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Separating Products from Packaging

Develop a system where a product is sold without packaging and have the consumer to supply or purchase the packaging at additional cost.

Photo of Gabriel Blanco
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It's something all of us do without thinking about and it happens billions of times worldwide every day. 

Humans purchase things... and more often than not when we walk away from the cashier, we come away with the item we bought and some form of packaging that has nearly outlived its purpose for marketing, information, and protection, and will soon be discarded. 

Packaging is as symbolic as it is practical.  It keeps items new.  It tells us that what we have purchased is clean, ready for use, untampered with, and provides a sense of guarantee and trust that the product it encases will meet the need which we are trying to satisfy.

This symbolism needs to be understood before any alternative to modern-day packaging is introduced to society.  When consumers decide to pick between two brands of nearly identical products, subconsciously they rate the packaging of the product as much as product itself.  (After all, when was the last time you went after the tinier, dented, or obscurely-packaged product, when you had another alternative?)  Meanwhile, businesses spend countless hours minimizing the amount of material used to package their products to grow their profit margins and believe the amount of packaging they release is the best they can do.

The issue becomes how do we preserve the symbolic trust we have in packaging while separating this trust from the actual material used to package a product?   

Here is a partial answer: people trust items they already own.  By developing a system where need-meeting product is sold without a package and the actual package (more specifically a re-useable package) is sold as a separately priced sub-product, there would be a natural incentive to re-use the purchased package.  

This is a partial answer because it lends itself to non-perishable liquids (such as shampoos and laundry detergents) as well as refined grains (such as rice, salts, and ground-down powders) where it is nearly impossible to purchase the product without the container.  

Imagine going grocery shopping in the not too distant future. You bring along your recyclables to re-use or to exchange for a more sterile container.  Instead of picking up a bottle of dish detergent from the grocery isle shelf, there is a large liquid dispenser with the brand name and marketing information of your favorite dish soap on the shelf.  You take the reusable container you bought last year and re-fill it.  To activate the dispenser nozzle, a barcode scanner scans the matching barcode on the your container and begins to fill it.  The code confirms that you are using the correct container for the product, details the maximum amount of soap needed to fill the container size, and will later be used to complete your purchase.  If the container is too large for your need or budget, you can stop the amount of soap at any time by hitting a button.

Afterwards, you walk over to the milk aisle.  You've washed and re-used your milk container 3 times already but just to keep things clean, you decide to exchange it for a new container.  The new container costs $3.00, but by exchanging it for a new container, the price is reduced to $1.50. Your exchanged container will make its way back to the bottling supplier to be sterilized and re-used or melted down into another packaging product (more on this later).  

You come to the cashier who scans each container and places it on an electronic weight scale.  The barcode also contains the weight of the container so the customer is only charged for the actual weighted amount of detergent soap and milk purchased.

Why does this work?

For the customer, it cuts down on the cost of purchased items, reduces garbage clutter at home, and reduces the chance of product spoilage due to standardized sizes that do not meet the need of that customer.  And since the customer trusts the container they utilize, it preserves the symbolism of the use of the product they have purchased.

For communities, it cuts down on total waste generated as well as resources dedicated to waste management facilities and landfills. 

For the store retailer, it saves space since the retailer no longer needs to sort and store individual products on shelves, in refrigerated spaces, or in back rooms. Instead, the retailer only needs fewer large dispensers to bring out when needed.  Similarly, when the dispenser is empty, he/she can ship it back to the bottler or product company for a refilled dispenser in the same truck that delivers products to stock the retail store.

For the bottler or product company, the company is able to more accurately measure how much product is being used in a given time and region.  This allows the company to control it's supply to market to curb the production of excess surplus or lack of product on shelves, which maximizes profit.  In addition, by receiving empty dispensaries and consumer containers, the company doesn't have to spend as much on packaging, by sterilizing or reforming these items. In addition, it cuts down on wasted fuel and man hours of empty shipping trucks on their return from delivery.

(Note: This is already a common practice in industrial factories that produce products with many components created by supplier companies and shipped over to the factory floor.  They often send back empty packaging crates for the shipping truck to return to it's supplier facility for another shipment.)  Also similar systems have been used in the past: Anyone remember milkman deliveries from the 1950's?

Idea Title

Buy The Product, Re-Use The Container: (Packaging Not Included)

Company / Organization Name

OpenIDEO Detroit


Where are you / your team located?

Detroit, Michigan, USA

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

This idea eliminates the use of plastic container waste that is too small to recycle, by replacing them with larger containers produced at a much lower production rate.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

This idea would be more likely to idea It also lends itself to markets that rely on sachets and small plastic packets on a daily basis. This should help counter economic challenges where packets are used because it is not economically feasible to purchase larger quantities of produces as well as drive down the waste generated by packets that are left behind as litter or improperly disposed items.

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

Areas where social custom is to go to the market once a day to meet needs for a family and with limited waste management systems (Asia, Africa, India). It would also be receptive to cities that have adopted a culture or interest in sustainability.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

The idea would have to be directly introduced into the marketplace as a more economical or efficient option than current products. Obstacles would include social habits and norms ("we have always done it this way") and a lack of understanding bigger waste management issues on a community level ("it works for me personally. I don't see a problem").

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

The New Plastics Economy Accelerator would help produce a prototype distribution system for products (complete with retail store dispensers, consumer containers, and revised shipping & factory floor models) and to pitch the idea to corporations that have products that could be easily incorporated into the system (Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble).

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

This idea originated from a brainstorm session on the Circular Design Challenge with OpenIDEO Detroit!

Tell us about your work experience

I am a Design & Release Engineer for a large automotive company. I also have experience in small-scale manufacturing & prototype development.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Brian Bauer

Hello Gabriel,
Really interesting ideas! I work with a company in Chile called Algramo. We have actually implemented many of the key ideas you describe above. You might find my post interesting. I would be curious to hear if you have any questions or comments about my project. I just submitted my project, it is called "Sustainable Sachet Replacement for Bottom of the Pyramid Families that Stops the Flow of Plastic Waste While Increasing Disposable Incomes".

Thanks for your interesting ideas! Cheers, Brian

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