Andrea Cahill

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The standardization of shipping container sizes, gives the container continued value. Lets design all packaging that way…

I'm a stay at home mom living in Bermuda, but originally from Northern California. Design, has always been my passion and fascination. The focusing of environmental efforts on recycling has always felt like shortsighted design to me.

Bermuda is said to be the wealthiest per capita country in the world. I was shocked to find out they do not recycle plastics. It is too expensive to ship to a recycling plant in the US. Yet, plastic and packaging surround everything that I need every day to survive; food, medicine, scissors, car parts, toddler toys.
So, I have to ask; Why make packaging that can only be used once?
A few years back, I had an interesting conversation with my husband's old friend. He was writing a doctorate paper on the standardization of shipping containers, trains, trucks, and ports; it changed the world. I was struck by the simplicity and elegance that agreeing to use the same sized box, suddenly gave that box value worldwide. The shipping container is not temporary. But it could have been if it was designed to be temporary.
I think we can apply this idea to all packaging. Instead of making things meant to be garbage, what if we made packaging that lasted, was interchangeable, customizable, modular, reusable with sterilizing, resealing, relabling, and beautiful on display? What if a cereal box could be used over and over again throughout the country and world? Cereal to Japan, Rice back. Eggs to Florida, Oranges back. Nothing to throw out; because we didn’t design it to. Garbage day can be packaging pick up day, perhaps returned for credit, and then back into main circulation to continue it's use. My hard sided lightweight TUMI bag has been through years of rough airplane travel, and doesn't have a dent. Can't say the same for packages arriving in cardboard, in cardboard, in styrofoam.
Multiple sizes, multiple uses, unknown possibilities; as long as size is standardized, it can have value tomorrow as well as today.

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    Apr 28 2014: I agree, packaging could and should be like Lego blocks and be able to be used for other purposes.

    I have two other thoughts for island plastic recycling;
    A. “Plastic shreds chips” are worth over twice as much per pound as non-shredded plastic, so plastic shredders likely would make it worth the shipping cost. And I would guess the same would be true for glass and metal.
    B. Here is an idea for an MIT or investor TEDster, how about an island hoping recycling ship.
    Islands would pay for the ship to take recyclable waste, ship could use wave and wind power to shred and pelletize the recycles, and than the ship could sale the ready for manufacturing product at a mainland port for a nice profit.

    EDIT: Also all the waste cardboard, paper and even wood pallets can easily be turned into compost, or with some work turned into pulp and made into new paper/cardboard products.
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      Apr 30 2014: Great thoughts!

      I like your idea of recycling or package turnover being more accessible and movable. .
      For items not requiring the big plants, perhaps your mobile version could be retrofitted right onto the shipping container? It's going there already. For reusable, perhaps the ability to wash, and sterilize onsite... mobile autoclave? Removes excess step of going on to truck to recycle then to boat, then to become product. Time and money saved!

      I don't know if this helps or hurts your idea, but we've found out the hard way that stable materials on land, may not bet at sea. I always wondered why pirates are always swabbing the decks. Any sailor knows that boats are always in the process of sinking. This tiny island often feels like a ship simulation because exposure is similar.

      Sea water and air have impressive ability to destroy or alter most anything, and does so rapidly. Adhesive, zippers, industrially glue, paint, metal, wood, ceramics, fabrics, leather, certain plastics and even concrete; all get broken down, corrode, rust, or disintegrate. Even items inside the house are susceptible from the air. My husband's new scooter had parts just falling off after 3 years of close proximity to the water.

      The one exception has been our heavy recycled plastic chairs that sit only 3 feet from the water with no protection. After 6 years of sea spray, weekly gale force winds, hot sun, hurricanes, several trips into the water, and one winter storm that trapped chair floating in a nearby cave bouncing around like it was in a washing machine. When we pulled them out a few days later; they looked good as new save one small scratch.

      Conversely, a plastic outdoor rug disintegrated in my hands after 2 weeks away from water, but just exposed to the air..

