Designing the packaging-free future


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The complete Disappearing Package family

(Photo courtesy Aaron Mickelson)

Designer Aaron Mickelson wants to solve the problem of excess packaging, by creating products that have no packaging at all.

Every year, Americans generate a lot of solid waste. In 2010, 250 million tons, according to the EPA. A full 30 percent of that (about 76 million tons) comes from packaging — it’s the biggest culprit.

As awareness grows about this problem, many companies and designers are looking for solutions to green their packaging by either making it more recyclable, or reducing the amount. Mickelson wants to take that initiative all the way to its furthest extent and eliminate packaging waste entirely. His Pratt University master’s thesis, called The Disappearing Package, is a proposal for how that might happen. “On a whim, I started thinking about applying the functions of packaging to the product itself,” says Mickelson. “I was immediately struck by the green potential for an idea like this, if it could be applied across several product types.”

The project uses five familiar household brands: Tide laundry detergent, OXO containers, Glad garbage bags, Nivea hand soap, and Twining’s tea. These are the kinds of things that consumers buy in great numbers. “I wanted people to see products and packages they have encountered countless times in a completely different way,” Mickelson says. “I also have to admit that I picked these five brands because they afforded me a solution in every color: red (OXO), orange (Tide), yellow (Glad), green (Twinings), and blue (NIVEA).”

The products that Mickelson displays aren’t just mock-ups, they are physical prototypes. “I wanted them to look and feel like real packages that you might have just picked up off the shelf, so I built each one by hand.”

“I spent the largest amount of my research phase on finding the materials and processes that would make my idea a reality,” he says. The soluble inks were sourced from a small manufacturer that doesn’t yet have them in wide distribution, while the paper and plastic were more readily available. The paper and ink are non-toxic and can be safely washed down the drain. The plastic is, err, plastic — but at least it’s not plastic in a box.

Of course, packaging also serves an important protection and safety function, but Mickelson says most of the time that stuff is over-engineered. He recognizes that some changes might be required for these solutions to make it into the logistics chain. “I have great respect for the people who ensure packages can make it from the production line to the store shelf to the consumer’s home,” he says. “Production machinery may need to be re-tooled to safely work with the proposed materials. Where fragility is a concern, reusable shipping containers may need to be used.”

“In any case, these designs are concepts. My goal with The Disappearing Package was to expand the conversation on sustainable packaging,” Mickelson says. “I hope, at the end of the day, I have shown that sustainability can still be beautiful. I leave that up to my audience to decide.”

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