For his thesis project at Pratt, Aaron Mickelson explored a radical idea: Instead of simply reducing package waste, why not get rid of packages altogether.

His Disappearing Package project envisioned no-package solutions for five products. Here, Tide Pods are arranged as a single, perforated sheet and rolled up into a shelf-ready product.

This re-imagined bar of soap is housed in a dissolving paper box.

For OXO Pop containers, Mickelson eschewed paper inserts in favor of printing directly on the plastic with soap-soluble ink.

But best of all, the products still look like products. "Right from the start I knew I wanted to show that a disappeared package didn’t need to mean a completely new paradigm for the consumer or a great sacrifice for the brand," Mickelson says. "Disappeared packages retain all identity and marketing opportunities of traditional packaging solutions. I think consumers want to be green, but they’re not ready to make profound changes to their normal routines to do it."

The best of the lot might be the Glad trash bag proposal--which not only gets rid of the cardboard box but also presents the next bag Kleenex-style from the center of the roll.


5 Clever Product Packages That Dissolve After Use

While everyone else is trying to come up with ways to reduce packaging waste, Aaron Mickelson asks the obvious. Why not eliminate packages altogether?

These days, any designer worth his or her salt is grappling with ideas of waste and sustainability, trying to come up with ways to do more with less. This is especially pressing in the realm of product packaging: According to the EPA, Americans alone throw away some 70 million tons of boxes, bags, containers, and inserts each year. It’s a staggering statistic, and any place where we can cut back will help stem the tide. But Aaron Mickelson has a more radical idea. Why not get rid of packaging completely?

That lofty ambition served as the basis for Mickelson’s thesis project at Pratt Institute last semester, where the designer earned his masters in package design. The project, which Mickelson dubs "The Disappearing Package," shows zero-waste solutions for five different products, from trash bags to shower soap. And the craziest part of it all is that the designs really aren’t that crazy.

Most of the solutions stem from streamlining the packages of products that are, in some way, packages themselves—or are products that already include many individually packaged parts. Tide Pods, for example, are single-use detergent pouches typically sold in a plastic jug or stand-up bag. Mickelson’s proposal is a simple one: Arrange the pods in a single, perforated sheet; print on them directly with soap-soluble ink; and roll them up into a tight cylinder for grocery store shelves. At home, customers would simply tear off one pod at a time, as needed, until the last one was used, taking the last traces of the product to the washing machine along with it. Mickelson’s idea for tea bags is similarly elegant—instead of putting all the individual, wax-sealed packets in a tin or cardboard box, simply attach them together accordion-style and let the customer tear off one at a time.

The designer’s proposal for Glad trash bags seems even more feasible—and perhaps even a bit more clever. The idea is to roll up the bags into a self-contained tube, with the product information printed directly on the outside bag. But the best part is that customers draw bags not from the outside of the roll but from the inside, Kleenex-style, which dispenses one bag at a time while keeping the rest in one tidy unit. Not only does the design eliminate the need for the superfluous cardboard box but it also adds a bit of quick-grab usability as well. Reducing waste is worthwhile enough; the added utility is just a victory lap.

The recent graduate’s idea for plastic OXO Pop containers is even more straightforward: Do away with the paper insert by printing brand and product information directly on the plastic itself in dissolving, soap-soluble ink.

The last design of the bunch, for Nivea bar soap, isn’t quite as compelling—it calls for a box made out of septic-tank-friendly, water-soluble paper that dissolves in the shower before first use. "Some of these solutions are pretty crazy," Mickelson admits, "and certainly some would be more difficult to produce than others." Who knows if Tide Pods, without some sort of protective packaging, would end up routinely getting punctured and making big blue messes of stock rooms and supermarket shelves. And who would really be surprised if bathers balked at the idea of taking their new, fully packaged soap into the shower with them.

But at their best, Mickelson’s redesigns are most noteworthy for being so un-noteworthy. Companies want to reduce waste, sure, but they don’t want to do it at the expense of supermarket visibility. Mickelson’s designs show how you can have the former while maintaining the latter.

"Right from the start," he explains, "I knew I wanted to show that a disappeared package didn’t need to mean a completely new paradigm for the consumer or a great sacrifice for the brand. Disappeared packages retain all identity and marketing opportunities of traditional packaging solutions. I think consumers want to be green, but they’re not ready to make profound changes to their normal routines to do it."

The whole process involved plenty of "long walks through store aisles," Mickelson says, and each individual redesign began with an "audit" of the existing packaging, in which the designer tried to pinpoint both the needs of the brand and the expectations of the customer. Which draws our attention to one thing shared by all the solutions—each is unique to the product it involves, the result of someone tackling each successive item like a totally new problem in its own right. There’s no crazy new technology involved in Mickelson’s designs; no cutting-edge manufacturing process.

But what the solutions do show is that with a flexible approach, and a willingness to push back a bit against convention, there are some realistic ways to start putting a dent in that 70-million-ton figure. "Not every package can be disappeared," Mickelson says—food stuffs are one category he could never quite figure out satisfactorily—"but there are countless products on shelves today that would benefit from this process … I wanted to show enough options to keep this from looking like a one-hit wonder."

See more about the solutions on Mickelson’s Disappearing Package site.

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  • Paul Bunyar

    So, if the package washes away, are we polluting the water instead? Or is there something about the packaging's makeup that the liquid state helps purify the water?

  • Nick

    A fair amount of products are packaged so they are harder to steal. Using the Tide Pods as an example: tearing off a few at the store and pocketing them would be an issue. Also, being familiar with P&G - they would be against the tearing apart process to their labeled branded packaged once in the home.

    While these are definitely a good start to reducing packaging, it still seems that some more thought needs to be applied to the ideas.

  • an_star

    Re: the transportation problems, I dont really view it as a problem rather then them being protected by micro packagings that create waste a new macro transportation enclosure can be designed to allow them to be transported safely so I dont view it as a problem more another opportunity to create something new

  • Guest

    If you look closely, none of the products shown here actually need packaging to begin with!  As a consumer, you should choose to buy products without packaging, as much as possible - fresh fruits and produce, soap, tea, coffee, etc. Bulk stores exist in most large cities. Use reusable bags and containers to take them home, if you need to. 

    There always will be products that must have packaging! Go for the option that uses less and smarter ways to package the goods - you dont need individually wrapped toilet paper roll!!! Tide Pods are a waste in themselves.. buy 1 large paper box of detergent instead!

  • Brandy Anderson

    This is a fantastic idea, I'm surprised more companies haven't taken initiatives like these already! 

  • Bart C

    I don't think it is convention that keeps products in the packaging the're in, I'm pretty sure it has much more to do with protection during the various transportation and storage phases of the product lifecycle.  If only those darn product development geniuses that gave us products like Tide Pods and super lightweight and super strong kitchen bags wheren't so bound by convention.

  • asperous

    The only problem with this is that many things are sealed for a reason. Other than that, it looks cool!