      Do you know the what would make such a big difference how the two plastics behaved? Density? Type of plastic?
  • Apr 29 2014: If a goal is set to acheive 100% recyclable or compostable packaging life cycles in say 10 years, the packaging engineers could do it. One of the biggest deterents to plastics recycling is sorting the different plastic types. If packaging included some means of allowing machine sorting... Perhaps a metal tag by which it could be lifted magnetically and sorted by a code or by NIR
  • Apr 28 2014: Children are so amusing. They think they have come up with new ideas.

    "Packaging that lasted" used to be the way that "packaging" was presumed to be. One didn't just throw away a "package", one found a new use for it whenever possible. Even bags for shipping animal feed were routinely re-used. At that time, they were made of fairly sturdy broadcloth, so they were re-used for work clothing, for example. However, that would mean that people would have to sew, again. Likewise, beer bottles used to always be returnable. My grandfather used to buy beer by the large case, not because he was a drunk, but because it was just that much more convenient to take a larger number of bottles back in a good, sturdy case. Soft drinks came in sturdy carriers, since the bottles were to be returned for re-use--and the state government didn't have to mandate it.

    It's cultural and not technological. We worship disposability. We have disposable containers, disposable furniture, disposable cars, disposable fetuses (what else is an abortion, after all?), disposable spouses, disposable morals, and disposable dignity.

    We do not want to believe that anything has worth, least of all anything inconvenient. There are even attempts on the part of some of the food industry to pull back from the disposable life with lunch meats that are in low-cost "reusable" containers. They get thrown away, anyway. How many people waste the money to buy "food containers" and throw away the cottage cheese and sour cream tubs?
  • Apr 26 2014: "Acceptance is the key to possibility"- Keith W Henline
    Sounds like a good idea to me. I have a nylon daypack that I have used for years to haul groceries and shop with and it still looks like it is almost brand new. I have sandals that are tens years old and still my favorite foot wear. Both cost just a little more but last ten times longer. Value becomes a habit so start teaching your kids early and like the value it will last a lifetime. When we shop at Walmart, we are teaching our kids that value is not important. Walmart and most of the corporate world are more interested in turn-over. They want customers back every day and accomplish that with products that fail everyday and have to be replaced. Their short-term bonanza has cost several generations a job and business market where all can compete. Now only a few monopolies compete and make the laws to protect their monopolies.
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    Apr 30 2014: I love the idea of durable packaging, but sadly I can only think of a few products that to it. Some jelly jars, that also drinking class, and dog treats often come in box shape plastic jars that can be reused.

    And speaking of reusing bottles, image search “bottle house” and “bottle skylights” and than add some imagination and I think you could think up some cool community project. You may need to use glass bottles, because of the salt air, but still it could be a great reuse instead of waste.

    Hmmm? Could the island’s waste packaging/plastic be used to create artificial reefs? I'm sure the plastic would need to be incased in concrete or something, don’t want to repeat Florida’s disastrous tire reef.
    I sure there are artificial reefs experts that would be happy to give guidance.
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    Apr 29 2014: Oil still is to cheap for any alternative packaging strategy to replace it.

    Standardized shipping container need to have a certain strength to fulfill their tasks, which, if made out of plastics, would be to expensive for one way use and not robust enough for multiple use. Thats why they are made from steel.

    End customer packaging is mainly driven by marketing and cost, and as long oil comes cheap this isn't going to change.
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      Apr 30 2014: Some plastics hold up, and some (like the ones we use for packaging right now) break down just enough to make it hard to clean up once out in the world.

      My argument is for other packaging to be used LIKE the current shipping containers.

      Even, when there is an abundance of imports, but lacking exports; the surplus of shipping containers still are versatile and durable enough that we've then used them in countless other ways other than shipping; even houses.

      The two reasons that make the shipping containers model work for efficiently, effectively, economically, and sustainable are these:

      1. Made from durable long lasting material. A container is made to be a container and that's it. As it turns out a box can be versatile enough, that we don't need to constantly "recycle" or make new shipping containers.
      2. They were all designed with the foresight to make ***world wide standard size. This means that all trucks, machinery, loading trucks, trains, fork lifts, cranes, etc. could immediately take off the import, and put on the export. When the import container is empty, it immediately becomes an export container. Simple.

