What makes a mooncake gift box packaging “sustainable”? Considering the brand’s message and considering the packaging and waste stream reality. The design approaches of these gift boxes are diverse: biodegradable materials, reducing packaging weight, secondary use cases, and more.
I highlight four angles: recyclability, secondary usage, space ratio, and materials.

Please find the original article published on WeChat here.


Aren’t gift boxes all made of paper? – Carton can be recycled.

Mooncake gift box packaging is not only made of cardboard; standard non-paper material components are handles, magnet buckles, plastic windows, and so on. Industrial paper recycling can accept up to 1,5% of the non-paper components, including plastics, textiles, metals, etc. (editor’s note: applicable for China; due to the lower paper quality, for example, in Germany, the non-paper quota dropped to 0,5%).

There are three types of handles for mooncake gift boxes: plastic, textile, and paper/cardboard. For gift boxes with plastic or textile handles, the entire packaging is usually removed from the recycling streams during the sorting in China’s municipal waste management system because the labor cost of separating the handle and the cardboard box outweighs the material values.
However, not all carton packaging containing plastic or textile handles is not recyclable. Starbucks’ mooncake gift box from 2021 features an RPET scarf as a gift box handle, inviting customers to use the silk-like fabric for daily wear. In this case, separating the non-paper material from the box becomes part of the customer experience; furthermore, it improves the entire packaging’s recyclability.

On the other hand, gift boxes with paper/cardboard handles do not necessarily mean they can be recycled. For example, this year’s Starbucks mooncake gift box uses a paper handle. Still, the back of the handle contains metal parts, causing the same problem as using plastic/textile handles: the non-paper material affects the recyclability of the cardboard box.

Secondary usage

The pros and cons of a “second life.”

Over the past two years, many brands have designed their mooncake gift boxes to have a “second life”: the packaging can be reused as a toy or an everyday product. In 2022, Oatly launched the “Let’s fly to the Moon” mooncake gift box, which can be transformed into an “airplane chess set” (a Chinese cross-and-circle board game like the Western game of ludo) by a simple disassembly of the box. Similarly, Starbucks 2022 mooncake packaging can be reused as a picture frame or a storage box.

The “secondary usage” design extends the life of the packaging. Still, to satisfy the needs of the second scenario, the designs of these mooncake boxes are usually more complex, and the number of materials used is higher than ordinary boxes.

Meanwhile, there comes a time when the “second life” ends; therefore, the design of these gift boxes also needs to consider recyclability. Starbucks gift boxes are designed with magnets inside the container to support the picture frame standing up, satisfying the need for secondary use but rendering the box non-recyclable.

When defining the secondary utilization scenario, packaging designers should consider two factors: the appeal and consumer demand and the structural characteristics of gift boxes. There are countless options for cardboard structures, and brands can ensure the recyclability of their packaging by cleverly designing 100% paper/cardboard structure that not only meets the need for secondary usage but also avoids using non-paper contents.

Empty space ratio

How slim is your packaging?

The empty space ratio refers to the balance between the space in the packaging, excluding the product volume and the total packaging volume. A high empty space ratio is one of the main characteristics of excessive packaging. In addition, packaging with a high empty space ratio has low transportation efficiency and increases logistical emissions.

In 2021, China introduced the “National Standard” for “Requirements of Restricting Excessive Packaging-Foods and Cosmetics” (GB23350-2021) and quickly added Amendment No. 1 in 2022. It specifies the empty space ratio calculation of moon cake packaging and other requirements. Let’s take the Starbucks 2022 mooncake gift box as an example and see how the space ratio is calculated.

National Standard Empty Space Ratio Formula:X = [Vn- Σ(kV0)] / Vn x 100%

X: Empty Space Ratio

Vn: Packaging volume(mm3)

V0: Product volume(calculated by the net contents,1g = 1000 mm3)

k: National Standard commodity necessary space coefficient. The coefficient of mooncake is specified as 7.0.

Starbucks 2022 mooncake gift box contains six pieces. The net content of each piece is 75g.

X = [ (285x213x68)-(7x75x6x1000) ] / (285x213x68) x 100% = 23.69%

As shown above, the mooncake gift box packaging empty space ratio is in line with the National Standard requirements of less than 30% packaging space ratio. You don’t need excessive packaging for a huge brand impact.


Biodegradable material vs. cardboard, which one to choose?

In the 2022 Mid-Autumn Festival, brands such as Tmall, Hilton, and JD.com launched mooncake gift boxes made of biodegradable materials. While biodegradable materials indeed sound very attractive to consumers, the degradation of most biodegradable materials currently relies on industrial composting processes, and the composting time is longer than the municipal food waste processing time (15 days max) in China. Therefore, biodegradable packaging is classified as “Residual Waste” in China, which is subject to incineration rather than industrial composting. Instead of using biodegradable materials without actual composting infrastructures, using cardboard packaging that reduces costs and can be recycled is a more sustainable option.

The four dimensions are just a brief analyze whether the outer packaging of the mooncake gift box is “sustainable.” Sustainable packaging design encompasses much more: packaging weights, material sources, inks, adhesives, additives, and films are all critical factors.

Looking at this year’s mooncake market, there are far fewer mooncake gift boxes with excessive packaging, but they are not yet perfect. I hope to see more and more genuinely sustainable and informed designs of mooncake gift boxes in next year’s Mid-Autumn Festival.

Siguang Ma profile image

Siguang Ma

Industrial & UX/UI Design

Siguang aka Dominic is an industrial & UIUX designer who joined our New York team in 2019. Now he is working in Shanghai and exploring circular design opportunities on the Asian continent.

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