One of the most important and simple ways a designer can move beyond conventional packaging solutions is to consider alternative materials. PLA (polyactic acid) is fast becoming the favored alternative to plastic. Clear so consumers can see the product and stiff enough to stand up to processing equipment, PLA is made from renewable resources such as corn, and uses fewer fossil fuels and generates fewer greenhouse gases in its production than traditional plastics and some other polymers. PLA can be composted. However, even this product has its detractors, who point out that huge amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers and gas-guzzling equipment are used in the production of those “natural” resources.
Fortunately, other materials are coming to commercial viability. Shannon Boase, president of Earthcycle Packaging in Vancouver, notes that “plastic has been around for 60 years, and it takes a long time to unseat the convenience and dependency that we’ve developed. Our idea of what packaging is and should do needs to change.” Her company is providing one such alternative. She discovered that palm-oil manufacturers were creating an enormous amount of waste as they harvested fruit. Surrounding the palm fruit is a “giant husk that looks like a hedgehog.” This husk is made of long-stranded virgin fibers that have the same tensile strength as titanium alloy. They can be steam cleaned, chopped, pulped and turned into slurry that can be molded or sheeted into effective packaging. Not only is this packaging making use of a waste product that would otherwise be burned, but it can be home composted. This is an essential difference—because PLA only breaks down with sustained moisture and high heat, it must be industrial composted; Earthcycle Packaging breaks down in the more variable conditions of the backyard pile.
One company that’s using the benefits of both PLA and other materials is Cargo Cosmetics. According to Hana Zalzal, president and founder, “We examined the standard lipstick case and asked ourselves, ‘How can this be better?’” Research led to a two-package, three-tiered solution. Their PlantLove line of lipsticks comes in a tube made of PLA and an outer carton made of biodegradable paper embedded with real flower seeds. Simply moisten the box, plant in the garden and watch your wildflowers sprout. In addition, a portion of the sale of each lipstick is donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “This lipstick case is, for us, a way of protesting against global warming and environmental issues,” notes Zalzal. Groovy graphics were an important part of delivering their message. “We were reminded of how, in the ’60s, people would take the time to protest. So we wanted the graphics to have that ’60s feel. Plus, a love-in kind of graphic seemed appropriate.”
PlantLove is the first biodegradable lipstick tube made entirely from corn. “Our manufacturer is Natureworks. What we loved about their product is that their PLA is greenhouse-gas-neutral,” says Hana Zalzal. The surrounding carton is made with biodegradable paper infused with wildflower seeds—just moisten and plant—and the lipstick itself is also environmentally friendly, without mineral oils or petroleum.