How can packaging be reduced to make products more environmentally friendly? Together with Videro AG, the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology “Umsicht” is launching a project on “digital environmental protection”. The aim is to evaluate whether the existing digital infrastructure can be used to convey product information in the form of virtual packaging. At the same time, the amount of packaging is to be reduced.
The most important function of packaging is to protect the package content. In addition, legally prescribed consumer information must be conveyed. But packaging is increasingly being used as an advertising medium and has become part of the brand image. According to the Fraunhofer Institute, packaging often consists of multi-material systems that provide for one-way use instead of promoting a modern recycling economy. “Especially the increasing mail order and online trade makes complex product packaging as a sales argument superfluous in many cases”. Today, used packaging is predominantly incinerated. In order to reduce packaging, optimize logistics and increase recycling of the materials used, the new “Vir2pac – digital environmental protection” project is investigating the extent to which the advertising and information function can be separated from the packaging and replaced by virtual packaging.
Separation of protection and information functions
The first step is to separate the protection and information functions. Product protection will continue to be taken over by packaging, the extent of which is, however, reduced. Information, brand image and advertising message will be linked via a label, provided virtually via the existing digital infrastructure and transferred to digital interfaces – for example the customer’s smartphone or existing screens at the point of sale.
The following vision goes even a step further. When visiting the retailer, the consumer is handed a pair of augmented reality glasses at the entrance. The products in supermarkets or electronics retailers are packed in simple packaging that is reduced to a protective function. But as soon as the user puts on the augmented reality glasses and looks at a product, information and brand-specific advertising are displayed – just as the consumer is familiar with in conventional packaging. Virtual packaging offers further options – for example, previous purchases, data sheets, recipe suggestions or background information on production conditions or origin can be displayed.
In this project Videro is responsible for product recognition, allocation, management and, above all, the platform-neutral presentation of all digital content using its software. “We are aware of the disruptive potential, which is why we would like to engage in discourse with consumers, politicians and other companies in order to advance digital environmental protection,” says Johannes Büld of Videro AG.
Contribution to the Circular Economy
The new Vir2pac concept is designed to enable physical packaging to take on solely the function of product protection. In addition, the optimised design and targeted use of materials as well as digitisation (smart packaging) will enable improved recycling and possibilities for digitally supported material and waste stream management. “The idea could revolutionize the packaging market and the purchasing of products, while providing a viable solution to the packaging problem. At the same time, however, it also involves conflicting goals, for example through the danger of increased use of information and communication technology. We want to examine where obstacles and opportunities lie, especially from an ecological point of view,” says Jochen Nühlen, a researcher in the Department of Sustainability and Resource Management at the Fraunhofer Institute “Umsicht”.
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In order to implement the concept, all the players in the product lifecycle need to work together – product and packaging manufacturers/designers, logistics companies, retailers, waste disposal companies and above all the customer. “Ultimately, the success of the project depends on acceptance by these players,” explain the developers from Umsicht and Videro. The project is being funded by the Ministry of Economics, Innovation, Digitisation and Energy of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.