Packaging designers face new challenges

By Dan Hockensmith | PLASTICS NEWS STAFF

While long-term sustainability remains a key concern for packaging manufacturers and retailers, cost-conscious and finicky consumers expect more bang for their bucks in a variety of areas, industrial designers and packaging engineers gathered at a recent seminar learned.

Over the past two years, the amount of items stocked in the typical U.S. household pantry has declined 20 percent, said Steve Kazanjian, vice president of Mead Westvaco Corp.’s global creative packaging unit, citing a recent Wall Street Journal report.

Consumers are buying mostly what they need at the immediate moment, he said — making attractive, easy-to-use packaging more relevant than ever.

“You are going to have one shot to make that impression, if you are lucky enough to get it into their home,” Kazanjian said in a March 2 presentation at the Package Design and Development Summit in St. Petersburg. “It’s our belief that the in-home experience of the packaging … is really critical, because if you can dial in that experience effectively, you can actually drive repeat purchase behaviors in the store.”

At the same time, several other presenters at the summit, held March 1-3, stressed that consumers have become less tolerant of trash — especially plastic waste that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as resulting from excess packaging.

West Hollywood, Calif.-based Replenish Bottling Co. has tried to take advantage of both heightened consumer awareness of all things “green,” and of retailers’ mandates to lessen their shipping and storage costs.

The company in October began online sales of its PET you-mix-it spray cleaner bottle, which consists of a 4-ounce PET “pod” base filled with plant-based cleaner that screws into a 12-ounce upper part. Consumers fill the bottle with water and shake it to mix the cleaning product.

The 12-ounce bottle –designed to last for three years — costs $7.99, and Replenish claims that each $3.99 ultrasonically welded pod is good for 64 ounces, or four bottles full of hydrated cleaner.

“It is to take a billion bottles out of landfills. It is to take a billion miles off our roads. It is to take a billion pounds of chemicals out of the environment. It is a paradigm-changing way of thinking about how a bottle should be constructed,” Replenish founder and CEO Jason Foster said March 3 of his company’s goals

The Replenish bottle, with a plastic spray head containing no metal parts, is the first significant redesign of spray bottle technology since Cleveland chemist Philip Drackett devised the Windex bottle in 1943, Foster said.

“What you can fit in one tractor trailer of [Replenish] pods, takes 15 tractor trailers of 32-ounce [traditional spray] bottles,” he said. To further reinforce his point, Foster reminded the audience that every minute taken out of stocking shelves saves retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. $4 million — making a product like Replenish extremely attractive.

Even an established firm such as St. Louis-based TricorBraun has to work to keep Wal-Mart’s business in the cost-cutting era, said the company’s chief creative officer, Craig Sawicki.

He cited the 2007 collaboration between TricorBraun and Ecolab Inc. to design a refillable 22-ounce Pro Force-brand bath and bowl cleaner spray bottle that was “kangarooed” into 1.6-gallon plastic jerrycan for sale off pallets at Sam’s Club outlets.

“Having to stack these eight high, on themselves, without any exterior packaging — that was huge. So you really do need to test, draw, test, retest, and make sure you have a manufacturing partner that knows what they’re doing,” Sawicki said.

He noted that when Reckitt Benckiser Group in 2007 introduced a product similar in concept to Replenish — liquid-filled, water-soluble cleaner pouches for use in Glass Plus cleaner bottles — the effort failed because consumers did not buy the argument that they were getting a good deal for their money and at the same time helping the environment through the elimination of shipping tons of water and cleaner-filled bottles from factories to stores.

Even when marketing does its job, sometimes outside forces can doom even the most well-intentioned packaging, Sawicki said. He gave as an example Frito-Lay Inc.’s SunChips.

In April 2010, the nation’s largest snack maker began using a 100 percent compostable bag for SunChips that replaced polypropylene with polylactic acid resin. The noise that the bags made when opened quickly became fodder for Internet blogs, chat rooms and YouTube parody videos.

After an 11 percent sales decline, Frito-Lay shelved plant-based packaging for all SunChips flavors except Original. Recently, the company announced that it will put a rubberized adhesive between the bag’s layers, hoping to reduce the noise.

“[Frito-Lay] marketed it right; they produced it the proper way; they tried to educate their consumers. They did everything right, but the [Web] took it down,” Sawicki said of the SunChips debacle.

Even as they try to get inside the heads of brand owners, store chains and consumers, packaging designers have to accept a changing world — one in which North American and European consumers matter less in terms of overall impact, and in which all buyers seek packaging that reinforces highly personalized choices.

Amazon, Wal-Mart and MyWebGrocer all are testing food shopping in ways that eliminate traditional in-store purchasing, Kazanjian said, raising the specter that baby boomers and so-called Generation Xers may be the last of the great retail waves, as consumers born after 1980 turn to Web-based shopping.

In urging designers to make color additives part of their thinking process, Wayne Likavec, new products development and quality control manager at Cleveland-based DayGlo Color Corp., made an unusual pop-culture reference to explain the seemingly willful behavior of 21st century shoppers:

“Consumers are taking what’s popular. They’re modifying it and they’re making it their own. It’s in your fashion, it’s in design, it’s in music — it’s Lady Gaga,” he said.

From a material supplier’s perspective, helping designers achieve sustainability goals of their customers and to create appealing packaging requires getting top “thought leaders” in the same room, on the same page, said Yasmin Siddiqi, DuPont Co.’s global marketing director for packaging and consumer.

She noted that by 2050, the population of the earth will be 9 billion, with most of the growth in consumption coming from the developing world.

“We need to be inclusive of what’s going on in the developing regions. That doesn’t mean trying to force-fit development for North America or Europe into those regions; it means to understand what’s happening at the bottom of the pyramid and developing solutions to meet those needs,” Siddiqi said.

That doesn’t mean Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont is abandoning traditional developed markets: Siddiqi pointed to the firm’s recent partnership with Nike Inc. on the 20XI golf ball, announced in February, in which Nike replaced the ball’s traditional rubber cores with an injection molded, engineered DuPont thermoplastic resin.

This advanced core technology makes the new 20XI ball faster, and the new design makes it possible to achieve both greater distance and control, she said.

Near the end of the summit, participants got a look into future biocomposite polymer packaging that manufacturers of petroleum-based plastics might find unsettling.

Ecovative Design LLC of Green Island, N.Y., brought samples of its EcoCradle packaging, which uses agricultural byproducts as feedstock for mycelia (mushroom seeds), which are grown in molds, then oven-dried to form protective packaging.

Chicago-based office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. adopted EcoCradle in the summer of 2010 as a replacement for expanded polystyrene in its Currency ready-to-assemble laminate furniture, based on the fact that the material takes very little energy to produce since it is grown, not manufactured, and can be composted immediately after use.

“We can tune the material properties [of EcoCradle] based on what feedstocks we put into it, and based how we grow the fungus. So we can tune our material to compete with EPS, [expanded polypropylene], cellular expanded polyethylene, and some other materials too,” said Sam Harrington, Ecovative’s environmental director.

As opposed to the millions of years it takes for oil to form underground, and the decades it can take for trees to grow to produce pulp for cardboard packaging, mushroom seeds sprout in a week, and are rendered harmless by EcoCradle’s drying/curing process, he said.

Source: Plastic News

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