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."