Decoding Design

Packaged goods: Three innovations in shipping

Packaged goods: Three innovations in shipping

Posting in Design

From light bulbs to drugs, these packaging innovations shed light on what the shipping systems of tomorrow might look like.

As much as you may like to think otherwise, the holidays are largely about stuff. And the stuff we give and receive over the holidays couldn't get to us without packaging and shipping systems. Pity, then, that much of the packaging that conveys all that holiday cheer will soon end up in a landfill -- in fact about a third of a typical landfill's content is packaging, according to the EPA.

With that in mind, here are three packaging and shipping innovations that could move the needle toward smarter, less wasteful and more sustainable shipping systems.

Lemnis light bulb shipper
The incandescent bulb is on its way out in the European Union and its future in the U.S. is shaky. Too bad the performance of energy-sipping LED bulbs has not been universally stellar, as Mark Halper reported earlier this year. Nevertheless, the bulk packaging design that the marketing and branding company Celery Design devised for shipping multiple Lemnis LED bulbs is definitely a bright idea.

To reduce the amount of material needed and the space required to safely ship multiple bulbs, Celery dreamed up a modular system that can accommodate just one or up to six bulbs. Each bulb is placed in a triangular package that fits snugly with others, forming a hexagon when six are placed together. The material is 100 percent recycled card stock, too.

Brian Dougherty, Celery Design co-founder, says Lemnis ultimately opted to use an overseas packager that went with a different bulk shipping solution. Still, the modular design Celery offered is a step in the right direction. (Celery also developed a super-smart primary packaging solution for the bulbs that could be converted into a light shade.)

Ikea jumps out of the pallet pool
Wooden pallets are starting to lose their long-standing reign over the transport world. First, makers of plastic pallets tried to usurp them by claiming their pallets reduce wood use, are easier to clean and just as strong.

Now, wooden pallets are seeing competition from cardboard versions. Ikea recently announced it is switching to cardboard pallets across its global operations.

The company says it's making the switch in order to reduce its transportation costs, since the pallets are lighter than their wooden counterparts. But because they're just as strong (holding up to 1,650 pounds), Ikea says they're up to the task.

On the positive side, the pallets will be made of cardboard sourced locally, per each region in which Ikea operates. But unlike wooden or plastic pallets, pallets made of cardboard can only be used once. Plus, they're not considered suitable for pooling, which is the model used for wooden and plastic pallets that are shared across shippers and users. So the paper pallet, while they mark an interesting design change in packaging, will only be seen in closed loops (that is, by single users rather than across multiple users).

Cold chain shipping gets into the pool

Shipping perishable, highly temperature-sensitive goods, such as some types of high-value pharmaceuticals, has traditionally required the use of highly insulated cardboard cartons. And the cost and complexity of reverse logistics hasn't made reusing those cartons feasible, so they're used once and that's it.

But by developing a depot system that makes the costs of returning insulated boxes competitive with one-time-use, and by also developing a rugged, returnable and reusable temperature-controlled box, Intelligent Thermal Solutions reduced waste while also creating a new business model for cold chain shippers.

Its 36-liter ultra-rugged EcoTherm ATA R36 refrigerated shipper earned the company a Greener Package award from Greener Package magazine. It uses patented technology that maintains an internal temperature of 2ºC to 8ºC for five days, while using less material than a typical cold-chain shipper. Plus, the shipper can be reused up to 100 times. At the end of its useful life 65 percent of the materials are manufactured into new shippers and 30 percent of the rest is recycled.

Feeling inspired? The publishing company InTech Ltd. is holding a contest in which it's asking designers to "create and realize conceptual" a "functional and technically sufficient or innovative packaging for transporting a hardcover book." Learn more here.

Images: Steve Gibson, Celery Design, Ikea Group, Intelligent Thermal Solutions

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure