Packaging revolution

Packaging revolution

Stephen Aldridge and Laurel Miller, Directors of discuss the creative sustainability trends making-over food and drink packaging

Remember the scene from Jaws, when Quint, grizzled captain of the Orca, downs his beer and crushes the can with one hand? Unimpressed by the macho display, the oceanographer sarcastically does the same to his plastic cup.

It used to be hard to crush a can, because the side-walls were so thick. In the mid 1970s cans used approximately four times the material of today’s beverage cans. Over time new technology has allowed the wall thickness of a typical can to be reduced to less than the width of a human hair. Similar material reductions have been seen in many types of packaging, but beverages have benefitted in particular. Soft drinks, which might once have been sold in glass bottles are now in ever lighter PET bottles.

These developments have come about more from a need to drive down costs and increase profit than concern for the planet, yet overall the result is extremely good news for the environment.

More recently environmental pressure from consumers has continued to drive down material-use, particularly in glass lightweighting, which is breathing new life into the sector. Glass is particularly challenging for designers, because the lightweighting process is comparatively restrictive, yet designers are finding new ways to offset a more limited palette of bottle shapes with interesting labelling. Neck labels, for instance, are becoming much more commonplace and could be said to have created a whole new language for beer bottle design.

Recycled PET has been a great success in the drinks and food industry. So much so that it is increasingly difficult for manufacturers to source good quality clear rPET. Arguably a slight greyish tint may not be such a bad thing, as it makes it more obvious to the customer that rPET has been used, but for some premium products the disadvantages can outweigh the benefits. Innocent, the smoothie manufacturer, launched their 100 per cent recycled bottle in 2007 with a great deal of publicity, but in 2011 they reduced the recycled content to 35 per cent due to a deterioration in rPET quality. Ribena has less of a problem in this respect, as the dark product colour is less affected by the tinted rPET.

Customers increasingly view overpackaging as a turn off. Almost invariably the best packs are the simplest. The Tate and Lyle sugar pack for instance has resolutely and courageously remained the same for decades. Which is not to say that even the simplest packaging can’t evolve without losing its charm. Bagged rice has come with a convenient resealing tab for years, yet, until recently was well nigh impossible to tear or hack open without spilling the contents. Not long ago the Co-op started selling their rice in a pack, which easily can be opened without resorting to tools. So simple, yet such an improvement in functionality. Not only is it easy to open, but it is easy to pour, because the top remains undamaged.

The customer perspective can get a little confused, particularly where convenience or luxury are involved. Meat has routinely been pre-packed in trays for many years, but increasingly the same applies to vegetables and fruit too. In the case of meat this is not only for hygiene and handling, as modified atmosphere packaging both preserves the look of the meat and makes it last longer. Tray packing fruit and veg also has some logic to it, especially given recent environmental concerns about food wastage, which in turn leads to increased methane greenhouse gas emissions from landfill. The apparent increase in fruit and veg trays seems hardly justified, as many of the products are perfectly able to look after themselves without additional packaging. And as for salads leaves in film-sealed PET buckets…!

Meat however is getting a bit of an environmental makeover. Premium joints are increasingly vacuum packed, giving the impression of butcher’s quality whilst drastically reducing materials and some cuts, such as Waitrose mince are sold in modified atmosphere inflated bags.

With foods the difference between a basic range and its premium counterpart is often the addition of an entirely superfluous high quality printed cardboard wrap. This is the standard lazy design industry method of defining good/better/best. It is perfectly possible to print good quality graphics onto sealing film, so in most cases there is no reason why differences in food quality cannot be indicated graphically.

Convenience and luxury are not going to go away, but it would be nice to see them done with more sensitivity to the environment. If this means more bags, fewer trays and less cardboard then so be it. There would still be still plenty of room for innovation and cost savings would be considerable. The popularity of farmer’s markets demonstrates the link that can be made between quality produce and minimal packaging, but all to often this ends up as rural pastiche and an excuse to put yet more fruit and veg in punnets.

Inertia within the food industry often comes down to fear of losing competitive advantage, but there are examples of industry co-operating to reduce packaging. Not so long ago extravagant Easter egg packaging was the norm, increasing year-on-year to the extent that with the aid of consumer consultation WRAP started a campaign to reduce it. In effect this consumer pressure gave manufacturers permission to suspend hostilities and return to saner levels of packaging, reducing their costs along the way.

The drinks sector in general benefits from ample opportunties for recycling and has a history of lightweighting materials, but it would be good to see more bottle reuse and more concentrates, as well as a compulsory prison sentence for any manufacturer putting a pull-top spout on a drink bottle smaller than 50cl!

Glass recycling, although popular, has suffered from over-capacity of green glass, which often ends up being used as building aggregate, because we mostly use brown or clear (flint) glass in the UK drinks industry. Repatriating green glass is neither cost effective nor environmentally practical, so more needs to be done to encourage its reuse.

The UK could benefit from a bottle deposit system similar to Germany and some other European countries. These feature a range of returnable generic bottles, which can be reused and relabelled by any manufacturer operating within the scheme. The bottles are heavier than regular bottles and can be reused up to 30 times. This makes good sense, because glass bottles (even lightweighted ones) are so energy intensive to produce.

As structural designers we often argue that taking a more environmentally friendly approach need not restrict our creativity, but it is important to embrace genuine progress and work within its confines to produce innovative solutions. Our new book, Why Shrinkwrap a Cucumber?, is a guide for designers and specifiers explaining many of the issues surrounding sustainable packaging and making practical suggestions about how to go about designing greener packaging whist staying creative.

Why Shrink-wrap a Cucumber by Laurel Miller and Stephen Aldridge is published by Laurence King and available now at

Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall