At a time when the industry is scrambling to react to societal and political pressure for more sustainable packaging, Andrew Capper, creative director at Echo, a London-based innovation, brand strategy and design agency, looks at how lightweighting could help solve this issue.

Lightweighting might not be the ultimate answer to producing sustainable packaging, but it should be an important shorter-term step towards achieving a solution to a hugely complex problem. The process is a bit like a carmaker creating an increasingly efficient petrol engine whilst at the same time innovating an alternative power source that is "greener".

Everyone should be lightweighting their packaging, but the resulting benefits can be difficult to see and communicate. On paper it makes sense: use less energy, use less material, and improve transport efficiency. But if this executed poorly, it can create as many issues as it solves.

Lighter bottles

There’s a limit to how much material can be removed for the pack to still do its job. Today, most plastic bottles are, by and large, recyclable. If a bottle is made lighter still, there’s a point when it becomes uneconomical to recycle and the energy required to process is no longer offset by what’s recovered.

In turn, that slightly lighter bottle will now go on a one-way journey to incineration or landfill rather than back into the recycling system. There is also the risk of making packaging so light that it breaks or leaks, which is less sustainable in the long-run and can provoke an erosion in brand trust.

Then there are the "tangibles". We’ve all experienced light-weighted bottles that crush too easily in the hand. If a water bottle is squishy and seemingly of lesser quality, how does that affect our perception about the quality of the water contained inside?

The world’s lightest bottle for still water - the X-Lite from Sidel - boasts only 6.9g of material, compared to the average 12g bottle. If brands produce 250m bottles a year, this equates to a saving of 1,485 tonnes of PET - the equivalent CO2 savings of 200 return flights from NYC to Paris. Whilst the results are astonishing, there exists a trade-off between appearance, usability, and sustainability.

In order to retain valuable brand equity alongside ensuring that consumers are offered an equally good, if not better product experience, there is science and art to creating lighter packaging.

New technologies allow some plastics to be aerated to create microscopic bubbles that reduce material but retain strength. CAD and prototyping techniques enable us to test the robustness of packaging before manufacture in order to put just enough material in the right places.

Yet, for many household brands whose iconic packs are heavier than they should be, the quest to reconcile aesthetics with sustainability is tough. That square, short-necked bourbon bottle, or that curvaceous cola pack all use more material than is strictly necessary for sustainable design to be achieved.

Given that those forms have become physical brand icons, to create more sustainable iterations requires creative clarity and brand understanding in order to retain what makes these brands instantly recognisable and loved.

It’s not just the minimalism trend that’s driving many new brands towards a simpler, cleaner look. Brands are cottoning on to the fact that exaggerated sculpting massively increases the amount of material required. It’s time to bake "using less" into our designs from the ideation stage, leaning on the expertise of structural designers. That way we get a strong brand with material reduction integrated from the start, rather than another squishy water bottle "solution".

Lightweight flexibles

By moving to an alternative lighter material, such as flexible pouches, we see greater benefits in terms of saved energy and CO2 during manufacturing and in transportation. Yet, we also create a new set of issues downstream that impacts at shelf, while in use and in recycling.

From a consumer perspective, non-rigid packs can be harder to use, which might demand another step such as decanting into more durable dispensers. If we don’t put the consumer at the heart of our designs, we could create unnecessarily fiddly products that prevent automatic purchase.

Therein also lies a marketing challenge. Are flexible packs going to look as appealing on-shelf as their competitors who retain gorgeously styled bottles? No brand wants to see their sales decline, and communicating a more complex story such as lightweighting creates its own problems.

Finally, pouches are extremely difficult to process and recycle as most are made out of multiple materials. For instance, Carex’s Eco pouch refills use 75% less material than 2 equivalent bottles, yet are made from laminate materials that require specialist recycling processes. In demanding that customers arrange collections or use drop-off points to recycle these pouches, many will end up in the bin because of the additional effort required.  

It’s obvious in this scenario that we are no longer just creating a singular piece of packaging, but a packaging ecosystem where the whole journey needs to be redesigned.

The future of lightweighting

How do we move light-weighting forward and offer more radical sustainability solutions?

Let’s start by looking more broadly at what it means to "lightweight" and stop thinking just about the packaging. Moving to ever more concentrated, small dose products or even removing water completely from products like detergents (to be rehydrated at home) offers us a step change in material savings as well as more efficient supply chains.

Brands such as Forgo are leading this change, having designed a foaming hand wash without water which usually makes up 80% of the product. By creating a powder that consumers can add water to at home, the equivalent to a pallet of traditional hand wash bottles can now be shipped in a small cardboard box. 

Brands know the risks of not behaving sustainably, but there are equally inherent risks in making the move to using less. If efficient, minimalistic packaging is right for your brand, then it needs to be conceived, crafted, and executed perfectly, as there really is nowhere to hide. If "flexibles" offer the most benefits, brands must find ways to overcome the usability challenges. If the product has been radically reimagined, then it needs to be packaged in a way that reflects and celebrates that. Packaging today that relies on strong physical equities is going to need a sensitive approach to sustainably evolve it without eroding recognition and standout.

Whether your approach to using less material is evolutionary or revolutionary, it is clear that it is no longer just a technical exercise.