benefits to the packaging application, may be the best alternative. Many may not want to hear it, but shrinkable, forming plastic may be part of the solution from a performance AND from an environmental perspective. If they are easily separated and sorted, a combination of materials can help us reduce packaging by volume and by weight so that the people who chose not to recycle are doing as little damage as possible to the environment.

Far from being an apologist for the plastics industry, I admit manufacturers and package design people can do a lot more than we currently are to minimize waste, but what we each decide to do at curbside on waste collection day is the ultimate unknown and one of the most important pieces of the sustainable packaging dilemma and solution. Why don’t more people recycle? That is a great question and the subject of my next article.

Dennis Salazar is the president of Salazar Packaging Inc., a certified MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) company specializing in flexible packaging products, equipment and solutions. After over thirty years in plastic film sales, he is the self-proclaimed, “Senor Shrink” of the industry and is known for his tongue in cheek sense of humor as well as his flexible packaging expertise.
To contact, please email at: dennis@salazarpackaging.com