Original Blended

Changing the future one step
at a time

Original Blended Material is a paper material that Sony developed with
the aim of achieving real, effective material circulation in its product packaging.
The development process, which centered on conveying the vital importance of environmental
consciousness from the conceptualization stage onward to unite Sony and customers
in recycling efforts, began with one designer with extensive experience in packaging design.
This article tells the story of Original Blended Material, going from the backdrop of
the planning phase to the development of the material itself and
its implementation in product packaging.

Designing material circulation
to involve customers

One of the most crucial components of any product packaging design is "material circulation," an element that Sony designers have continually brought into their craft. In addition to utilizing available materials to design the appearance, form, and other dimensions of their packaging, teams have also gone the extra mile to develop and implement new, environmentally conscious materials; one example is the packaging for the aibo entertainment robot packaging, which uses felt made from recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles.

The packaging for aibo, which snugly wraps and protects the product in a package made with post-market recycled PET bottles

With Sony pushing a host of environment-focused initiatives in recent years, packaging designers understood that they would need to keep enhancing the "material-circulation rate" of their output. Using environmentally conscious materials is one way of doing that, of course, but they decided to take another step forward by expanding their scope and exploring approaches that would make customers more invested in the environment and more motivated to recycle.

With a focus on collecting resources in a post-market setting, the team reworked
its approach to utilizing and creating materials to probe new possibilities in material circulation

For the design team, helping customers connect naturally and intuitively with the new material was key; something unfamiliar, they knew, would create a kind of distance from the people using it, and that would defeat the aims of bonding Sony and customers in recycling and raising awareness of the roles customers play in environmental circulation. Ensuring familiarity hinges on fostering knowledge of the material, including how it came about in the first place, which would make customers feel more invested in the recycling narrative. The designers thus came up with a proposal to research and develop a material that would tell a story: what the material is, where we got it, and how we use it. They also wanted to make sure the material had a forward-looking orientation with a sense of environmental responsibility for future generations, so they went with paper—a recyclable substance that plays a key role in the shift away from plastic. The Sony team was not about to take on the entire effort alone, though. Drawing on the support of paper manufacturers, traders, and other external partners that Sony had worked with before, the designers decided to pool together as much expert insight and expertise as they could in pursuing the project.
In-house collaboration was another big part of the effort. With the help of other members of the design organization and an internal team that explores next-generation technologies and mechanism designs for Sony products, development on Original Blended Material hit the ground running.

The development concepts behind Original Blended Material

  1. 1. Selecting raw materials that customers around the world feel familiar with
    Visit sourcing sites and make the locations public knowledge, understanding that the "material represents the environment"
  2. 2. Using a single paper material for every packaging component
    Achieve paper-only packaging without any plastic parts, making it easier to recycle, and maximize versatility for a broad array of applications for the material
  3. 3. Making the material a visual component of packaging designs
    Emphasize environmental consciousness in a visual way while still living up to what gives Sony products their integrity

1. Selecting raw materials that customers around the world feel familiar with

The design team set out to make their paper material with a mix of raw ingredients, not just one, because they figured that incorporating more resources meant finding more ways to capture people’s interest. With that, they got to seeking out materials that would satisfy certain conditions: materials with an environmentally conscious component, materials that were selectively harvested, and materials that were scrapped, for example. Members ventured abroad to research potential candidates, and the team eventually chose bamboo, sugarcane fibre, and post-consumer recycled paper, all sourced exclusively from the Asia region—home to a substantial number of Sony’s core manufacturing sites.

Designers headed abroad to get a firsthand perspective in identifying potential raw materials and collection sites


Many paper products are made with plants that have long growth cycles, the types of materials that people need to take care of from generation to generation. Bamboo, though, is different—it has a short growth cycle, facilitating both cultivation and collection. Having zeroed in on bamboo, the team enlisted the help of a trading company and found groves in the Chishui area of China's Guizhou Province where people had been growing bamboo sustainably for centuries. Designers made a visit to get an up-close look at the cultivation practices in place and assess the supply potential. Liking what they saw, they decided to make the groves their source of bamboo. It was a material that the team knew people across the globe would be familiar with, which was a big plus for their aim to make consumers feel as comfortable as possible with Original Blended Material.

The groves where Original Blended Material gets its bamboo, which Sony designers got a chance to cut for themselves during their visit

Sugarcane fibre

In selecting a collection site for sugarcane, which, like bamboo, has a short growth cycle, the team directed its attention to Thailand–the world’s leading sugar producer. The country is home to several dozen sugar mills, with the leftover sugarcane normally burned off as a fuel source for power generation and subsequently discarded. The team saw the promise in that sugarcane fibre, recognizing how it dovetailed with the environmental awareness at the heart of Original Blended Material and represented just about the best-known ingredient they could ask for. The designers proceeded to find a local mill that processed sugarcane fibre into pulpwood for paper production and, having secured what they needed, decided to use the facility’s output for the Original Blended Material mix.

