Hands-on Activity: It's all In the Package

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A photograph shows nine rectangular boxes, which all contain various brands of waste bags composed of bioplastics and other biodegrable plastics.
Students learn about environmentally friendly packaging
copyright
Copyright © 2008 Christian Gahle, Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bio-K_Abfallbeutel_Kompostbeutel_CG.jpg

Summary

Students explore the concept of "reducing" solid waste and how it relates to product packaging and engineering advancements in packaging materials. They read about and evaluate the highly publicized packaging decisions of two major U.S. corporations. Then they evaluate different ways to package items in order to minimize the environmental impact, while considering issues such as cost, availability, product attractiveness, etc. In addition, students explore "hydropulping" and consider its use as a recycling process.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Aseptic packaging is an incredible innovation developed by engineers to protect sterile products from contamination by locking out light and air, while sealing in nutrients and flavor. Due to the multi-layer packaging, dairy products in aseptic packaging can remain on a grocery store shelf for up to a year without refrigeration. Engineers play a key role in the creation of these very inventive packing products from the design stage through the implementation/development stage, as well as their end-of-life processing.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Identify packaging qualities that make it environmentally friendly or unfriendly.
  • Describe some different points of view around product packaging (the manufacturer, consumer, etc.).
  • Suggest/invent a more environmentally friendly package for a familiar item that currently has wasteful packaging.
  • Analyze environmental packaging and waste data using percentages, ranking and graphing.

More Curriculum Like This

Food Packaging

Students learn how food packages are designed and made, including three main functions. Then, in the associated activity, students act as if they are packaging engineers by designing and creating their own food packages for particular food types.

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Life Cycles

Students extend their knowledge of matter and energy cycles in organisms to engineering life cycle assessment of products. They learn about product life cycle assessment and the flow of energy through the cycle, comparing it to the flow of nutrients and energy in the life cycles of organisms.

Middle School Lesson
3RC (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Compost)

Students expand their understanding of solid waste management to include the idea of 3RC: reduce, reuse, recycle and compost. They look at the effects of packaging decisions (reducing) and learn about engineering advancements in packaging materials and solid waste management.

Trash Talkin'

Students collect, categorize, weigh and analyze classroom solid waste. The class collects waste for a week and then student groups spend a day sorting and analyzing the garbage with respect to recyclable and non-recyclable items.

Elementary Activity

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Draw a scaled picture graph and a scaled bar graph to represent a data set with several categories. Solve one- and two-step "how many more" and "how many less" problems using information presented in scaled bar graphs. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Waste must be appropriately recycled or disposed of to prevent unnecessary harm to the environment. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The use of technology affects the environment in good and bad ways. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Use common fractions and percents to calculate parts of whole numbers in problem situations including comparisons of savings rates at different financial institutions (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

For demonstration purposes:

  • examples of different types of packaging; include both environmentally conscious packaging and excessively wasteful packaging
  • examples of polystyrene containers/food trays

Each group need:

  • 1 single-serving drink box, cut in half
  • 1 large plastic beaker, or a similar container such as a bowl or a 2-liter plastic bottle with the top cut off
  • masking tap, 6" strip
  • 2 cups of water or, depending on the container, enough for each group to submerse half of a juice box
  • graph paper, one sheet per person
  • 12" ruler
  • variety of colored pencils/markers/crayons
  • (optional) calculator (groups may share)
  • It Doesn't Add Up Worksheet, one per person

Introduction/Motivation

A photograph shows ~20 single-serving rectangular Minute Maid juice boxes with attached straws on a table top.
Juice boxes are one example of aseptic packaging.
copyright
Copyright © Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/4282789501

Did you know that $1 of every $10 that we spend goes for the packaging that we simply end up throwing away? And, to top it all off, packaging represents 65% of our household trash! In the early 1990s, the Coca-Cola Company and McDonald's made some important packaging decisions that currently affect some of the foods we eat. Engineers developed the aseptic box (juice box), which Coca-Cola began using for single servings of their Minute Maid® juices. In response to a public outcry about the containers, McDonald's asked its manufacturing engineers to make changes to the polystyrene foam "clamshell" food boxes they used. Engineers originally changed the chemical used to produce these boxes, and later, McDonald's entirely discontinued their use of the foam boxes.

A photograph shows a big vat with hundreds of juice boxes soaking in water in an attempt to separate the paper, aluminum and plastic layers of the boxes.
Figure 1. The hydropulping process.
copyright
Copyright © http://www.aseptic.org/

Aseptic packages (commonly known as the "drink box") are an incredible engineering accomplishment. They combine the best attributes of paper, plastic and aluminum. The multi-layer, high-performance package locks out light and air, seals in nutrients and flavor, and enables its contents (even traditionally perishable products like milk) to remain un-refrigerated for months. It is a excellent example of engineers using materials to create something lightweight and useful. Of course, the biggest problem with drink boxes is that they do not simply decompose in a landfill for many years.

