Sustainable vs. Unsustainable: Packaging and Materials.

Shannon Baker

As health and wellness becomes increasingly important to people, they become more conscious about the ingredients in their products. As a result, they also care about the details of the production and packaging of these products.

The trend of “going green” is no longer just seen as a niche trend, it is becoming increasingly popular, – we see this in the currently popular hydro flask, aluminum straw trend we see whenever we go on Twitter or Instagram.  This trend of going green being popular not only calls for brands to keep up with these trends, but it also has created a pretty profitable market for sustainable design, in which people are willing to spend a little more if that means being “trendy and sustainable” in the things they consume.

 So aside from sustainability being trendy, Why are sustainable designs important?

We are currently consuming the Earth’s resources almost 2 times faster than nature can regenerate them.  And even though this seems to be common knowledge lately, many designers are still creating work  like we are still unaware of the impact we have on our planet. We know that resources aren’t limitless and we know that waste doesn’t disappear. (1.) So why are we still designing like we are unaware of these things?

Packaging is one of the many aspects businesses must consider, however,  the vast majority of companies do not package their products sustainably. When it comes to packaging design, there are usually two main questions that must be answered when considering the final form the packaging will take. First, how will the design draw people in? And second, how much will it cost to produce? Cheap packaging isn’t always (and usually isn’t ) sustainable. Styrofoam and plastic containers may be convenient and inexpensive, but they require a significant amount of resources to produce.  And because of this, conventional packaging materials are detrimental to the environment and the planet’s natural resources.For example, plastic production on average makes up about 3% of the US’ total petroleum consumption. ( roughly 191 million barrels of gasoline)  (2.)

With all of that being said, it’s important to understand the environmental impact that these commonly used materials have. And as designers that could be designing the packaging we should know this, especially in the event that we are approached by a client or business that has sustainable practices and/or products.

 In the case of designing packages for sustainable brands:

If the actual product is sustainable, the packaging should reflect this.Many products and packaging are often made from materials that can’t be recycled; even by brands that claim that sustainability is the mission of the company and the most important thing to them and unsustainable packaging can kill a company’s sustainability reputation.

Packaging designed without sustainability in mind can make consumers that care about the environment decide against even the most sustainable products, nulling the efforts that the company has made to maintain a responsible practice and make eco-friendly products.(7)  And when working with an environmentally conscious client, designers should think about this.

And even in the event that the brand that we would be designing for does not market themselves as a sustainable brand, it’s the responsible thing to do as human beings living on the only planet we have to make designs as sustainably as we are able and to think about solutions to designs that might not be the most sustainable.

On the topic of design solutions, I’m going to introduce  a couple examples of designs that aren’t environmentally conscious and some alternative designs to those that are more considerate.

Keurig Pods

We all know single use plastic is bad and  I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with these. “Designed specifically for the Keurig brand, these white plastic pods with aluminum foil lids create a single cup of coffee with the press of a button. After the coffee is brewed, the pod is designed not to be reused, composted, or recycled – but to be thrown in the trash.

Almost 25% of American homes own a single cup brewing machine.That’s over 75 million homes brewing single use pods like K-cups everyday, sometimes multiple times a day.  This means that tens of billions of non reusable, nonrecyclable plastic pods have ended up in landfills thanks to companies like Keurig and just one bad product design. and after around 10 years of keurigs being on the market the amount of K-Cups trashed into landfills as of today could wrap around the planet more than 10 times!”(

It’s pretty apparent that the single use coffee pods were designed with convenience in mind, completely disregarding the environmental impact the original design would have, But people have realized this and there are now more sustainable alternatives, there are compostable keurig cups, k cups made from completely recyclable materials, and there’s a reusable plastic one that you can manually put coffee grounds in, rinse out when you’re done, and use it over and over and over again. Not only is this WAY better for the environment, but it’s cheaper too.

 Another company that is being more eco-friendly with packaging is Dell.

Dell was the first  in the technology industry to make packaging from renewably sourced bamboo, starting in 2010.  The bamboo is grown in lowland areas (many miles from the nearest Panda) and the bamboo grows back at up to one inch an hour. This incredible rate of renewal makes bamboo the perfect, eco-friendly cushioning for laptops that are being mass produced. And when customers are done, the bamboo trays are easily recycled.(4.) This  is an eco friendly alternative to styrofoam and plastic, which I mentioned earlier, used commonly in most technology packaging.

We know why sustainable design is important, how do we implement this as designers?

The best way to decrease the amount of waste we produce is by not creating it. In reference to commercial package design, this means being creative about ways to use less material, while still considering how the packaging protects and conveys essential information about the product. Also, the current trend of less is more-minimalism is a great thing for designers who want to design sustainably, because the market is literally asking for there to be less packaging.

The next thing that we can implement is to:

Consider the end result first, this is also known as Backwards Design or Cradle to Cradle design. 

Once you’ve considered where your product will go after it’s useful life, the next step to take towards practicing sustainable design is to use materials that aren’t resource intensive and won’t add to landfills.

A good example of this kind of design practice is Saltwater Brewery, a brewery out of florida. They  knew that plastic six-pack rings often end up as ocean pollution and can harm sea creatures. The company designed a biodegradable six pack holder made from the leftover barley and hops used the beer-making process. It breaks down and can actually be eaten undersea fish and turtles. (5.)

I’ve basically talked about packaging design the whole time, which IS what some of us will end up doing as graphic designers, but there are still ways to practice graphic design sustainably outside of the commercial package design world.

We print a lot, we use a lot of paper, a lot of ink,  and we’re constantly using energy, all of which have an impact on our planet.

Some things to consider throughout your design process to integrate sustainability: 

Paper products still remain an important commodity in today’s society especially for graphic designers. Print isn’t dead.When choosing paper for a print job, you can request paper that has been bleached without chlorine. You can also use post-consumer recycled paper.

Also while printing, A lot of Inks and solvents can contain pollutants and create emissions that contribute to environmental pollution.  Some inks contain toxic heavy metals which can pose major health and environmental risks if they find their way into the natural environment.

Some things you can do to try and avoid that, Request (volatile organic compounds) VOC-free inks: reducing the demand and choosing these alternatives can really make a difference to the amount of toxins emitted when you print.(6.)

And even if you end up doing graphic design that doesn’t involve print, say you’re designing a website, doing a digital poster, etc., digital designers also use a lot of energy.

Graphic designers rely on their computers for work. Because we rely on our computers,  they eat up large amounts of energy and that contributes to climate change. You can try switching a proportion of your electricity to green power – even if it’s only 20 per cent – this can help reduce your carbon footprint.

When dealing with clients, we’re all gonna do it at some point:    Offer your clients an option that has been designed to reduce impact, sustainable options often times aren’t even considered until brought up as an option, so try this  if you’re able to do so.

It’s important to know that the options are out there. And because of new technologies, we are able to design for today’s planet.




  1. Designers, stop designing for yesterday’s planet.

2. FAQ: How much Oil is Used to Make plastic?

3. The amount of K-Cups that have been trashed in landfills could wrap around the planet 10 times.

4. Dell: Green Packaging and Shipping.

5. Saltwater brewery: Eco Six Pack Rings.

6. Monitoring Information By Industry – Printing and Publishing

7. Judging By the Cover: The Importance of Sustainable Package Design.

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