The great debate: aesthetics vs light-weighting

The great debate: aesthetics vs light-weighting

The words ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ both feature prominently in the vocabulary of almost every business these days. However, in the packaging arena many retailers and manufacturers are currently debating what is more important, aesthetics or carbon footprint.

Many people would say that this is a no-brainer and I would have to agree. In my opinion, the time has come for the industry to make a decision once and for all on what is more important, greater clarity of container or light-weighting.

Over the years, we have seen some interesting packaging innovations in the food and drink industry. However, on almost every supermarket shelf consumers will still find a huge quantity of glass containers, filled with everything from pasta sauces to baby food.

Glass has been the packaging medium of choice because it provides a high clarity, cost effective and solid container that protects the product during distribution. However, despite going through a number of changes over the years to reduce the weight of bottles and jars, glass is certainly not the lightest form of packaging and has probably reached its limit in terms of further weight reductions. So, the question is, where do we go from here?

Besides clarity, the main obstacles for manufacturers and retailers, when they look at alternative ways to reduce the weight of packaging, are structure, cost and functionality. Take a 500ml glass jar for example. It provides a cost effective and solid container which will protect the product through the filling process, during distribution and all the way through to final use. What’s more, consumers are familiar with the package and because it has been around for so long, they understand exactly how it opens and closes, as well as its limitations, and therefore have no reservations about purchasing it.

For many years there have been very few alternatives to glass available to manufacturers, simply because other materials struggle to cope with the severe vacuum, heat and pressure conditions that they are placed under. So, the industry has continued to use glass because it is the only seemingly viable option.

Perhaps that was the case in the past, but nowadays the technology exists to allow the industry to adopt plastic containers for a variety of food products. So the only argument can be that glass has the best aesthetic appeal to the market. I have been in the packaging industry long enough to realise that consumers know what they like and like what they know. Changing their perceptions can be extremely difficult. Whilst some sectors, such as milk and coffee, have tried to change packaging drastically with the introduction of good looking lightweight pouches, the market has yet to fully accept them as the norm. So it is understandable that retailers and manufacturers are wary of changing anything that is successful. However, when they begin to see the huge environmental benefits that lighter and less energy hungry packaging brings in terms of reducing carbon footprint, the start of a food packaging revolution will evolve with real pace.

The best solution is to take it one step at a time and reduce the weight of packaging without making huge changes to the way the product is presented. Take Del Monte as an example. It switched to a polypropylene (PP) container using the Bapco technology and was able to reduce the weight of its ‘sliced peaches’ from the standard 55 grams to 42 grams, a reduction of 24 percent. The decrease in carbon emissions was significant and improved the company’s overall carbon footprint. What’s more, the redesign – which featured Bapco’s easy open closure – meant that the brand’s market position increased from second most popular to the leading player in the sector. Of course the move to plastic changed the visual appearance of the product, but clearly it did not affect its shelf success.

At present, I believe that plastic packaging is the perfect compromise for retailers and manufacturers. The innovative closure technology that is now available means that a plastic container can now more than compete with glass closure in terms of functionality and come close to the container matching it in clarity. However, it goes beyond that and significantly reduces the weight of the overall package. It is by no means the lightest form of packaging – pouches may be the future of light-weighting – but it offers a solution that consumers will accept, for now. I certainly believe that the time has come for retailers and manufacturers to get off the fence and say that light-weighting is far more important than the aesthetic appeal of a container. When the industry agrees, we will be able to make huge strides forward in reducing carbon emissions through lighter packaging, which will be beneficial to everyone.

Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall