Google has released a Plastic Free Packaging Design Guide, intended to help the consumer electronics sector phase out mixed-material packaging and transition into plastic-free alternatives – all while balancing product protection, accessibility, aesthetic appeal, responsible disposal, and costs. We take a deeper dive into its findings to learn more.

Structural design

Google packages its electronics in telescoping boxes made of rigid paperboard, roll end lock front (RELF) boxes, and tuck top boxes.

Telescoping boxes aspire for a simple opening and closing mechanism, and leave room for custom inserts or collars. Apparently, they are stable and secure, with rigid, non-collapsible versions typically made of greyboard, a high-strength recycled board. Paper tape is applied to the corners, with the box wrapped in a top sheet.

Rigid, non-collapsible versions potentially take up more space in a recycling bin. However, paperboard versions are easier to lay flat for efficient recycling. These are often used for lighter products and are thought to offer a smooth surface for printing. E and F flute corrugated inserts can help provide structural support for heavier items, as well as provide rigidity and shock absorption.

Telescoping structures with very large footprints can be difficult, or even impossible, to open with one hand, thus compromising their accessibility. Deep boxes can also increase the time spent opening a box, especially if the product is lightweight. Many suppliers are thought to be able to automate construction for lower costs and tighter assembly tolerances, but this is not always the case, and handmade versions can be complex to assemble. Google recommends pre-assembling inbox components in the rigid box structure wherever possible, a move expected to lower logistical and manufacturing costs.

RELF boxes constitute a front panel with interlocking tabs to form a closure. It is said to balance easy assembly, product protection, and intuitive opening. They can be usually re-closed where necessary, and can also be designed to be easy to break down for recycling purposes.

Although they come in various sizes, very deep products can be limited by this design. Larger blank sizes can be broken down into multiple panels where equipment limitations apply, and seams can be thoughtfully placed for aesthetic benefits. Google also illuminates the existence of such alternative designs as the Econo Roll End Lock Front.

RELF boxes are typically constructed from paperboards, corrugates, and similar materials. A pack’s intended use, product weight, and scale should be considered before choosing the material, Google concludes.

Tuck top boxes are describes as having a “simple” and “functional” appearance with an “easy to open and close” top flap that tucks into the box. The report states that this is a “highly cost-effective” solution applicable to smaller accessories and lower-priced products, as it offers “basic” protection and easy assembly. They apparently offer efficient manufacturing and can be shipped flat.


Google underlines the popularity of coated and uncoated polypropylene films as a protective solution. The company says it previously utilized a water-based adhesive to bind polypropylene films to printed paper. Solutions like these are said to reinforce the structural and tensile strength of the paper to prevent damage; ensure resistance against scuffing or scratching; protect against moisture; and provide aesthetic appeal with a glossy or matte finish.

However, the polymer can impact recyclability when applied as a laminate to paper-based packaging. Plastic films do not break down in the pulping process in the same way that paper fibres do, Google explains, and they must be screened out – lowering recycling yields and contributing to the amount of waste ending up in landfill.

“The quest for a recyclable coating was a balancing act,” explains packaging design engineer manager Francesca Delle Cese. “We needed to maintain the protective qualities of PP film while ensuring it wouldn’t disrupt the paper recycling process. It was a challenge, but one that pushed us to innovate.”

As such, Google reports that it worked with Western Michigan University (WMU) to certify its combinations of coating, varnish, ink, and paper, using the Fibre Boxboard Association test protocol for wax replacement corrugated containers as a point of reference. It tested PP lamination-free solutions through such processes as running recycled pulps from its new plastic-free printed packaging designs, its original PP laminated solution, and unprinted paper stock to compare the results.

Varnish from Megami is said to have passed the recyclability test while meeting Google’s performance requirements, and it has been implemented at scale. Actega’s coating also passed, but is not currently in use due to “some manufacturing challenges that our team is actively working to resolve”.

Google now highlights the importance of making design and working with producer responsibility organizations in order to keep up with developments in collection and recycling infrastructure for fibre-based packaging. The company aims to “understand the criteria and assessment methods being developed and optimize our packaging solutions for seamless integration into evolving recycling streams.”

The report lays out Google’s six-stage coating qualification process designed to hold its suppliers to the standards of compatibility, print “excellence”, and real-world performance, as well as continuous improvement in deinkability and flexibility to prevent artwork damage during folding.

