Hands-on Activity: Making Decisions: Packaging and the Environment

Contributed by: Making the Connection, Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)

Quick Look

Grade Level: 9 (9-10)

Time Required: 1 hours 30 minutes

(Part 1: 40 minutes; Part 2: 45 minutes)

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.00

Group Size: 4

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Science and Technology

A photograph shows four shelves in a store containing packaged cookies and crackers.
Students learn about packaging and its processes
Copyright © 2014 Denise W. Carlson. Used with permission.


Students redesign and justify the packaging used in consumer products. Design criteria include reducing the amount of packaging material by 25%.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one-third of America's municipal solid waste comes from packaging. Thus, it is possible to make a significant reduction in waste by adopting packaging that is highly functional yet minimal. This strategy, known as source reduction, includes lighter packaging, larger-sized packaging (bulk), flexible vs. rigid packing, and eliminating or reducing water (concentrated). Packaging engineers face this challenge everyday as more products are developed; they aim to devise packaging that functions as needed, while minimizing excess and pollution.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Describe some decisions related to advantages and disadvantages of packaging and processes.
  • Use resources (people, references, Internet) to gain knowledge.
  • Explain the environmental impact of (re)designing products.

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts. (Grades 9 - 12)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

Alignment agreement:

When evaluating solutions it is important to take into account a range of constraints including cost, safety, reliability and aesthetics and to consider social, cultural and environmental impacts.

Alignment agreement:

New technologies can have deep impacts on society and the environment, including some that were not anticipated. Analysis of costs and benefits is a critical aspect of decisions about technology.

Alignment agreement:

  • Approximate the probability of a chance event by collecting data on the chance process that produces it and observing its long-run relative frequency, and predict the approximate relative frequency given the probability. (Grade 7) More Details

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  • Create equations and inequalities in one variable and use them to solve problems. Include equations arising from linear and quadratic functions, and simple rational and exponential functions. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • When new technologies are developed to reduce the use of resources, considerations of trade-offs are important. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Identify and explain the steps of the engineering design process, i.e., identify the need or problem, research the problem, develop possible solutions, select the best possible solution(s), construct a prototype, test and evaluate, communicate the solution(s), and redesign. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Demonstrate methods of representing solutions to a design problem, e.g., sketches, orthographic projections, multiview drawings. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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Materials List

Each group needs a bag containing 3 packaged products from the areas of food, health or beauty aids, and some other product. Examples: boxed cookies, frozen pizza, deodorant, allergy medication, shoes, shampoo, detergent, CDs.

For the entire class to share: a few large examples of packaging, such as the boxes (and protective inside packaging, plastic bags, twist ties, instructions, etc.) that come with a new computer, TV or furniture.

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/wpi_packaging_materials] to print or download.

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A new president has been elected on a platform stressing environmental awareness. The new president proposes that in addition to increasing our target goals for recycling and reusing materials, the U.S. will reduce the amount of packaging it uses by 25% within four years.

The Committee for Protection of the Environment is designing alternative packaging that meets these new guidelines to ensure that the 25% reduction target is met. As an engineer and a member of this committee, your design challenge is to aid in the packaging reduction.



The goal is for students to understand the basics of engineering associated with packaging products and the potential impact on the environment. Packaging around consumer products serves many purposes. By holding pre-measured quantities of products, packaging makes items easier to store, ship, stack and price. Packaging offers protection from damage or breakage, as well as preservation so that food spoilage is minimized. Packages also provide information about contents and help to market products.

One strategy that helps to minimize the waste from packaging is source reduction. In contrast to reusing and recycling, this strategy is employed before items are packaged. In effect, source reduction means not using packaging that is not needed and using less of what is necessary. Reducing packaging in this manner has the greatest potential to save resources and slow landfill depletion rates.

Four types of source reduction are lighter packaging, larger-sized packaging, flexible vs. rigid packaging, and eliminating or reducing water.

Lighter Packaging: Surprisingly, this is more important than using recyclable packaging. Since recycling levels are so low, we can usually create less packaging by choosing lighter-weight materials. (For an example, see Worksheet A: Mathematics of Packaging.) When it comes to weight, paperboard, plastic and aluminum are all efficient packaging sources.