One method of recycling these drink boxes that is currently being tested by engineers is called hydropulping, which uses water to separate the box layers (see Figure 1). Any recovered paper is used to make products such as paper towels. The leftover aluminum and plastic layer materials are often used to produce objects such as flowerpots and plastic lumber.

Today, we are going to explore a simplified hydropulping process to determine whether or not drink boxes are an example of environmentally friendly packaging.

Vocabulary/Definitions

aseptic packages: A box-shaped package made from a laminate of three materials: high-quality paperboard, polyethylene (plastic) and aluminum. Commonly known as a "drink box."

hydropulping: The main process by which aseptic packages are recycled. Water and agitation are used to separate the package layers.

polystyrene: A solid plastic made from polymerized styrene.

styrene: A liquid petroleum by-product. It is also a naturally occurring substance present in many foods and beverages, including wheat, beef, strawberries, peanuts, coffee beans and cinnamon. Humans have known about styrene for centuries.

Procedure

Before the Activity

  • Gather examples of different types of packaging; be sure to include both environmentally conscious packaging and excessively wasteful packaging.
  • Collect empty juice boxes. If possible, have students bring them from home. Rinse them thoroughly and cut them in half (or cut them over a sink and rinse them afterwards).
  • Collect examples of polystyrene, such as takeaway boxes, meat trays, non-paper egg cartons, etc.
  • Make copies of the It Doesn't Add Up Worksheet. Students complete this worksheet during extra class time, spread over Days 1 and 2, or as homework, at the teacher's discretion.
  • From the library, check out the following two books:
  1. Bosak, Susan V. Science is...:A source book of fascinating facts, projects, and activities, Markham, Ontario: Scholastic Canada Ltd., 1991.
  2. Sakamoto Steidl, Kim. Environmental Portraits – People Making a Difference for the Environment, Boulder, CO: Good Apple, Inc., 1993.

With the Students

Day 1

  1. Start off with brainstorming to get students interested in packaging. Ask students to describe the different purposes of packaging (that is, contents protection, ease of transport, ease of handling, attention-getting marketing, etc.) Ask students to list the properties of a "perfect" environmental packaging. Ask them to provide suggestions for how this packaging might be made.
  2. Have a few packaging examples on hand to examine and discuss with the students. Make sure to have examples of both environmentally conscious packaging, as well as excessively wasteful packaging.
  3. Introduce the short articles you will read. It is up to you whether or not you share the names of the companies (it can be fun to have students try to guess them).

Read "The Fast Food Story" (found in Science is...A source book of fascinating facts, projects, and activities) and "What's in Your Drink Box?" (found in Environmental Portraits – People Making a Difference for the Environment).

As you read, have the class make a T-chart of the pros and cons of each issue (from an environmental perspective). Do this as a class on the classroom board or in small groups, depending on how you organize the reading. As you read, show examples of the types of containers (polystyrene containers, paper wrappers, straws and plastic utensils for "The Fast Food Story" and a juice box for "What's in Your Drink Box?").

  1. Ask students to consider the following discussion questions:
  • If you were the corporate executive who had to decide about these issues, what would you decide?
  • If you were the engineer in charge of the product manufacturing, how would you respond?
  • As a consumer what will you decide about buying these types of products? It is important to try to figure out all the "Yes, buts..." for any product in order to make environmentally sound decisions when shopping. This is a necessary part of the "pre-cycling" process. Consider these ideas:

a. When this product is made, is the environment or the people who make it harmed in any way?

b. Is it packaged in a way that I throw away more waste than the product is worth to me?

c. Will I be harming the air/water/land/people around me if I use this product?

d. Can the product be used by someone else when I am finished using it?

e. Can the materials be recycled when everyone is through with it?

  1. Obviously, we still use drink boxes today. Engineers designed a process known as hydropulping as way to recycle them. The rest of this activity asks students to explore a simplified hydropulping process.
  2. Divide the class into groups of four students each. Distribute to each group: two halves of a drink box (already cut in half) and a water container (beaker, bowl or large container with water).
  3. Ask each group to label its water container with a piece of masking tape (with the group members' names or a group name written on it).
  4. Direct groups to submerge one half of their drink boxes in the water. Leave it this way overnight.
  5. Ask students to draw a diagram of the dry drink box portion. Ask them to identify the layers if they can.
  6. If time permits, distribute the worksheet. Have students complete this worksheet during extra class time, spread over Days 1 and 2, or as homework.

Day 2

  • Direct the groups to observe the submerged juice boxes.
  • Have them draw a diagram of the drink box portion that has soaked in water overnight, identifying the layers if possible.
  • Ask student if they noticed whether or not the layers separated. If so, how many layers do they see and what could be done with them? If not, why not?
  • From the results of this experiment, what can they conclude about the idea of hydropulping? How do they think this basic experiment could be improved? (What could they do to get better results?) What types of things do they think engineers would need to consider in order to make this a useful recycling process?
  • Finish up the activity with group role play exercise. Ask students to assume the role of packaging engineers and design a sample of a "perfect" environmental package for an item that currently has non-environmentally friendly packaging (perhaps use one of the example items). Expect students to explain the product and how it is currently packaged (it would be helpful for them to bring in an example if they can). Also require them to provide an example (if possible) of the new packaging that they suggest and explain why the new package is more environmentally appropriate. Suggest they make another T-chart to explain the pros and cons of the "new" packaging compared to the original packaging. Have groups present their improved package ideas to the class.