      I am wondering what it would take to make that same system possible for all of the other packaging we use?; by creating several standard sizes that will work to contain all imports and exports? We have sustainable shipping containers filled with disposable ones. Same journey, just the creators of outer container, looked at impact and purpose, then designed.

      If imports came in one packing container, and now the packaging machines at same location were programmed for that size because of standardization, then empty import, immediately becomes empty export.
      No extra costly step necessary.

      I agree that we don't normally change until economically driven. Cost of recycled product is 1/10 the cost of a new one. Does that mean a durable container only has to make 11 trips to be competitive?
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        Apr 30 2014: I am not saying hat it can't be done, or shouldn't be done, on the contrary, as I am highly opposed to our throwaway societies. But the reason why it isn't done is not because we are lacking alternative concepts or technologies. No, all what was needed is already there or could be designed in a minute or two. On this 'we' are not lacking solutions, we are stuck in an economical system which simply doesn't care.

        In Germany, where I live at the moment, waste recycling has grown large over the years, while reusable packaging stagnated on very low levels.

        Each household today has three bins. One for paper, one for biological waste and one for 'unrecyclable' garbage. Additionally, all plastic waste gets separated in special bags and is collected by the local garbage disposal service alongside with all other bins. Glass gets collected in special containers which are publicly accessible and ask people to separate 'white' from 'colored glass'.

        The paper enters recycling and ends up in new paper products, which in my view makes perfect sense. And because paper companies buy for this resource, the whole service of collection and also the bin itself comes free of charge for each household.

        The biological waste, such as food leftovers, peels, etc. is used in biomass power stations to produce electrical and thermal energy and the whole recycling service is free of charge too, because money is earned by this resource and therefore covers the expenses to collect it.

        In the bin for 'unrecyclable' garbage usually goes what can not be disposed in any other, yet this service comes with a price for each household.

        Glass gets recycled as well and as companies pay for this resource, the service is free for the public.

        The only problematic waste is 'plastic'. Here the consumer pays for the service of collection which is already incorporated in the price of products which are packaged by this material. But the problem is not the price of this service, the problem is, ...
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        Apr 30 2014: ... that this mixture of different types of plastic can not be recycled in a way, that the result of this recycling process would return a resource of high quality again. This is why most of all of this collected plastic is burned in incinerating plants and thereby not only creates CO2 emissions of large proportions, but also consumes its original resource, which was crude oil and therefore nothing but fossil and in-renewable energy.

        Reusable consumer packaging in Germany is almost exclusively related to beverages and there with a main focus on soft-drinks and beer. Wine for instance comes only in one-way glass bottles.

        The reusable bottles for soft-drinks, such as coke, etc, or even water, are often out of plastic and designed more solid than disposable bottles for them to 'survive' more refilling cycles. Some soft-drinks still come in glass bottles, as they used to come in exclusively in the past, but glass is more heavy and therefore less consumer friendly.

        Beer is comes in glass-bottles exclusively.

        But although this fantastic concept exist, all of the soft-drinks and beer is also offered in disposable packages, such as one-way plastic bottles, cans or even one way glass bottles.

        The only rational explanation to me for this stupidity is, that the German government allowed for this loophole to exists and that the industry is interested to spread their products to all consumers, which includes those who are not interested or simply to lazy to return empty bottles and rather like to just dump them.

        Now, no matter how good a system of reusable packaging is organized, it is always more expensive than one-way packaging. First, all containers have to be collected, which needs a costly infrastructure. Then those need to be shipped to a cleaning and disinfection facility. Then there is waste in the process itself, e.g. damaged bottles, etc. Then the containers need to be shipped back to the manufactures, which takes logistics and energy...
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        Apr 30 2014: By adding up all the costs, for reusable packaging, it can never compete with one-way disposal packages at any time and especially not at times in which oil still is a cheap resource.