A sugarcane field

Post-consumer recycled paper

Making new recycled paper out of post-consumer recycled paper collected from regular households normally makes the fibers in the paper shorter, degrading the paper as a result. Original Blended Material, however, circumvents that issue by blending recycled paper with new, long fibre from bamboo and sugarcane to enable the sustainable reuse of recycled paper and reduce the use of wood pulp. Also factoring into the team’s decision to use recycled paper was its degree of familiarity, considering that people are bound to have an intuitive connection with the waste-paper products that come from their own households. Since Sony has factories all across Asia, the team made it a point not to limit itself to one specific location but instead collect recycled paper from sites close to its facilities in the spirit of local production for local consumption.

The post-consumer recycled paper collected from all across Asia

2. Using a single paper material for
every packaging component

Once they had their ingredients in place, the team's next step was to blend the bamboo, sugarcane fibre, and post-consumer recycled paper into a paper material that would be viable for actual product packaging. Members made trips to paper plants outside the Sony organization in hopes of figuring out how they could make the switch from conventional plastic to paper for their various packing parts. With the help of experts at the paper plants, the team eventually arrived at the optimal blend ratios to deliver the requisite performance levels for outer boxes, inner boxes, cushions, sleeves, product protection sheets, and more—and from there, they started applying the results across a broad array of applications ranging from super-thin paper to cardboard and molded products. One big benefit of using Original Blended Material is that it uses one, single material instead of several. That saves customers the hassle of separating packaging elements by material and makes for a much easier collection process.

Prototypes of packaging using Original Blended Material

3. Making the material a visual component of
packaging designs

The team also wanted it to be obvious—at a single glance—that their packaging designs were using environmentally conscious materials, so they met with people from paper plants to find the optimal blend for accentuating the visual presence of the three ingredients. One of the design elements they settled on was a gray-based color palette, free of any coloring, which made it possible to present the constituent elements in a way that echoed their natural hues.

Eschewing dyes creates interesting openings for color variability in Original Blended Material, especially given the chromatic range that post-consumer recycled paper comes with. The original paper has advertisements and other content that affect the visual dynamics, which can vary depending on where and when the collection takes place. While Sony's quality standards normally stipulate against color aberrations in company products, the Original Blended Material team’s proposal pushed hard for an exception so that they could get the color range they needed to convey recycling-oriented environmental sensitivity—so vital to the material’s identity—in a visual way.

The surface of Original Blended Material; subtle variations in color come from the diversity of post-consumer recycled paper in the mix

Crafting a proposal that covers everything,
all the way to mass-production

Once they had developed Original Blended Material, the question facing designers was how to use it in actual product packaging. The prototyping phase was where they explored possible answers, taking account of the entire manufacturing process throughout. What came out of that process was a clear, well-defined picture of Original Blended Material as a whole: sources for raw materials, supply stability, arrangements with paper plants, a concrete production flow covering molding and everything else, and cost calculations for every piece. After the team showcased their ideas and prototypes for Original Blended Material at an internal exhibition, where their work garnered high marks for its compelling social value and eminent feasibility, Original Blended Material secured its first official application as the packaging for Sony’s truly wireless WF-1000XM4 headphones.

From there, the team enlisted the help of Sony engineers in the audio field and people who create manuals for Sony products to revamp the placement of parts inside individual packing boxes for a more compact end result. One tweak involved packing the earbuds inside the charging case as opposed to arranging them separately, as the previous model had. Through a variety of modifications, the team managed to reduce the product’s overall packaging volume by roughly two-thirds relative to its predecessor’s. The new approach succeeded in achieving two goals at once: creating packaging that uses less material and boosting transport efficiency by enabling larger load volumes.

The packaging for the WF-1000XM4 not only comes in at a volume roughly 66% smaller than its predecessor's thanks to a variety of design tweaks, but it also does away with plastic trays and wrapping for a plastic-free result

Packaging components made out of Original Blended Material

Using the momentum of international acclaim to expand the scope of applications

Original Blended Material takes center stage in the packaging for the WF-1000XM4, which has garnered numerous awards both in Japan and abroad—and earned high marks for its unique take on environmentally conscious design in doing so. Besides redefining packaging possibilities for Sony products, Original Blended Material is finding its way into a host of other applications around the Sony Group. From business cards for Group companies to fixtures for exhibition booths, the material is making its presence felt on an increasingly broader scope.

Photo : Masaya Yoshimura

Original Blended Material is literally going "outside the box" as it finds new applications beyond packaging—but that exciting present moment is just a waypoint on a journey to something bigger, a step toward the vision of real material circulation. Staying in constant pursuit of those aspirations, Sony designers will work day in and day out to spur even more technological innovation and bring even more value to life.

Maintaining a far-reaching perspective as we march on toward an ideal future

Our social role as designers is to make the world a better place. That requires thinking about more than just what the job at hand calls for—I have always tried to see my work as part of a bigger picture and use that awareness to guide what I do. If we can keep pushing ahead with conviction, the world is bound to take steps forward. To me, the Original Blended Material project represents the momentum driving one of those steps; people who saw the material’s social value gradually got on board from both within Sony and outside the organization to contribute to the cause. As the project keeps evolving and blending together a growing community of supporters, I look forward to seeing how it brings a recycling-oriented society closer to fruition.

Kenichi Hirose
Senior Designer