As the global wave of sustainability unfolds around the world, commodity manufacturers are looking for ways to develop their activities in a more sustainable manner and make products more recyclable and environmentally friendly. Th packaging of goods, which still plays an important role in product quality assurance and marketing, but inevitably ends up as waste, is a particularly important element. Can packaging be more environmentally friendly but no less decorative? How to maintain a balance between sustainability and cost-efficiency? Is it possible to be sustainable and at the same time highly modern? Experts believe that the answers can be found through creative and innovative solutions.
The main marketing functions of product packaging, i.e., informing the consumer and adding exclusivity to the product, are usually performed by the label on the packaging. To this end, highly decorative labels with ornamental elements and bright colours are often created. Judging through the prism of sustainability, labels that use a lot of dye are more difficult to recycle and leave a larger footprint on the environment.
According to Žilvinas Salatka, product manager at PakMarkas UAB, this aspect is especially relevant for manufacturers using glass containers, such as alcoholic beverage companies.
“Whereas plastic labels can still be recycled together with PP or PE packaging, the paper labels are separated from glass or PET containers by washing and disposed of by incineration. The trouble is that paper labels, especially those affixed to luxury goods, are often printed with high ink yields. Ink is a substance made up of various chemical components that, even when the label is disposed of, have an undesirable effect on the nature. Therefore, in order to achieve greater sustainability, the amount of ink used should be definitely reduced,” explained the expert of PakMarkas, the leading product label printing company in the Baltic States.
Both sustainable and beautiful
The question of how to create attractive, distinctive and luxurious packaging and at the same time meet the sustainability trends is not only relevant to manufacturers due to the growing consumer awareness. Tightening EU environmental regulation is also placing new demands on companies in the manufacturing sector.
“In addition, companies operating in the premium segment are well aware that their products end up on the tables of highly motivated and accomplished people who do care about the environment they live in, what they eat, drink and breathe. This determines the choices. Thus, all elements as a whole are important: quality and image, convenience and accessibility, sustainability and environmental friendliness, exclusivity and stability,” said Salatka, who often receives questions from customers about more sustainable options for the production of labels and packaging.
Benjaminas Alimas, the creative director at Critical design agency, agrees that in addition to the requirements for functional and aesthetic packaging, there is now also an aspect of sustainability, but there are still challenges in this area.
“We face the need for sustainability more and more often; this need comes from customers or arises in the process of forming the design task. Sustainability is gradually becoming an important criterion for a project, not added value alone. The need for sustainability of packaging is often related to the customers’ desire to be more environmentally friendly: to reduce consumption and the variety of materials, and to recycle, compost or ensure their correct disposal after use by informing consumers. But it is no secret that sustainable materials cost more, thus making the final cost of packaging go up. A number of surveys have shown that consumers, while declaring their commitment to sustainability, are rarely willing to pay more for sustainable products. In the end, sustainability is often determined by short-term deductions,” said Alimas.
So how can products be both manufactured and packaged in a more sustainably way, while maintaining both the concept of the product’s appearance and the sense of luxury? Experts suggest drawing on examples from other countries, especially those from trend-dictating Scandinavia.
The simplicity and minimalistic trend is prevalent in Western Europe. Only the necessary texts or symbols are printed on the product labels, leaving quite large areas natural. Meanwhile, in Lithuania, manufacturers of goods still choose extremely variegated label designs, which use a lot of ink. PakMarkas now announces that it uses about 20% more ink than five years ago, which shows that the fashion for colourful and expressive labels is still in full swing.
The examples from foreign manufacturers show that more luxury does not necessarily mean more. An exclusive label, but more environmentally friendly than a bright and colourful label, can be created using innovative materials: cold foiling or a special varnish that creates a sensation of a touch. It is possible to use more sustainable films or just opt for minimalism when the label is embellished not with decor but with its natural material properties.
“It’s fun to see that some designers are already taking advantage of the beauty of natural plain or decorative paper. The right choice of shade – white, brown, pink, yellow, green (there are definitely a lot of shades) – can help create a truly luxurious and more environmentally friendly design. Some materials made from processed herbs or fruits look really ornate,” added Saladka. He acknowledges that label design often becomes more challenging when choosing a more sustainable material, but designers manage to turn disadvantages into advantages.
Solutions are out there
When it comes to labels, it must be kept in mind that they are part of the packaging. Experts point out that label printing is just one of many aspects contributing to sustainability, and the market still lacks sustainable packaging solutions.
“In many cases, manufacturers are not able to offer technological solutions that provide the same strength, environmental resistance and aesthetics as, for example, equivalent packaging made of composite materials. At the agency, we have discussed and set goals for approaching sustainability in an integrated way. We are facing projects where we need to decide how to reduce the need for energy and human resources for packaging adaptations. When designing packaging, we also take into account their logistical challenges, such as compact packing into secondary packaging and the associated reduction of transport emissions. Ultimately, sustainability is about the well-being and health of workers in all project links,” said Alimas, Creative Director at Critical.
The PakMarkas expert notes that not all packaging is recycled, with a very large proportion of recyclable packaging still ending up in landfills. So today’s solution for those looking for more sustainable options is labels made of more easily degradable materials (such as paper), so that they exert as little impact on the environment as possible when they end up in waste. However, those who really want to contribute to a cleaner environment should evaluate the various features of their product and find the solution that best suits their needs.
“There is no single answer to it, everything really depends on the company and the product. Beverage manufacturers, for example, often pour liquids into PET containers. PET is one of the most recyclable materials, and rather significant quantities of these containers are collected for recycling. Therefore, PET packaging labels are best made of PP or PE, but with a washable adhesive so that the labels can be removed from the PET mass for recycling. The overall situation will change significantly when a larger proportion of all types of packaging can be collected and recycled. Then plastic labels will be more environmentally friendly than paper labels, and the most environmentally friendly will probably be labels made from recycled plastic,” stated Salatka.
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