        Standardized containers would certainly help to reduce the costs within the process-chain of reusable packaging, and standardized they already are in my country, as it simplifies the logistics of redistribution to the producers, as they all use the same shape of bottles, but thats about it what standardization can do, besides using a package volume which is mathematically optimized for weight of package / weight of product.

        In mathematics, this is called extremum determination and can be used to minimize resources while optimizing the overall utility.

        For instance, to package one gallon of orange juice there are multiple ways to do so, but only one best solution in terms of volume/surface relation. The best would be a spherical container, as spheres have always the smallest surface area/volume relation of all geometrical figures. At the same time, spheres are not the best shape for stacking, etc. But the biggest problem of mathematical optimized packaging is actually aesthetics, which is of huge importance to the industry to lure their customers by all tricks to their products. That is one reason why packages and containers are not optimized as they could be and this regardless if they are one-way or reusable ones.

        Another example: There is no reason why all of our products are that colorful as they are. All of this consumes tons of chemistry for colors just for that. But the informational content about a product which is of real importance for customers could also be simply printed in black ink on a brown carton, which it often used to be in eastern countries during the soviet era for many products, or on designer labels as marketing gag today.

        Unfortunately I don't see strong enough forces within capitalistic economies for environmentally-friendly solutions to win over profits.
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    Apr 29 2014: Great comments! Thanks and keep 'em coming,

    Water bottles craze can end as easily as it started.
    Shipping, however, is a NEED and much more difficult. As much as the air we breath.

    This helped me get perspective;
    Please humor me and look around your home. Then, count as many items as you can that have come to be there without EVER being put into a package or box.

    How did it go? I found 3 items; water collected from my roof and stored in in underground water tank, blanket I crocheted (actually, wool was shipped to store in a box, so make it 2), and our cat who just walked in, oh and sweater knitted long ago (back to 3).

    Hard to think EVERYTHING requires a package or "luggage", and the object gets tailor made luggage at that! Once at destination, that luggage is without value, even if it's an exact copy. Wow. That toaster is some diva.
    Add to this, inability to survive from local surroundings. Our survival will be forever dependent on trade. Bermuda made me aware of this immediate effect. One decent Atlantic storm canceling the weekly ship, and empty grocery shelves have a sign that just says "storm."

    It's like building a road. Once a car drives over that section, we crush up the pavement, throw most of the road into a field or drive to the ocean and chuck it in. Then we build that same road all over again and say we "recycled."
    We are at 10% recycling now, 90% is our goal.
    Emerging countries are without that luxury and will likely need to use the cheaper "dirty dozen" for their plastic packaging.
    Does anyone else feel like the kid from "The Emperor has no Clothes?' If not, what am I missing? I don't see problem solving, just problem slowing.
    Anyone have a different take?

