Wal-Mart’s quest for the perfect doughnut box

Box of donuts
Paul Johnson | E+ | Getty Images

One of the greatest things about my job is that I get to use geometry almost every day to come up with new ways to make packaging better. And by better, you can interpret that a few different ways.

There's certainly the idea that "less is more," and this was the underlying notion behind a public sustainability commitment we made as a company to reduce packaging by 5 percent between 2008 and 2013. It makes sense from an economic and environmental perspective—the fewer materials we use, the less cost we incur and the less waste that's potentially discarded.

But packaging also serves an important function in transportation, safety and functionality. Not to mention aesthetics. There's only so much you can take out before you start to lose the benefits and the product integrity that packaging provides.

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A wiser approach to packaging, and one that's an emerging trend throughout the industry, is the goal to optimize. This still takes into account how much packaging is needed by volume—and we're always looking to reduce that ratio—but it broadens the definition to consider integrity, portability, recyclability, reusability and overall life cycle of the product it contains. Once you start to play with those variables, that's where geometry comes in.

If you ask my kids—or most people for that matter—using geometry on a regular basis might not sound like a perk. So, here's an example that might make it more palatable: donuts.

We're all familiar with the iconic flat box found in break rooms and at church socials. What you might not think about are the logistics behind them, and the cardboard and plastic that winds up in the trash. At 609 square inches, they can take up a lot of room and usually end up as a big piece of trash in the waste bin.

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Source: Wal-Mart

Together with our supplier, we looked at this and came up with a better option. Instead of letting each doughnut lay flat, what if we lined them up horizontally? If you do the math, our new box takes up only 501 square inches, and uses 18 percent less paperboard. And we still had room to squeeze in an extra doughnut to make it a baker's dozen.

The magic here is the benefit that comes from such a small change. We can now provide the same quality product while taking up less space and making a product that's easier to take home. And we've made changes like this on the products throughout our stores and clubs.

Through the lens of a commitment to reduce packaging, we've been able to look at what's on our shelves, where it comes from and how it's going to be used in the future in a new way. It's good for business when we can use less and use what we have more effectively, and it's better for the environment as we reduce our footprint and use of extra materials.

It's also good for people who like math.

—By Ron Sasine, Senior Director of Packaging, Private Brands, at Wal-Mart