Can this be the year packaging shifts from lovely images to lovely experiences?

With the annual season of excess and waste that is Christmas fresh in our minds, Lisa Mathews says 2017 must be the year of mindful packaging.

LisaMathews2.FrostCollective.JACKChristmas is behind us. Time to reminisce about all that gift swapping, eating, drinking and general merriness. Thank goodness you got it right with Dad’s bottle of plonk while the 172-gram gift-pack of Ferrero Rocher chocolates was a winner with Mum.

But what if you had known that the glittering, individually wrapped perfection of each of the 15 balls of deliciousness were enshrined in no less than 37 pieces of packaging? You ponder on your susceptibility to environmentally-sound decisions when under the Christmas pump to make a purchase decision.

This is one of many sobering packaging facts we uncovered as our Christmas cheer dissipated and the sound of another popping cork sounds more like the thud of an impending hangover.

Consider this – the average Australian is said to produce at least 66 kilograms of waste during the festive season – the bleak packaging fall-out of all that gifting, eating, drinking and merry making. It’s immense, and not over till school goes back.

According to Veolia Environmental Services (2013) we produce 20% more waste over the Christmas period compared to the rest of the year, with food and product packaging making up a huge proportion. What’s more disheartening is that only a third of the excess waste is recycled – most of it goes to landfill.

Pointing the finger at the consumer is misdirected. Everyone is responsible in the cycle of consumption and it starts early in the brand journey. Brands and their packaging designers need to cop some of the responsibility for the absurd amounts of wasteful packaging we see on retailers’ shelves, not to mention the frustration when experiencing the packaging first hand.

You know how it goes. Things ordered online arrive in one lonely corner of a big brown box, swathed in reams of paper or bubble-wrap. Amazon, Asos – you know who you are.

Appliances are packed in padded cells of multiple layers of cellophane, cardboard, polystyrene and plastic. I recently bought some Beats by Dr Dre earphones. Just like the iPhone and iPad (think how many of those were under the tree this year) the packaging had a premium feel for a premium brand and was an immersive experience to open, but I counted at least eight individual packaging pieces and parts – lid, box, insert, sleeve, instructions, warranty, sticker, pack of earbud tips.

Excessive to say the least.

This year it’s time to get a grip. Packaging is not the enemy of the good. It can in fact be a powerful vehicle for doing better in the world. In a culture driven by excess and confusion, packaging designers must own the responsibility for how we engage with products, and how we transform brand and consumer motivations from quantity to quality; from one-way to circular thinking.

Let’s set the Christmas scene that was. The kids’ palpable excitement told us the wrapping paper frenzy was to last just seconds. Santa’s generosity was finally revealed with the high gloss, plastic glisten of a new toy. But the stubborn plastic shell packaging had us grimacing and reaching for knives, scissors and other dangerous implements. Santa’s multi-coloured scissor three-pack ironically needed scissors itself to open it.

Fact: a few hundred people a year wind up in emergency rooms with cuts and puncture wounds caused by obnoxious clamshell packaging.

There’s got to be a better way.

Consumers won’t stop demanding more value from packaging. Interactive packs, pre‐portioned packs, microwaveable packs, single-serve packs, the list goes on.

This is our cue to deliver engaging brand experiences that meet a broad range of consumer needs, whilst being mindful of the impact.

And God help the aged, in fact, anyone over 45. Packaging design is fraught with difficult to read information and instructions. Why is important product information always in the tiniest font size? Why is a Nurofen pack of 24 tablets in exactly the same pack size as the 12 tablet option, differing only by tiny numbers making a correct purchase a gamble?

Whatever happened to graphical information? A picture tells a thousand words, right?

The list of packaging wastefulness and disappointments goes on.

Related: Brand purpose, and why it must be built-in, not bolted on »

Too much air. There’s more air than product in a Coles Soup pack. And yes, I was a brand manager once so I know about factory constraints and ullage – this can no longer be an excuse.

How about packaging that rips right open no matter how carefully you pull the tear-strip or wrapper which annoyingly allows the product to fall into your lap just as you attempt to pass it around to share. Confectionery share bags are notorious. With no chance of resealing, a plastic clip becomes necessary to keep contents fresh.

But wait there’s more. There are more than 60 types of plastic, and new ones are constantly in development. Different types of plastic must be kept separate for recycling. How are consumers supposed to know this? It needs to be asked why so much packaging is made of plastic when the industry knows that plastic degrades over time, loses its ability to be reused and is toxic to the environment.

Thankfully, glass is 100% recyclable and like steel and aluminium, can be recycled multiple times. But hang on, is canned food good for me and isn’t glass heavy to transport? And, while we’re on the topic, why can’t I get all the peanut butter out of the jar before I throw it into the recycling?

Less must become more. And packaging creativity must shift from lovely images to thoroughly lovely experiences.

Let’s stop looking for miracle materials that will save the day, do more with what we’ve got and design with purpose: removing the superfluous, keeping the essential, providing only what is necessary to deliver a great branded experience.

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Lisa Mathews is strategist and head of packaging at Frost*Collective, which is launching a new packaging division, Jack, devoted to mindful packaging. 

Image copyright: nikitos77 / 123RF Stock Photo