Authors: Marco Bozzola, Claudia De Giorgi
This article aims to present a research and design work that focuses on exploring new possible approaches to packaging design as applied to the field of reconditioning and reintroducing old household appliances to the market.
The work developed by the research group from the Politecnico di Torino – Design, in particular, is part of a research agreement signed with Astelav, a Piedmontese company based in Nichelino (Turin) and a leading distributor of components and spare parts for household appliances, in partnership with Turin-based Sermig, a non-profit organisation that aims to provide people marginalised by unemployment, social and financial problems with hospitality and both social and job support.
The company recently launched the Ri-Generation project alongside Sermig. This involves reconditioning used white goods (washing machines, dishwashers, fridges, ovens, etc.) by intercepting the WEEE (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment) supply chain as well as encouraging socially marginalised people to gain new skills whilst assisting specialised technicians in reconditioning appliances. The work involves the replacement of damaged or broken parts, a cleaning process, followed by the product’s placement on the market. It is an example of a circular economy that helps prevent the accumulation of waste in landfills, offers old products a new lease of life and new added value and, at the same time, creates new economies and new employment and social rehabilitation opportunities for people in difficult socio-economic circumstances.
In such a scenario, the design work carried out attempts to develop new systems for the protection, transportation, presentation and sale of these used, salvaged and reconditioned products, so as to allow them to be distributed on the market, as well as to communicate their own particular image during the sales process. It is a very unusual packaging project because, apart from anything else, every product sold is different from the other, even if they share common characteristics.
The design challenge was tackled both in terms of its functional and marketing aspects, but also in line with a wider cultural paradigm that envisages the fine-tuning of a veritable system of activities and relationships that, in keeping with the characteristics of the Ri-Generation project, can generate innovation and sustainability at different levels: at a social level, by involving disadvantaged people and social cooperatives in packaging assembly; at an environmental level, by salvaging old clothes to create the padding; at a production level, by specially training and organising personnel; and at a linguistic level, by applying new modes and registers of expression that stem from experimentation, particularly in the artistic field.
The new packaging design takes its cue from the use of the waste materials that Sermig receives on a daily basis through private donations, particularly second-hand clothes that are sorted, selected and then redistributed to people who are experiencing social and financial difficulties. The items of clothing that are damaged, ripped or worn out can be salvaged and, if properly processed, can be turned into efficient packaging systems. Garments are cut up and put together following clear procedural guidelines, and then positioned and sewn inside polyethylene tubes, creating a sort of “padded fabric” that is both waterproof and resistant and can wrap up and protect an appliance during the transport, storage and sales phases. The final product makes a strong impression: patches of clothing in different fabrics and colours surround the appliance, creating what looks like a cloth cube. Whilst it surprises and intrigues the viewer, it also expresses a narrative at different levels: an item of clothing that symbolises a product (a washing machine) declares its function at an emotive level whilst at the same time expressing the salvaging of a waste product, which is the principle that underpins the Ri-Generation project.
Since the most significant environmental problem for packaging systems is indeed related to the need to prevent waste before its production, the value of this salvaging process is further stressed by the reusability once it has finished transporting the appliance after sale. The information sheets included and the packaging’s own graphics suggest a “catalogue” of possible alternative uses (the protection of accessories and furnishings during house moves or for storing items in attics and warehouses, garage wall padding, informal poufs, pet cushions, picnic blanket undersheets, etc.).
The product’s fine-tuning has involved Sermig personnel (supervisors and guests) and Astelav employees and some social cooperatives during a number of workshops coordinated by the Polito research group, designed to test the production methods and skills of people both joining and leaving the packaging production process. The packaging is assembled by social cooperatives, who are suitably trained using the above-mentioned direct experimentation and partial co-designing phases.
To date – having completed the production development, prototype and trial phases – the project is now preparing a pre-series of dozens of items that will be tested during their transportation and sale to consumers. The resulting feedback from these activities will allow the project’s organisers to streamline packaging production methods and the entire sales supply chain.
Among the possible outcomes foreseen, action designed to divulge this project in order to turn it into a repeatable or reinterpretable example of best practices is envisaged, as well as the promotion of the project’s cultural merits. Such action includes:
• The declinations of the semi-finished product: the defined packaging system, could be considered as a new semi-finished product which, when suitably reshaped, that means it could also be used as packaging in other product sectors;
• The curatorship and creation of an exhibition to be put on display: the design of possible display concepts that could be shown at exhibitions and sustainable packaging trade fairs or used for creating a tailor-made event dedicated to Ri-Generation’s case history;
• The creation of a special section on the Ri-Generation website: creating text, images, animation, etc. that can present the partnership with the Politecnico di Torino, the design process and the scientific and cultural value of the packaging design process;
• The creation of a narrative: a sustainable packaging case history could be the focus of a story told by a lively, abridged publication that could be distributed at particular events designed to promote the initiative and the Ri-Generation project’s work.