Attachments

Troubleshooting Tips

Consider using something heavy (small rocks) to keep the juice boxes halves submerged in the water overnight.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have students engage in open discussion. Remind them that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have students raise their hands to respond. Write their answers on the board. Ask the students to:

  • Describe the different purposes of packaging. (Possible answers: contents and product protection, ease of transport, ease of customer handling, attention-getting advertising, etc.) Do they have any new suggestions?
  • List the properties of a "perfect" environmental packaging. Provide suggestions for how this packaging could be made.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Chart: Read "The Fast Food Story" (found in Science is...A source book of fascinating facts, projects and activities) and "What's in Your Drink Box?" (found in Environmental Portraits – People Making a Difference for the Environment). As you read, have the class make a T-chart of the pros and cons of each issue (from an environmental perspective). Do this as a class or in small groups, depending on how you organize the reading.

Discussion Questions: After the readings, ask students to consider the following questions:

  • If you were the corporate executive who had to decide about these issues, what would you decide?
  • If you were the engineer in charge of the product manufacturing, how would you respond?
  • As a consumer, what will you decide about buying these types of products? It is important to figure out all the "Yes, buts..." for any product in order to make environmentally sound decisions when shopping. This is a necessary part of the "pre-cycling" process. Consider these ideas:
  1. When this product is made, is the environment or the people who make it harmed in any way?
  2. Is it packaged in a way such that I throw away more waste than the product is worth to me?
  3. Will I be harming the air/water/land/people around me if I use this product?
  4. Can the product be used by someone else when I am finished using it?
  5. Can the materials be recycled when everyone is through with it?

Worksheet: Assign students to comlete the It Doesn't Add Up Worksheet during extra class time, spread over Days 1 and 2 of the activity, or as homework. Review their answers to gauge their mastery of the subject matter.

Post-Activity Assessment

Group Role Play: Ask students to assume the role of packaging engineers and design an example "perfect" environmental package for an item that currently has non-environmentally friendly packaging (perhaps use one of the example items). Have groups present their improved packages to the class.

  • Explain the product and how it is currently packaged (it is helpful to show an example if possible).
  • If possible, provide an example of the proposed redesigned packaging.
  • Explain why the new package is environmentally kinder. Make another T-chart to explain the pros and cons of the "new" packaging compared to the original packaging.

Activity Extensions

Ask students to find out information about how your community currently deals with drink boxes and polystyrene. Are they accepted at a recycling program or put in the landfill? Is the recycling effort effective? Is it profitable? How are the recycled items used?

Have students create a pie (circle) chart from the worksheet data for materials and percentages that they are used.

Activity Scaling

For lower grades, bring in examples of items in their original packaging. As a class or in small groups, have students discuss ways to make the packaging more environmentally friendly. Or give them one familiar item (a CD, DVD, pack of pencils, etc.) and ask them how they would change the packaging so it is able to be recycled instead of put in the dump.

For higher grades, ask students to find the mass of a full drink box before doing the experiment. Then ask them to drink the juice, rinse and dry the box, and find the mass of the empty drink box. After they identify the layers in the drink box, have them soak the entire box overnight. Carefully separate the layers, let the various components dry and then find the mass of each material separately. Ask them to compare their findings to the data in the "What's in Your Drink Box" article. Additional scaling up ideas include:

  • Ask students to do different calculations based on the following statistics: $1 of every $10 we spend goes for packaging that we throw away. Packaging represents 65% of our household trash. For example, calculate how much of the money they spend on a new video game is for the packaging (money, decimal multiplication, ratios). Calculate how many pounds of packaging trash they throw away (refer to Lesson 4's Trash Talkin' activity).
  • To assess student learning, ask students to also describe what natural resources are used to make all comonents of the original and improved packaging.

References

Aseptic Packaging Council, http://creec.edgateway.net/cs/creecp/view/creec_org/659

Blashfield, Jean F. and Black, Wallace B. Recycling (SOS Earth Alert). Childrens Press, Inc., 1991.

Bosak, Susan V. Science is...A source book of fascinating facts, projects and activities. Markham, Ontario: Scholastic Canada Ltd., 1991.

Energy Information Administration http://www.eia.doe.gov/

Polystyrene Packaging Council http://www.polystyrene.org/

Sakamoto Steidl, Kim. Environmental Portraits – People Making a Difference for the Environment. Boulder, CO: Good Apple, Inc., 1993.

Contributors

Amy Kolenbrander; Jessica Todd; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell

Copyright

© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Acknowledgements

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 5, 2017

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