Amongst its learnings from the project, Google lists the possibility of paper picking if high-tack UV offset inks are applied to paper with an insufficient surface strength. However, they are “essential” for coating adhesion, so the company claims to have tested over thirteen coated grades and over eighteen uncoated grades, using the wax pick method to establish benchmarks of surface strength.

Furthermore, the storage conditions and pre-mixing procedures that coating materials undergo can reportedly affect their coating performance and machine efficiency, while machine cleaning requirements have an obvious impact on production.

Removing shrink wrap

Plastic shrink wrap is described in the report as “versatile”, yet the difficulty of separating such solutions from other materials in recycling streams means it “offers limited value for recyclers” and is likely to end up in landfill.

Google has thus redesigned its packaging. All the company’s box styles have undergone structural redesigns to make up for the lost tensile strength when removing plastic shrink wrap, with specialized adhesives applied to its fibre-based, tamper-evident seal closures (these were not necessary in a shrink-wrapped product, Google explains).

Reliability testing such as vibration, drop, environmental exposure, and compression simulations have been applied to ensure that removing shrink wrap does not have a negative impact on product quality. Rub and abrasion tests and supply chain simulations have sought to maintain the product’s aesthetic appeal in transit, and UV protective coatings have been applied to the packs in a bad to protect packaging artwork.

Additionally, testing for repulpability, deinkability, and other recycling requirements gauges its performance within paper recycling systems.

However, compared to telescoping boxes and tuck-end cartons, Google states that the RELF box style has different requirements. With corrugated structures, it seeks to minimize rib visibility and achieve a smooth surface with a “high-quality” top sheet, a colour-matched inside liner, and F-flute corrugated material; the latter is also set to balance with “other structural and cost requirements”. As a whole, the solution is set to drive up abrasion resistance and maintain appearance quality in transit and on the shelf.

To compensate for structural weaknesses previously rectified by shrink wrap, Google recommends a lid stiffening element like greyboard, which is said to be both made from recycled material and recyclable. These components can start at a thickness of 1mm. Meanwhile, the flange of moulded fibre trays – already implemented in many packaging designs for product support – can be extended to increase lid stiffness.

Google also explains how it “flip[s] the orientation of the corrugated shipper’s liner” to lower abrasion on the retail box. This means the smoother and thicker side of the kraft protects the finished box surface instead of the exposed corrugated tibs. If it is necessary to reduce abrasion, a thin layer of tissue or kraft paper can be applied between retail boxes within the corrugated shipper, which creates a “gentle barrier” while adhering to paper recycling streams.

Closure labels

According to Google, paper closure labels are easier to open than their plastic counterparts. It cites user testing conducted with 36 participants, some of whom had limited mobility or visual impairments. For all participant groups, even those who were not disabled, paper was cited as the easiest material to open.

Visually impaired testers reported that the plastic label was the most difficult to open, which Google attributes to its small size and tactile similarity to the surface of the box. Furthermore, the company believes that paper closure labels are easier to grip and intuitively designed for streamlined use.

A minimum size of 8mm x 8mm is recommended to create a tab that is both easy to see and easy to grip – yet Google acknowledges that brands might need to sacrifice free space that could otherwise have been used for graphics.

To ensure both protection and efficiency, the report suggests a minimum adhesive width of 10mm, said to achieve “optimal adhesion during initial curing”. Adhesives should apparently cover at least 50% of the lid’s outer dimension when it comes to telescoping boxes, while RELF boxes should increase this percentage to 75%.

Applying a margin of non-sticky deadened adhesive with extra allowance on the closure side around the pull strip is described as “crucial”, with telescoping box lids said to get stuck without it. Furthermore, if this measure is not taken, tuck-style closures may have residue and pull tabs can have adhesive clinging to their edges – both of which impact the pack’s functionality.

Fibre-based labels do not need a started slit to tear cleanly, according to Google’s reliability testing. The company fears that their presence can increase the possibility of accidental rips during package handling, but if a particular production context requires a starter slit, a length ≤ 1mm is advised.

When it comes to label faces, Google underlines the importance of considering both adhesive strength and easy removal. A tear strip reinforcer made of translucent paper is set to provide strength and minimal thickness, but Google calls for Technical Data Sheets and Material Safety Data Sheets proving that the papers are completed plastic-free and do not contain regenerated cellulose.

