Try to imagine retailing without packaging. Can’t be done? Sure about that?

It partially depends on what’s meant by “packaging.” For most people, the first answer in the word association test probably will be “container”: an external structure that some types of consumer products need, but others don’t. Think, for example, of sporting goods: why “package” a hockey stick or a softball bat with anything more complicated than a label or a hang tag?

Nobody with a vested interest in designing or producing packages would call them superfluous. But, packaging professionals don’t hold a monopoly of opinion on the necessity of sending things to market inside packages.

Food retailng offers some test cases. In 2011, Lane Brothers LLC of Austin, TX, opened in.gredients, a grocery emporium conceived to be the first food store in the U.S. that would do away with packaging. The idea was to ask patrons to fill their own containers with locally produced staples sold at the store—a BYOC shopping experience. The founders saw persuading consumers to buy in bulk without conventional packaging as the key to achieving their goal of zero waste.

Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbovski had the same objective in mind when they started the Original Unverpackt supermarket in Berlin, Germany, in 2014. Here, shoppers can buy as much as they want of more than 500 organic and natural items—including wine and vodka—that they take home in containers they’ve brought to the store. The containers are pre-weighed so that their weight can be deducted from the pricing of the goods at checkout.


Creative ideas for taking packaging out of consumer-goods retailing keep popping up. Design student Aaron Mickelson has attracted a lot of attention with The Disappearing Package, his master’s thesis project at Pratt Institute. In it, he envisions five solutions that integrate product and packaging in ways that make the packaging cease to exist (entirely or nearly so) once the product is gone. The point of the project, Mickelson says, is to start a conversation about eliminating the 70 million tons of packaging waste that goes into U.S. landfills every year.


But, are major producers of consumer packaged goods (CPG) ready to join it? In 2014, Stonyfield Farm took a tentative first step toward packageless distribution with Stonyfield Frozen Yogurt Pearls: “froyo bonbons” wrapped in edible skins made of organic fruit. (This post mentions a somewhat similar concept for “edible” water bottles.)


Stonyfield’s plan was to test-market the treats in wood-based cellulose bags in the hope that eventually, stores would start offering them minus the packaging to shoppers providing their own containers. But, the dream seems not to have come to pass. Stonyfield Frozen Yogurt Pearls aren’t to be found in the company’s online listing of yogurt products, and a “where to buy” search for them in Google comes up empty.

The difficulty of kicking the packaging habit doesn’t dismay those who believe that a packageless or a packaging-diminished future is the right one to aspire to. Initiatives like three ACTIONS make no secret of their wish to eliminate all food packaging. Others, such as PAC NEXT, envision a world where all packaging materials must be recoverable and no package may be sent to a landfill. Individual activists, including the publisher of this blog, offer advice and encouragement to those who want less packaging and packaging waste in their lives.

Consumers ultimately will decide what is and what isn’t to be conveyed to them in packages. However, betting on their willingness to give them up altogether probably isn’t very realistic.

In Austin, business results have obliged the proprietors of in.gredients to shift away from their original model of package-free retailing (although they still foresee the food and grocery industry moving toward package-free operation “when the time is right”). In his quest to “disappear” packaging, Mickelson acknowledges that food packaging waste “will likely always be the case” (but can also be “severely curtailed” with the help of designs like his). 

There is no last word on the subject, but appropriate for a closing comment here is an observation by Ted Mininni, president of Design Force Inc., in a blog for The Dieline. “It’s easy to passionately embrace an idea that’s a cultural hot button issue,” he says. “It’s equally important to stand back and look at things rationally.” Better than trying to eliminate packaging, according to Mininni, is working to make it more efficient, recyclable, and reusable.

“Doing these things will yield highly functional packaging and viable, safe, fresh products with measurably less packaging material going into landfills on an ongoing basis,” Mininni says.