Last month, we published a deliberately scathing editorial on the topic of manufacturing and packaging waste—a subject close to our hearts as we deal with literally thousands of accessories and packages every year, and would like to reduce the quantity of trash that Apple’s ecosystems produce. As noted in that editorial, some companies have taken such waste to new heights, such as the packaging of individual pieces of screen film in clipboard-sized hard plastic and metal boxes, as shown below. Today, we’re publishing a follow-up to that editorial, looking at the industry’s better and best practices: examples of smarter, more environmentally sound packaging.

Apple. Though it’s not perfect—and there are times when its reductionist tendencies go overboard—Apple is unquestionably one of the most conscious and savvy packagers of products around. Whether you chalk this up to CEO Steve Jobs’ famous stint at Atari, where he and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak were paid to reduce the number of unnecessary parts in the classic arcade game Breakout, or perhaps just a more recent, externally-inspired eco-awareness, the company’s boxes have continued to get smaller and smaller even when the items inside stay the same size. Though there’s still room to debate whether Apple’s products are themselves designed to be replaced too often, the results of its packaging improvements have included reduced shipping costs, less manufacturing waste, and a lower eventual disposal impact of the packages for consumers.


How has Apple done this? It has established a hierarchy of sorts for its packaging, placing low-end items in plastic bags or thin boxes, and cutting the size of those packages down to barely larger footprints than the products themselves. The bags might not be glamorous, but they look clean, hang easily on hooks for display, and let the products speak for themselves. Its thin boxes are a different story.


Witness the Apple Remote, Magic Mouse, and iPhone 4 Dock, all of which arrive in perfect condition despite ultra-tailored boxes.


The company steps up to thicker plastics and cardboard for higher-end items such as iPods, iPhones, iPads, and computers. Even where it uses cardboard, however, it is astonishingly conscious of the space its components consume and the amount of shielding they really need in order to arrive unscathed. Apple actually shaves millimeters or quarter-inches of thickness off of a given year’s box rather than just leaving it the same size, as shown on the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS boxes above. The results are packages that look great and yet still fit en masse into bulk shipments of crate and pallet size.


One of the most retrospectively daring things Apple has done over the years was to eliminate CDs entirely from the packages of all iPods, forcing users to download iTunes on their own while saving considerable packaging volume, and the need to manufacture discs that would prove outdated and disposable within weeks—different from the essential charging and listening pack-ins that it still includes. This one change alone enabled iPod boxes to shrink down to incredibly small sizes, a practice that subsequently carried over to iPhones and iPads, but not Macs. While they’re also boxed as efficiently as can be, Apple’s full-fledged computers continue to include twin DVDs for occasionally necessary Mac OS recovery purposes, and wouldn’t achieve much of a space savings by disposing of them. At least, for now.


It should be noted, however, that Apple’s impressive packaging occasionally is thwarted by its online store’s shipping practices, which can result in its tiny individual boxes being mailed individually and wastefully in multiple oversized wrappers. To its credit, Apple has recently reduced waste within these individual shipping boxes, brilliantly using a single strip of flexible plastic with tension to eliminate the need for styrofoam, crumpled paper, or other internal packing material.


Elago. Though Elago’s actual accessories aren’t always awesome, the company deserves commendation for some of its packaging, which improves upon a great practice Tunewear introduced two years ago.


Elago’s new S4 Breathe shells for the iPhone 4 come in attractive frosted plastic bags that are torn once to reveal their contents, and packed with the shell, screen film, a cleaning cloth and a minimum of cardboard to hold the shell intact. Even though Elago breaks with norms by individually wrapping its microfiber cloth in a mini-package that needs to be tossed out, at least this is done in the service of keeping that cloth dust-free before application of the included film.


Incase + A Few Other Noteworthy Examples. At a time when oversized packages for iPad cases are contributing to staggering amounts of waste, a number of companies are using minimalist plastic mounting techniques—a store-ready hook with a single band of recyclable plastic or cardboard wrapped around the case—to reduce packaging needs. Incase and other bag makers have often been at the forefront of this, due to their past experience in selling less over-packaged laptop bags. While Incase’s iPod and iPhone cases use way more packaging than, say, Elago for very similar items, they’re now generally shipped in easy to open boxes made from entirely recyclable materials.


SwitchEasy has consistently packaged its products in attractive but slim and fairly minimalist packages, even when it offers an incredible array of items inside each box. AIAIAI’s Pipe Headset came packaged in a clear tube rather than a multi-layer cardboard box.


Parting Thoughts. Though the majority of our readers—and the companies we cover—have at least some understanding and appreciation for the value of environmentally sustainable packaging and manufacturing techniques, a handful of people jumped up to defend the unquestionably wasteful practices of companies such as Ozaki. Cultural differences, the need for product protection, and a desire to increase the perceived value of cheap items were all cited as justifications; one reader noted, without justifying the practice as right, that “if my mom or dad wanted to mail me a toothpick, it would be encased in several layers of newspaper, followed by bubblewrap, placed in a double-corrugated box with packing peanuts, with all box seams securely sealed with double packing tape. Really. No joke.”


Thankfully, companies such as Apple, Elago, Tunewear, Incase, SwitchEasy, and AIAIAI have demonstrated—to varying degrees and at different times—that there are smarter and more aggressive ways to package products; Apple in particular has done a great job of simplifying packaging while tailoring it to properly protect and show off products of wildly varying values, without compromising their premium prices or international appeal. Even where companies have occasionally tried and failed with eco-friendly packages, such as the very early Mophie Juice Pack in the first shot above, which was damaged specifically because it was too tightly packaged in a thin cardboard box, serious developers have come back later with improved boxes and materials (such as the second-generation Juice Pack in the second shot above) that achieve all their goals. A lot has been accomplished over the past two or three years; our hope is that the smarter practices shown here help companies to continue to improve in the years to come.