Decoding Design

Seventh Generation: Back to the future with cardboard packaging

Seventh Generation: Back to the future with cardboard packaging

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Will a move to cardboard bottles really move the needle on packaging waste?

Packaging is a necessary evil of the consumer packaged goods industry. It's been that way for hundreds of years, except that the old apothecary bottles I unearthed from under my house are now proudly displayed on a bookshelf. Can't imagine someone doing the same thing with a old PET Coke bottle they'll find in 2098. But who knows?

And, of course, as resources become more precious and as unrecycled packaging piles up in landfills and ocean gyres, packaging design and materials are ever more important.

Household cleaning product company Seventh Generation knows this and has long been concerned with the life cycle of its packaging. But this fall, the company made a bold move for its Natural 4X Laundry Detergent by transitioning from HDPE bottles to a cardboard-and-plastic vessel made by Ecologic Brands, based in Oakland.

The current issue of Fast Company provides an infographic comparing the life cycles of an HDPE bottle with the new Ecologic Brands container.

The main takeaway is that the new bottles, which have a molded paper fiber exterior, make fewer stops and require fewer steps from the point of consumption in the home, back to a recycling facility and back into packaging.

Turning HDPE back into pellets or flakes takes 1 gallon of water per 37.2 bottles, the article notes.

But curiously, the story doesn't delve into the destiny of recycled cardboard and the stops it makes from a municipal recycling facility to a paper recycler and then to whatever entity converts that recycled paper pulp back into a useful product. And by skipping those steps it also skips the water use required in paper recycling. (It does not, however, that Ecologic Brands uses 51 percent less water to turn used cardboard into its paper-based containers.)

Even if the used Seventh Generation paper bottles did require as much, or even more, water to be recycled back into paper stock through a municipal recycling system, at least it's more likely to be recycled than an HDPE bottle. About 30 percent of HDPE bottles are recycled, compared to 81 percent cardboard recycling rate noted in the article (according to the EPA, 85 percent of cardboard was recovered for recycling in 2010).

Of course, cardboard is less than an ideal carrier of liquid detergent, so inside the bottle is a plastic liner, made of low density polyethylene (LDPE). This liner requires less plastic (and therefore oil and energy) than HDPE, but good luck finding a curbside recycling system that accepts it. Most don't, but many grocery stores take these, as well as the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags, for recycling. From there, they tend to end up in plastic lumber.

Check out the infographic, illustrated by Kelli Anderson, and weigh your own pros and cons:

[Via: Fast Company]

Images: Seventh Generation, Fast Company

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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