Designing out virgin plastic
The succesful rollout was featured in The Times, Fast Company, Design Week, Design Wanted and more.
“We spent months exploring various options, trialling and testing different materials, and working with leading experts in these fields. Morrama truly understood our values and goals for this project, and helped us make it a reality.”
- Kay Bartlett, Customer Director, Wagamama
To improve the sustainability credentials of wagamama’s takeaway packaging whilst not compromising on customer experience and operational functionality.
To improve the customer experience of receiving the takeaway Ramen dishes.
To improve the customer experience of receiving the takeaway Chili Squid dish.
To re-design the graphics used across all areas of the takeaway packaging.
Starting with a 6 week research exploration into materials, including plant-based plastics, bagasse, board and even stone-derived paper, it became clear that plastic was going to be required to safely transport Wagamama dishes securely enough to bounce along the streets of London in a Deliveroo scooter without leaking.
Our recommendation was to switch to CPET as the best alternative to the virgin polypropylene (PP) being used. It’s possible to include up to 70% recycled content in CPET material and maintain structural and food-safe properties. Using this new material would cut 300 tonnes of virgin plastic from Wagamama’s supply chain and make it exempt from the incoming Plastic Packaging Tax.
Making this switch however, was not straightforward. CPET is a form of PET that has been crystallized to improve its heat resistance, rigidity and structure, however it still becomes malleable at around 80°C, stiffening again as it cools. For this reason, in the food packaging industry, CPET containers are typically used for cold-fill dishes such as microwave meals or salads, and not for hot-filled takeaway food. And certainly not for steaming hot ramen.
Initial CPET material tests made using the existing Wagamama bowl mould failed (see bowl in image above). Filled with liquid at 80°C it lost its structural integrity and deformed. It was clear that some further thinking, development and experimentation was required.
We started with the structural design of the bowl itself. The Wagamama team were keen to maintain the distinctive pedestal foot design, however the transition from the bowl to the pedestal was a weak point that was buckling in hot-water testing, especially when pressure was applied downwards during lidding. It took over 20 variations on the design to get to the final bowl with a wider base and smoother pedestal transitions that provided the structural integrity we needed whilst maintaining the aesthetic Wagamama loved.
In addition to the structural design, controlling material gauge and distribution were vital if we were to transition to CPET. Samples tested at lower material gauges failed. Similarly, samples that had increased material thickness but uneven distribution failed. Only with a combination of an increased material gauge, carefully controlled material distribution in manufacture, and an optimised structural design did we finally produce a structurally sound CPET bowl capable of withstanding high temperatures without deforming.
Experience vs Sustainability
Another key challenge in this project was balancing the trade off between food quality and sustainability. The primary function of any takeaway packaging is to ensure that the food the customer has ordered arrives at the delivery destination in the best possible quality. However, this can often require additional pieces of packaging which then compromises the sustainability. Before we started the project, Wagamama’s approach had been to separate out dish elements depending on their temperature or texture, such as putting the sauce or salad accompaniments of the Katsu Curry dish in their own containers. Contrary to the wider goal of improving the sustainability of the packaging range, customers were left with large amounts of single use plastic waste to dispose of, and the restaurant were beginning to get complaints.
For the new range, a different approach was taken to better align with the sustainability goals; remove and reduce any unnecessary packaging. Working with the chefs we agreed to remove the ‘Katsu sauce boat’, put the salad in a card box rather than a plastic container, and reduced the size of the mains bowl by 20%, cutting both plastic and the air inside, keeping the food hotter for longer and improving portion size perception.
The Chilli Squid challenge
Some specific menu items needed additional experimentation to improve food quality. The Chilli Squid dish was receiving customer complaints that it was cold and no longer crispy by the time it arrived. The off-the-shelf ‘hot and crispy’ paper bag was not working. Testing over 15 different types of packaging, we identified the two key requirements: space and insulation. The longer shape of the final side dish design prevents the Chilli Squid pieces from being piled on top of each other, enabling the steam to rise up and condense on the raised lid. Whilst we also tested bagasse pulp, the CPET material proved the best insulator, keeping the dish both hot and crispy for longer.
Alongside improving sustainability and food quality, the packaging range also needed to function operationally. Visits to Wagamama restaurants provided insights into how the teams used the existing packaging range, as well as what worked and what didn’t. Observing the chef’s struggling to dish up certain side dishes drove a redesign better suited to its contents, whilst maintaining the family aesthetic of the mains bowl. This simple design change ultimately improves both chef and customer experience when they receive a better presented dish.
Operational improvements were also made to the graphic design of the disks used to identify which dishes are in each container. Staff typically identify dishes by code rather than name so the dish codes were made bigger and bolder and the overall graphic layout of the disks was simplified to help reduce the risk of errors when marking dishes.
The overall approach to this packaging design project with Wagamama is summed up in the word ‘kaizen’. Meaning both ‘good change’ and ‘incremental improvement’ it reflects the thoughtful, meticulous approach we took to all aspects of the packaging strategy, design, engineering and ultimate implementation.
Using a crystallised version of PET to bring additional heat resistance, Wagamama’s new packaging range is an industry first. Made from 70% recycled PET - the remaining 30% virgin plastic required for structural integrity - the packaging also remains 100% recyclable.
The redesign keeps recognisable elements of the previous packaging aesthetic, whilst giving it a fresh new look. A more natural mushroom tone reflects the planet conscious step forwards and this lighter colour increases the desirability of the material at recycling.