Ensuring tamper evidence requires a permanent adhesive, the report adds, and applying the label thoroughly “with sufficient time and pressure” will keep part of the label attached to the box once it has been opened. Meanwhile, labels are expected to be securely adhered, yet enable a “clean and continuous tear without tools”. The company has applied vibration, drop, and environmental condition testing to verify label performance during the shipping and handling processes, while also validating “consistent, single-tear strip removal”.

Paper tapes

Rigid telescoping boxes from Google previously enforced tensile strength using plastic corners, but the impact on recyclability was noted as a downside. The company sought to meet or improve upon the performance of plastic tape corners while adhering to the automated tape application process used by its suppliers; preventing production disruptions by choosing a solution with ready availability; and avoiding witness lines on the finished box by pursuing minimal thickness.

Google explains that a robust tape solution with higher tensile energy absorption prevents corner tearing if the pack is dropped and makes sure a box’s vertical walls remain perpendicular to the bottom panel. Any papers used in its tapes were apparently qualified using tensile energy absorption in the Cross Direction (CD).

Reportedly, repulpability testing revealed that BK Brown Kraft achieved a 99% fibre yield. Google believes this solution will assist in its goal of achieving fully recyclable packaging.

Its greyboard has been debossed by 0.25mm in the corners to keep the tape hidden and control the consistency of box opening time – Google aims for its rigid boxes to take between two and five seconds to open as per ISO 1156:2011 accessibility standards.


Hang tabs

Hang tabs are said to help organize product displays, ensuring that consumers can see and interact with the product in stores. If they are designed to be robust, they are set to help deter and prevent theft, as well as preserve a product’s integrity.

In its efforts to remove plastic from hang tabs without compromising on performance, Google ran repulpability tests alongside pull force testing to failure and 20-day double-weight performance benchmarks. It also sought to make sure any redesigned tabs were compatible with existing vendor automation setups to prevent expensive retooling, and to ensure that tabs could be folded parallel to the box to prevent them from wasting space in shipping cases.

In one solution, it interlaced a single strip of paper to create a hanging solution. This is said to have achieved a 10 kgf pull force when assembled on a rigid box – but it failed repulability tests, fell short on automation requirements, and increased assembly costs.

Another solution was made from paperboard with a smooth coating on both sides. In theory, this would improve durability and the clarity of subsequent print. However, it was not compatible with maximum pull force requirements.

On a more positive note, though, moulded fibre was said to offer similar performance to the polycarbonate plastic control solution, achieving a pull force of almost 8 kgf while also “excell[ing] in other critical areas”. Heavier products were tested with hang tabs at 1mm in thickness, while lighter products were hung on 0.7 mm-thick tabs.

Now Google has embraced the moulded fibre solution, which is made of 55% bamboo pulp, 35% bagasse pulp, and 10% wood pulp. It can apparently be recycled without requiring separation from the rest of the pack, with no retooling needed to implement the new design.

The tab is positioned over the product’s centre of gravity – Google emphasizes that this is not the same as the centre of the box – which balances the display with “euro-style compatibility across various peg designs”. Its built-in hinge means the tab can be folded flat across the top of the box during shipping.

Protective product wraps

In the electronics sector, Google has implemented protective wraps to protect against scratch and abrasion, dust and debris (thus keeping the product clean and undamaged), as well as unlock both tamper-evidence a “gift-like unboxing”. Additionally, product wraps may feature pull tabs or such tactile signifiers as texture or raised areas, which ensures an intuitive and accessible unboxing process.

With all these features and paper/cardboard waste streams in mind, Google claims to have found that fibre-based wraps can match and replace both the protective qualities and positive unboxing experience of single-use plastics.

Glassine, or supercalendered paper, is said to have performed well in everything except for average dust prevention. Coated wrapping paper improved protection against dust but offered “average performance” in all other areas; Google describes it as “a viable option for select use cases that do not require translucency”.

Conversely, translucent paper helps bundle internal packaging documentation and adds an extra layer of protection, the report says. Low-density filter paper is uplifted as the solution with the best general performance, with the additional benefit of a “soft-touch texture”. Still, its higher cost leads Google to advise its use for products that “demand maximum protection”.

The company adds that product wraps should either adhere to themselves or, preferably, require no adhesive whatsoever. In applications where this is impossible, wraps should be applied to packaging parts, not the product itself.

