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Designing for packaging sustainability

PTI Sustainable Design AdobeStock_247365230
You can’t have a packaging discussion today without talking about sustainability.To help facilitate the conversation for packaging manufacturers, here are tips to help guide you on the right path.

You can’t have a packaging discussion today without the environmental attributes of a given package being part of the conversation.  As consumer pressure has increased, we would all agree that the discussion is front and center of most products brought to market today.  If your package is perceived negatively, it will have a dramatic impact on whether or not it will become a marketplace success. 

To help facilitate the conversation for package producers, here are some tips that should help guide you on the right path.

Perform an end-of-life evaluation of the package at the beginning of the design process.

Specifically, what do you want customers to do with the package after consumption? What are the package attributes/material types that will facilitate that action?

In order for the discussion to be productive, it needs align with your target consumers’ objectives. For example, is your product being sold to a consumer segment that is interested in recyclable and/or sustainable packaging?  There are some demographics/market segments for which recyclability is not a major purchase driver. 

If that’s the case, should you be spending time and money giving them something they don’t want?  (We know that not wanting to recycle is considered blasphemous in this day and age, but there are those who still don’t want to make the effort.  It’s about understanding your target market and acting accordingly.)

Conversely, if the goal is to increase packaging recyclability among consumers who are not as likely to recycle, think about incorporating an incentive to recycle/reuse it. An example would be a social media campaign that creates engagement when someone comes up with a creative way to reuse the packaging.

If the product is intended to be reused by the consumer after initial use, consider the following design elements.

For example, if the package is intended/needed to be hand washed, ensure the finish is wide enough for any remaining contents to be removed and for the consumer to wash. If hand washing isn’t required for cleaning, make sure it is made of dishwasher safe components/materials.

Could the package have an alternative use that could add to the value? If so, perhaps that use could be considered in the design, such as a soap dispenser that was beautiful enough to be a vase after the contents were emptied? Would that increase sales or brand loyalty? Alternatively, the packaging may use light weight refill cartridges and improve sustainability through multiple use.

If you have a specific reuse intent, it can be communicated via a QR code or label copy that provides instructions on that intent. This will also allow you to track consumer views so you can track engagement with the product to measure success.

If the product is intended to be recycled, consider the following elements when creating your design:

  • Make sure that the size of the packaging will pass the size sortation process at the recycling location.
  • Carefully select your materials so that they are recyclable. Don’t overlook things like barrier layers, colorants and labels.
  • Ensure that the geographic location in which your product is likely to be used has an available recycling infrastructure.
  • Make the recycling attribute more visible on the package/label. Remind them that the package is recyclable and maybe even include a QR code that shows the nearest recycling bin/collection facility to where they are located in case they don’t have home recycling pick up.
  • When determining a label type, be sure that the label and the adhesive can easily be removed so that it doesn’t contaminate the recycling stream.
  • Incorporate recycling best practices on the bottle such as keeping the cap on, removing the label and flattening the bottle (if they are applicable to your design).


Although the issue of sustainability is a complex one, we know that it is here to stay.  Collectively, we need to become more creative and more focused on putting packages into the marketplace that will help achieve recycling objectives.

Sumit Mukherjee is the chief technology officer of PTI (Holland, OH). He has 25 years of experience in preform and container design, materials characterization, process simulation and modeling, and finite element analysis (FEA) for package performance prediction.

PTI is recognized worldwide as a major source for preform and package design, package development, rapid prototyping, pre-production prototyping, and material evaluation engineering for the plastic packaging industry. For more information:

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