Strichpunkt Sustain­ability Talk #5

Uwe Melichar


We Germans produce nineteen million tons of packaging waste every year - packaging that was designed by someone, somewhere. How can designers do their part to reduce the amount of waste? Uwe Melichar, packaging expert and designer, provides answers.

»Is it art or does it need cleaning up?
Packaging: How to design it sustainably?«

You've been designing packaging for almost 30 years, so if anyone knows how to solve the problem, it's you: How do we finally get rid of those 19 million tons of packaging waste that we Germans produce year after year?
Packaging provides protection for the product, extends its shelf life and serves as an important communication channel - but we can't do without it altogether. We need less but better packaging. There is a lot of potential in the field of reusing, but here it is important to understand 'packaging as a service' and to rethink packaging in terms of a closed ecosystem.

„There is no such thing as waste. Just stuff in the wrong place.“

David Takayoshi Suzuki
Environment scientist

What does that mean?
My favorite quote on the subject comes from environmental scientist David Takayoshi Suzuki: "There is no such thing as waste. Just stuff in the wrong place."

What should packaging designers keep in mind if they no longer want to be part of the problem, but a part of the solution?
It all depends on the intended use, the material, the construction and the usage scenario. So, unfortunately, it's complex. Nevertheless, there are a few powerful rules of thumb:

  • Mono material beats composite material
  • Use materials in a way that is easily separable
  • Don't believe everything that the manufacturers claim. For instance, even a natural-looking paper can be a real 'material monster' if certain filler materials are used.
  • Avoid all-black plastic packaging, because it is basically impossible to reuse it.
  • Use renewable raw materials instead of fossil materials. A few suggestions for this can be found here:

The recycling rate for plastics in Germany is currently roughly 55 percent. Is that good news or bad news?
Our recycling rate is far above that of other countries, which is positive at first. But one of the main problems is the quality of recycling. Most of the plastic we collect is 'downcycled' into flower pots or park benches. No one needs that many park benches... We must recycle at a high quality so that shampoo bottles can become new shampoo bottles again.

Good point. But when sweaters made from recycled PET bottles wash thousands of fibers into rivers every time they're washed, and backpacks made from supposedly 100% ocean plastic turn out to be deceptive products on closer inspection, even the topic of recycling seems pretty damn difficult, doesn't it?
Yes, that remains difficult. Especially the so-called 'social plastic' that is collected on beaches is so contaminated that it cannot be used to make food-grade packaging, for instance. Initiatives like the Plastic Bank are nevertheless very important, but not the solution to our problem. We need to ensure that waste doesn't end up in rivers and oceans or landfills in the first place. What we need is closed loops. With the cradle to cradle approach, for example, we can ensure that all the materials in a product or packaging are built in such a way that they can be reused.

Let's be honest: Do you actually collect empty packaging in the yellow bag at home? Or is that pointless from your point of view?
Of course I collect packaging, I even keep the particularly good ones permanently as samples. I feed the recycling bag every day, although I have my doubts about this system because some of the valuable materials still end up in the 'big fire'. Only in the interaction between industry, manufacturers, trade, recyclers, legislators and consumers really good solutions can be found.

Packaging isn't just a problem, though; at its best, it's something fascinating. Here's room for your three packaging all-time favorites:
Top 1: The pearl bottle from Deutsche Mineralbrunnen. In circulation since 1969, attractive, reusable and standardized.
Top 2: The Kühne 'Senfkristall Glas' (mustard glass). Since 1930, it can be used as a drinking glass after use. Not for aesthetes, but great for garden parties...
Top 3: wir.kiste.kreis, a reusable shipping box that is being launched on the market across all brands and can be handed in at 2,500 collection points. I am intensively involved in the development of this.

Uwe Melichar

is a Hamburg-based designer and an independent expert for (circular) packaging and design. Through his company MELICHAR Bros. he develops packaging solutions for customers around the world.