Google’s Pixel phone packaging involves a wrap adhered to the product in a bid to achieve accessibility and improve the unboxing experience. Here Google claims to choose materials that “eliminate unwanted residue”.

Inbox trays

Although thermoformed PET trays have been an industry standard to protect products, Google emphasizes the “exciting potential” of moulded fibre in terms of combining recyclability and functionality – citing its cushioning properties, customizability in terms of shape, and tactile properties for improved presentation and tactile experience.

Hinged trays are said to be easy to integrate with the surrounding packaging structure and offer high-quality visual presentation thanks to its precise cuts. Warping is apparently minimized thanks to its structural stability, thus making sure that the product stays protected; while features like mirrored cavity geometry are set to reinforce hinged panels to enhance strength and support, for which Google credits the high customization of hinged trays.

A range of style options are also available, starting with moulded hinges – believed to be cost-effective, as they can be integrated directly into the moulded pulp tool during manufacturing. They are also set to offer “superior strength with slightly less precise dimensional accuracy after folding.”

Alternatively, post-die cut hinges are made by V-cutting pre-moulded trays, which is thought to improve dimensional accuracy for a precise fold but slightly decrease product strength and increase cost.

In any case, careful design is necessary to prevent tearing when folding the hinges. A higher blank size, or footprint, is required in flat parts during moulding, which risks increasing costs and lowering cavitation.

Skirted trays provide an alternative option. Google points to their high dimensional precision across product runs; their “robust” and “stiff” structure, said to survive both handling and stacking processes; their potential to reduce the cost of hinged designs; and the minimal space they take up inside a pack. On the other hand, a visible gap between the tray and enclosing structure can result from a skirted tray’s draft angles. Also, without sufficient support, they pose a risk of sidewall movement or flexing inside the package.

Flanged trays involve sharp cuts that, according to Google, improve the visual appeal and fit within surrounding structures. Yet, while it is described as a “material efficient design option”, it constitutes “large, flat surfaces” that can warp under load and in hot and humid conditions. Exposed tray edges can be scratched and dented, while its lack of vertical walls increase the risk of the tray moving during shipping if left unsecured.

When it comes to moulded fibre trays, Google uplifts supply chain partnerships as a means of unlocking high volume production and cost-effective solutions. Clean edges and a secure fit are set to streamline a consumer’s removal process, improve stackability, and enhance visual presentation, while the subtle curvature of a tray can “guid[e] product placement and enhanc[e] visual harmony” inside a pack.

However, Google encourages manufacturers to keep the tray design consistent across device trays for the purposes of visual cohesion and reliability. “For example,” the report says, “if one tray has more freedom of movement, it could cause undue surface contact with the device.”

The radius of a tray cavity should also be considered. Radii transitioning from flat tray surfaces into product cavities is recommended at 5mm or less due to the higher product abrasion risks with fibre-based materials.

Furthermore, Google recommends that moulded fibre trays should feature visible recycling logos to encourage consumers to send their packaging to the correct end-of-life stream.

“Once a manufacturing process is selected, we recommend using a standard slurry recipe to streamline production, control costs, and ensure a consistent, high-quality finish,” the report continues. “Maintaining a standard recipe across multiple products reduces changeover and cleaning requirements during manufacturing.

“For purely structural trays, consider using recycled materials like old corrugated cardboard / container (OCC) for enhanced strength, higher recycled content and lower part cost compared to cosmetic moulded pulp solutions. Materials like OCC typically produce parts with less desirable surface finishes, but have lower density and allow for thicker walls.

“This trade-off has advantages for shipping and assembly, but may not be appropriate for product contact or consumer-facing surfaces.”

If draft angles are designed to be steep, Google adds, their pleasant aesthetic may nevertheless compromise manufacturability and surface quality. Draft angles on nonproduct contact surfaces should not exceed 4° as per Google’s advice, which would achieve minimal gaps and improve stability while maintaining yield and part quality. Flanged and hinged trays are highlighted as a means of reducing gaps between the inbox tray and the outer box.


In conclusion, Google believes that “by sharing our experiences, findings, and challenges, we can catalyze progress in our industry and others. What we’ve achieved isn’t perfect, but we hope it’s helpful and we’re eager to learn from solutions that others will create.

“We’re excited to foster a community on our collective journey to create a future with sustainable products and services. By sharing design and engineering excellence, we believe we can protect the health of our planet and everyone on it.”

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