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Designasours seek the "Happy List"

by Wendy Jedlicka, CPP
Jedlicka Design, Ltd.

I frequently receive calls from design firms and departments that go something like this: "We want a list of eco materials," they say. I ask if they understand systems thinking or if they have a training program in place to help the people using the list figure out what will actually BE eco for their applications -- the answer is always, "No we just want the list."

In theory, picking an eco material is better than a non-eco one. But in many cases, if you don't know why it's eco, or how to apply its use correctly, the eco material can be far worse than the thing it's replacing. A great example is PLA, a plant based plastic that can be used instead of PET/PETE (recycling number 1). If applied to products in a market that has PLA collection and sorting systems in place, it's a fantastic substrate that offers a huge list of eco-benefits. BUT -- when used in markets without proper systems in place to handle it, just a small amount of this material mixed in with PET/PETE can contaminate the entire batch -- making the plastic unsuitable for recycling. The now contaminated and unrecyclable PET/PETE in many markets is burned, adding to the pollution load caused by incinerating petroleum based plastics, as well as wasting a full batch of really good material that could have been used to make a wide variety of durable goods.*

In addition to applying eco-materials properly, clients are looking to their designers to help them meet new more restrictive legislation, new initiatives from their own clients (Wal-Mart score card for example), and a whole host of problems -- bigger than picking recycled paper -- that require a look at the system of the packaging, not just its substrate.

To get an idea of what an eco/sustainable package is, take a good look at the Definition Project, by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. This definition is not only a great framework for what a good package is, but is a great way to frame any effort.

The criteria for Sustainable Packaging are quite clear, and really only ask these simple questions...

> Does it make us or the planet sick? Don't do it!

> Can we use renewable resources, energy as well as substrates, and then use them again without going back to virgin sources?

> Are we doing it efficiently, considering all costs (logistics, materials use, recyclability, stakeholder issues, etc.)?

> Are all components doing what they're supposed to do? Do they protect, inform, and sell with an added bonus of restoring some of the resources we've already wasted as well as increase positive consumer perception?

The criteria are an end-goal, not the Ten Commandments. As we begin new products, or look to improve our systems, the criteria provide a benchmark against which to measure our efforts. Sometimes we'll hit all the marks, sometimes just a few. But in every case the movement is always forward. No one expects a company to change all of their systems all at once, but the realities of how we do what we do provide natural opportunities for all players to improve or update systems as part of their normal modus operandi.

To do this, though, designers and their clients need to do more than just pick from a "happy list" -- but rather, start to look at packaging's true costs and impacts from concept through rebirth.   

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*Note: This is not to negatively single out PLA in any way, a material that is growing quickly in markets -- ready to receive it -- happily displacing of a whole host of petroleum based headaches. Plastics recyclers were having the same issues with multi-layered plastics that were thrust into the marketplace, without weighing the end-of-life impacts it would have. It's an issue of integrating replacement materials into uses that have -- no -- recycling first (food contact products, consumer product clamshell and blister packs), and at the same time working market by market to be sure recycling is ready to accept new replacement substrates. It's about -- not -- making your clever idea, someone else's problem to clean up.

 Wendy Jedlicka, CPP -- President Jedlicka Design Ltd. (, is chapter chair for o2-USA/Upper Midwest and liaison for the o2 Global Green Design Network (, and packaging and economics faculty for Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s ground breaking Sustainable Design Certificate Program ( 

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