THEME: Packaging is useful and necessary, but also contributes to our solid waste stream.

GOAL: Students will explore the function of packaging and how to make packaging both effective and environmentally sound.

METHOD: Designing the "perfect" packaging

SUBJECTS: Home economics, social studies

SKILLS: Analyzing, designing

MATERIALS: Drawing materials; commercially packaged products; magazines

TIME: Two class periods


Packaging has a number of functions and benefits, as well as some drawbacks.

Merits of packaging include:

  • Preserves and protects the product.
  • Provides instructions on product use.
  • Advertises product, increasing sales and profits.
  • Ensures public health and safety.

Drawbacks of packaging can include:

  • Can be difficult to recycle in some communities.
    Wastes resources and energy if the packaging materials cannot be reused or recycled.
  • Excessive packaging wastes natural resources and energy.

Getting Started

Why is it important to change the way some products are packaged? Could packaging be designed to be less wasteful and still accomplish the same functions?


  1. Have the students look through magazines and cut out pictures of packaged products. (Students could also bring in a commercially packaged product they are interested in studying.) Each student should choose one product for which they will design an alternative package.
  2. Ask the students to look at their product and decide what the designer was trying to accomplish. Discuss the functions and drawbacks of the packaging. What is the packaging made from? What materials were used? Is any of the packaging designed with the environment in mind?
  3. Have the students design a new environmentally-sound alternative to their chosen packaging. The designs should address waste reduction, reuse, and recycling, as well as public safety, product protection, shipping weight, cost of packaging material, advertising, and public demand. New design parameters should include some or all of the following: minimum resource extraction, minimum use of energy in processing, minimum transportation, selection of reusable or recyclable resources, design for reusability and recyclability, use of nonhazardous materials, and more. How do these new parameters conflict with, or limit, the old packaging?
  4. Have the students list the materials they used in their alternative packaging and explain their choices. Each student should present their new design and explain the functions and environmental impact of the new packaging.
  5. Display the students' new packaging designs (or actual items, if applicable). Each item should be accompanied by a paragraph explaining the new design, its impacts, and why it is better than the old one.


Invite representatives from local environmental organizations, the local landfill, a recycling facility, or a newspaper to come and view the displays and discuss their organization's efforts to address this issue.

Sources: Adapted from AVR, Teacher's Resource Guide; State of Washington, Department of Ecology, A-Way With Waste