Case Study: Pangea Organics
Next we’ll look at a playful take on pulp packaging by Pangea Organics, an eco-friendly cosmetics company based in Boulder Colorado. Pangea embedded molded pulp with Spruce Tree seeds for it’s soap packaging. Once the product was used, consumers could plant the package in the ground rather than just throw the package away. While this doesn’t create any groundbreaking technological sustainability advances, the package does succeed at creating a novel and impactful experience for the user, one that causes the user to reevaluate their relationship to packaging. The boxes were printed with vegetable based inks and manufactured by UFP technologies in Massachusetts. It’s important to note that Pangea is a mid size company, and was not at the size where it was able to invest in its own manufacturing plant.
I spoke with Josh Ivy, the designer at Pangea, about the process. He was open with me about both the successes and failures of the package from his perspective. According to Josh the manufacturing process itself posed some interesting difficulties. Molded pulp normally has to be cooked to dry, but because of the seeds in the package the manufacturer had to work to figure out the right temperature that wouldn’t kill the seeds. Presumably this lower cooking temperature added time to the manufacturing process. The seed packaging also created some unexpected issues on the market, as shipping seeds across international lines creates legal challenges. Ultimately Pangea had to give up the seed packaging after 10 years because of cost. Unfortunately this seems to be par the course for a lot of mid size companies looking to use sustainable materials in packaging - unless a company is large enough to invest in its own packaging plant, the high cost of doing things differently using existing suppliers will ultimately become too expensive to sustain.
1. How does the form of the package relate to the packaging substrate?
The form is a sleek modern clamshell. It references traditional egg carton molded pulp packaging but also alludes to something more clean and contemporary. The pulp is mostly made of recycled newspaper, so it takes on the grey color from the leftover newspaper ink typical of molded pulp. Although simple, I think the form is very successful.
2. How does the materiality of the package speak to the packaging substrate?
The package has a rough toothy almost linen-like feel. It’s uncoated and takes full advantage of the potential of the natural textural qualities of molded pulp. Molded pulp creates two different finishes, one side of the pulp takes on the texture of the mesh sleeve used to vacuum up the pulp, and the other side takes a course rough texture. In every egg carton, as well as Pangea’s molded pulp soap package. this rough unfinished side sits hidden on the inside of the carton. In the case of Pangea the rough unfinished inside actually shows the seeds. I think it would have benefitted Pangea to reverse the status quo and engineer their mold such that the rough unfinished side was outside, thereby communicating the natural materiality of the substrate upon first glance and touch.
3. Does the tactile feel of the material suggest communicate its proper end disposal (recycling with plastic, paper, compost?)
The tactility of the product suggests either paper recycling or compost, both of which are effective. Also the sticker showing the tree seeds embedded in the paper do an effective job of graphically communicating the plantability of the package.
4. How did the design achieve tangible sustainability gains?
The sustainability is this product is more one of education and flipping expectations. Molded pulp offer sustainability gains over other paper packaging, as there is little waste in the process, as waste pulp is just reformed into the next package, rather that cut off a dieline and discarded. However the packaging’s real success is in its use an an experiential educational tool.
5. How was the design implemented on a large scale?
Yes but ultimately it was recalled after 10 years due to cost. Time and time again I’m seeing that in order to produce radically new sustainable packaging, a company needs to invest in doing the manufacturing itself. This is how Coors was able to commercialize the aluminum can, and this is how Method was able to do the radical work they do with plastic in their Chicago Bottling plant. However I applaud Pangea for pushing this product to market, as it was a wildly successful proof of concept for seed embedded molded pulp.
6. What made the design cost effective? And if the design was not cost effective, how was a roadmap put in place to make it so?
It wasn’t, Pangea was using outside manufacturing and wasn’t able to invest in the tooling and infrastructure to make it cost effective. Pangea would need to be large enough to invest in its own packaging facility for the product to work.
7. How does the design anticipate future infrastructure changes?
Molded pulp was most likely continue to be a large part of the packaging landscape for many decades to come, even as we move away from tree-based pulps to more sustainable crops, the essential manufacturing process of molded pulp will remain similar. One thing to note is that this product’s design success is contingent on its novelty. If the plantable packaging were to become ubiquitous, I would argue that the design would no longer carry the same gravity.
8. Did the design result in a positive brand story?
Yes, this another one of the designs great strength. The packaging was as much of a seed for trees as it was for publicity. Pangea was awarded the Responsible Packaging Award, and the seed box was written up in The New York Times, Inc.com, Packaging World, and many others. Today the soap package, although discontinued, fetches a high price on eBay based on the packaging alone.