    On very complex shipping problem,
    where to start?
    is there a line of protective materials?, durable, light, cost effective?
    Is there a design out there for boxes? containers of all sizes?
    Can we think of method that poorer countries can afford and easily adopt?
  • Apr 29 2014: Luckily, I live in a community that recycles yard waste, plastics, glass & metals, but that does not mean that the world could be open to doing packaging differently if tampering of consumables was not an issue.
    The thinking there likely meant smaller controlled portions of anything are least likely to hurt many more.
    To some extent, can see 3D printers solving some of the packaging-problem, but it is doubtful and way too futuristic to believe this technology will ever materialize organic consumables. So the answer to that is to encourage local production, get items from local markets that are not packaged, improvise where possible, consume less, invent more, co-op ideas, create and share knowledge.
    These ideas are all do-able, but also investment in local producibles has to be be educated towards such a thing, otherwise the knowledge is lost and corporations take over and horde that knowledge, which is where much of the industrialized world is at now; fierce sense of independence lost in a provided for world, the novel and cheap is supported, the costlier hand crafted is looked down on. Somehow when this was all planned out, how people would afford to continue in that way seems unaccounted. Makes one believe planned obsolescence is indeed the goal of all evolutionary tales, we should be more mindful of our own.
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    Apr 28 2014: "I think we can apply this idea to all packaging"
    No you can't, at least not in any way that makes economical and/or environmental sense.
    Take the example of beverage bottles.
    In the past there were only glass bottles which you brought eventually back to the store for a refund.
    Over time, more and more of those glass bottles were replaced by plastic bottles. Do you think that was bad and refundable glass was better ? Thank again.
    What happened to the glass bottles you brought back to the store ?
    The had to be shipped to the beverage producer (spending gas for transportation of heavy glass).
    There they had to be cleaned which required chemicals (detergents, sanitizers) as well as energy to run the huge washing machines. Obviously the chemicals ended up in the environment.
    Eventually those bottles were refilled and shipped again to the point of sale (again shipping heavy glass around the country).
    Plastic, if recycled makes economically more sense and is even more environmental friendly.
    You compare packaging to shipping containers but that's comparing apples to lemons.
    Containers are designed on purpose to be reused. They are heavy, costly and resistant and are not carried around by humans but by machines.
    If you want to translate this concept to a cereal packaging you probably will need a steel cereal box that costs more than the content and also weight probably 5 times more than its content. In addition, cereal boxes are usually carried around by people and not by fork lifts, hence weight is an issue as well.
    So, while certain types of packaging might very well be reused, most can't.
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    Apr 28 2014: well a problem might be that with small containers there is an additional step, with a large container it always stays in the hands of the transportation company, so they can arrange for it to be full going one way and full going the other, but a small container makes its way to the actual consumer, so like you say they can put it out to be picked up, but that means whoever picks it up is carrying a lot of empty containers, I mean even to pick up all the empty containers they might put out in one city is going to take a hellalot of trips, you'd mostly be carrying air 'cause they're all empty, right? It seems cost-inefficient?
  • Apr 27 2014: People with some disposable income will pay more for things that they think are good for the environment or society, like Fair Trade coffee or Green Mountain energy or pink packaging for breast cancer. Fewer are prepared to forgo the convenience of a disposable plastic bottle of water for a reusable Nalgene bottle, but that number is growing, due to actual desire to conserve and the glamour of appearing to be a conservationist. But most of reuse of consumer packaging is ideosyncratic and does not benefit from the industry standards yet. What sort of consumer packaging form factors would benefit from standardization? What sort of industry body could set standards for reusable form factors in consumer packaging? Or perhaps just the Whole Foods crowd?

    I believe some municipalities will start banning the distribution of plastic bags at retail locations. What do you think about that?
    • Apr 28 2014: WITH DISPOSABLE INCOME. What most totalitarian snobs REFUSE to admit is that most people DO NOT HAVE DISPOSABLE INCOME. Why do so many people shop at WalMart? Because they actually do have a pressing need to get something today, not next week, next month, or next year, when they will have been able to save up enough to get the lower-long-term-cost items.

      Second, when there was a move toward massive "standardization" of consumer goods, it was denounced by the same sort of "progressives" who are now bemoaning "consumerism" as being "dehumanizing". Pick one, you can't have both. Either there will be "humanizing" variety or "dehumanizing" standardization.

      As for government bans of plastic bags, they won't do a bit of good, because they won't extend beyond the boundaries of a municipality, they will serve primarily to cause problems for the poor (which is what this "green" crap usually does--more on that as a postscript), and they are merely a cosmetic measure.

      Postscript: I lived in Ithaca, New York, for several years, and I got a belly full of "green" nonsense from municipal governments. The worst was the "garbage tags" program. To get trash picked up, you had to purchase a tag for every single bag (based on approximate weight). Alternatively, you could, if you had the money, subscribe to a local company to do it for you. This was to "pay for" the space that trash took in a landfill. Since the large haulers were charged on actual tonnage, people who could afford to pay them paid less. Likewise, the landfill, which was out in the county, not part of the city, charged people a LOT less to haul their own stuff in. Thus, the only people paying "full price" were the poor. Anyone who could afford a service or haul their own paid less. The city tried to force the landfill to raise its prices. A judge slapped them down right and proper for it, since the landfill was not in their jurisdiction. "Green" laws hurt the poor more than they hurt anyone else.