Bad Packaging Designs Perpetuate Negative Costs to Our Communities

This article by GreenBlue Senior Manager Minal Mistry appeared in this month’s issue of Packaging Digest, which features a monthly column by GreenBlue staff on packaging sustainability. Read the original article.

As I was sitting at a local coffee shop on a nice summer afternoon, I overheard a conversation about “all the waste in society” at another table. What stuck with me was a comment that waste was “merely an externality” of the modern on-the-go lifestyle. The notion occupied me on the walk back to the office as it relates to my work with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, particularly to the optimization of packaging design and life-cycle analysis. From a design perspective, where does good design end and where do externalities begin?

In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit that is not fully captured in the price of a good or service and is incurred by a party who was neither the buyer nor the seller. An externality can also be viewed as an unforeseen or unintended consequence accompanying a process or activity. Of course, there are positive and negative externalities that hold true for packaging.

Often, a design captures the specified parameters for cost, performance and aesthetics, yet these parameters may not be sufficient to minimize the negative externalities associated with packaging. Improving the positives while diminishing the negatives is the art of design optimization.

For packaging, externalities exist in terms of litter, municipal solid waste (MSW) collection and processing costs, pollution and habitat destruction resulting from material sourcing as we examine the entire life cycle of the material flow. However, are these truly externalities associated with the modern world? The definition of externalities draws attention to unforeseen or unintended consequences, and that is where the nexus of optimization occurs. However, all of these impacts associated with the life cycle of a package or product are already known within the industrial supply network. So, setting aside the price discussion, the question becomes: Are these truly unforeseen or unintended outcomes?

In the U.S., the latest MSW data suggest that 38 percent of aluminum, 31 percent of glass and 14 percent of plastic packaging is recovered. Knowing these statistics going into the design optimization process, can we truly attribute the remaining discarded portions that end up in landfills as an externality? One can argue the systemic inefficiency of material flow cannot be viewed as an externality. However, it does represent significant economic, environmental and social burdens that are externalized to members of the wider community. The significance of a negative externality may change over time, yet the principle that bad design perpetuates significant negative external costs seems sound. Some of these costs are a result of market failures, while others can be attributed to the misalignment of design and other areas such as end-of-life material reclamation.

Within the packaging community, several efforts are attempting to address these issues and some are involving the social sector through direct citizen participation or policy mechanisms. The solution to bridging the gap between the packaging materials placed in the market and the subsequent recovery of those materials at a systems level resides in the engagement of all the relevant actors and in the art of optimization. Design optimization has a role in capturing the systemic needs upfront. All the while, industry and society must work together to improve the overall system. At its core, this is the spirit of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. The challenge is to come together with this spirit to honestly tackle tough issues, like externalities, and come to solutions that serve the best interests of the whole.

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