Larger-Sized Packaging: In addition to providing cost savings, buying products in bulk results in packaging savings. (See example in Worksheet A: Mathematics of Packaging.) Note: This assumes that people only buy quantities that will be used up, otherwise spoilage loss may offset the packaging reduction benefits.

Flexible vs. Rigid Packaging: Flexible pouches can weigh up to 75 to 90% less than the rigid containers that they replace. They are also easier to compact so they take up less landfill space. A dramatic example to illustrate this is juice boxes, which are 90% lighter and take up 70% less volume than the glass bottles they replace.

Eliminating or Reducing Water: Shipping and selling products in concentrated, powdered or dried forms results in more efficient packaging. For example, concentrated powdered detergents and drink powders require the users to add water and thus enable more washes/drinks per package than if more water was included.

Before the Activity

  • Gather a variety of packaged products to show as examples. Organize bags of examples for each group.
  • Make copies of Worksheets A and B.

With the Students

Part 1: Redesigning Packaging

  1. Spend a few minutes guiding students to share their observations about the purposes of packaging. Also discuss the differences between source reduction, recycling and reusing products. Make sure students understand that this activity is about source reduction and not the latter two strategies. Review the four types of source reduction. Hand out Worksheet A: Mathematics of Packaging and have students work through the problems. This exercise highlights the importance of source reduction in light of the low recycling rates in the U.S.
  2. Divide the class into groups of 3 to 4 students. Give each group a bag containing packaging from three products. Have students think about the reasons why each kind of packaging is used. With those as a starting point, think about ways that the packaging could be reduced without compromising the product in any way. It may be necessary to alter the product slightly such as eliminating water to reduce bulk.
  3. Have students use the table on Worksheet B: Packaging to help them determine the purpose of each piece of packaging material. Have students think about whether the packaging is necessary and if so, how it might be reduced.
  4. Have students draw the new packaging and discuss the ways that they changed it and why.

Part 2: Sharing Solutions

  1. Have each group decide which of their packaging solutions they are most proud of. Ask for a group volunteer to show the design and explain its merits.
  2. After the group has explained the design, highlight which of the four methods of source reduction they utilized. Ask another group, who used a similar strategy to explain what they did. This shows how the same strategy may be suitable for many different products. If no groups used the same strategy, then ask a group that utilized a different strategy to share their design with the class.
  3. Have each group discuss a packaging solution. If all four methods of source reduction have not been discussed, use examples to try to get students to discuss all four methods.
  4. Lead a class discussion about how students approached the problem like engineers. Also discuss what types of jobs are involved in packaging.


recycle: To use something over again.

source reduction: Not using what we do not need and using less of what we do need.


Worksheets: Review and grade student worksheets to assess their comprehension of the activity concepts.

Investigating Questions

  • What are the other advantages of lighter packages? (Answer: They typically contain less material that needs to be recycled and they also cost less to ship since not as much fuel is required for transportation.)
  • What are the recycling rates for commonly used materials? (Answer: Aluminum is best with a 60-65% recovery rate. Glass is recycled at a rate of nearly 40%, while the rate for plastic recycling is currently about 10%.)
  • Are there any advantages to packaging food? (Answer: First, packaging keeps food from getting spoiled, which means it has a longer time period in which it can be eaten and not put in landfills. Second, packaging lets us process food more efficiently. For example, when chickens are packaged at a plant, the feathers and other "waste products" are processed into other usable things. When individual butchers process the chickens, these items might be thrown away. On the other hand, processed and packaged food is not fresh and thus lower in quality and nutrition.)

Troubleshooting Tips

Involve local experts to enhance the activity. Contact an engineering school at a local university, WEPAN (www.wepan.org), or the Society of Woman Engineers (www.swe.org).

Activity Extensions

Have students bring in products from home. Determine the ratio of packing weight to product weight. What sorts of products have high/low ratios?

Research other countries to see if their reduction, recycling and reuse efforts are similar to the U.S. For example, many countries require that manufacturers be responsible to recycle the original packaging and eventual disposal of their products. Many locations also limit the use of store-provided plastic bags for purchases in an effort to minimize this waste stream.

Activity Scaling

To enhance the math component, have students convert the problems to the metric system.


Martha Cyr; K. M. Samuelson


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2001 WEPAN/Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Supporting Program

Making the Connection, Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)


Project funded by Lucent Technologies Foundation.

Last modified: May 29, 2018


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