Packaging is all around us — it affects our food, our medicine, and even our hygiene. Unfortunately, when we say that it’s all around us, we mean it even more literally. The containers our products come in pepper the streets we walk on. They pollute our rivers and oceans, creating more waste than we know what to do with.
But is there a way to change all that? Will the future of packaging be brighter than its plasticized past? To find out, we have to review the industry’s history.
By Shannon Bergstrom
The need for packaging came out of our desire to transport and store our possessions, including perishables. At first, leaves, dried gourds, and hollowed-out logs did the trick. But eventually, we needed a way to produce more durable and reusable materials for packaging purposes.
In 3500 BCE, the peoples of Mesopotamia and Egypt began making containers out of clay and sand. The resulting materials were something we recognize today as ceramics and glass. As we’ve seen, these kinds of containers are coming back into style!
Pottery took a while to develop in Ancient China, but once it did, it flourished. However, the Chinese also invented paper making, which would later serve as the inspiration behind cardboard packaging.
By the second half of the 19th century, corrugated cardboard was all the rage — as were Francis Wolle’s paper bags. Of course, Margaret E. Knight later perfected the design by adding flat bottoms to the bags, thereby making them sturdier.
Around the time of the Napoleonic wars, feeding armies was a pressing concern for many European countries. First, they needed to deal with the question of food preservation, which was kindly answered by French inventor Nicolas Appert. You see, Appert essentially figured out the process of sterilization even before Louis Pasteur did. After boiling food and placing it in glass containers, Appert boiled the jars themselves, effectively removing bacteria from the surface.
Not to be outdone, the British soon elevated the process further by coming up with a tin-plated can. If nothing else, the metal container was somewhat lighter and less fragile than glass. Over time, that type of packaging became even more lightweight, culminating in the invention of the aluminum beverage can in the 20th century.
Going back to the matter of food preservation, though, we should note that boiling food isn’t the only way to preserve it. As Clarence Birdseye learned from the Inuit, we can also do it by freezing it. However, to make that particular piece of information profitable, we also needed a way to keep food cold in storage — and a packaging material that could hold it in its frozen state.
Even though the history of plastic is relatively short, it is still much too complex for us to dive into here. For now, we’ll just say that we had the first plastic material that contained no molecules that could be found in nature by 1907. After that, the use of plastics spread to all industries, replacing metals, paper, glass, and even wood.
Soon enough, most items were made of plastic. And why not? The material was not only flexible and durable but also infinitely recyclable, much like glass or metal.
But as we now know, the incredible longevity of the material isn’t something we should be celebrating. After all, plastics can take several centuries to degrade and, even then, they pollute the ground and water with harmful microplastics. Moreover, many kinds of plastics aren’t easy to recycle at all! Instead, they wind up clogging the landfills and covering the ocean!
Our excessive use of plastics has even led many to commit to the idea of a Zero Waste lifestyle. Determining who started Zero Waste is a fairly tricky question for us to answer so instead, we’re going to deal with the way this movement is helping shape the future of packaging.
The philosophy of the Zero Waste movement is one of the driving forces of the packaging industry right now. Surveys show that ecological concern is quickly becoming a key motivator for consumers. That demand for more sustainable products and packaging has naturally led brands to reconsider their production cycles.
In fact, many companies begin and end their eco-friendly campaigns at the surface level of packaging. But then, achieving sustainability in that area is fairly simple. Namely, brands simply have to shift away from disposable, non-recyclable packaging toward options that are:
- Recyclable (aka able to be broken down into its base components and reshaped)
- Reusable (allowing consumers to bring their packaging back to the store, which would then send it back to the manufacturer to be reused)
- Biodegradable, water-soluble, or compostable
Of course, if we took into account the emissions that are made during the production of packaging, these calculations could get more complicated. But if we merely stick to the issue of recyclable and reusable materials, most people would be able to list ideas off the top of their heads.
For example, corrugated cardboard is a sturdy, durable, and recyclable alternative — as long as it’s not dirty. Typically, glass and metal packaging are easy to clean before throwing them in the recycling. But these traditional materials aren’t the only ones we’ll have access to in the future.
As we speak, researchers are working hard to come up with packaging that is as useful as plastic — without being so detrimental for the planet. But how can we replace a kind of packaging that is capable of containing liquids, cushioning electronics, and creating an airtight seal?
At this point, we ought to mention that many brands have taken to marketing their boxed beverages as being better for the planet. However, that’s only partially true. Box packaging that contains multiple materials can indeed be difficult to recycle. Still, Tetra Pak cartons could help us replace some plastic packaging with cardboard and aluminum.
Of course, if you’re looking for more innovative solutions, consider:
- Traditional banana leaf packaging (with a twist)
- Algae-based or seaweed packaging
- A biodegradable food wrap made of milk protein
- Corn starch packaging
Those are only some of the options you might find on the shelves of your local supermarket in a few years! And that’s not the only kind of innovation that’s taking place in the packaging design industry.
While some researchers are contributing to the conversation about sustainability, others are working on design aspects of packaging. Printed electronics, nanotech, and augmented reality are some of the trends that may shape the appearance of the products we buy in the future. On top of that, we’ll surely see some interesting container shapes as 3D printing technology advances.
But while those aspects of packaging can be helpful to consumers in a variety of ways, we shouldn’t lose track of what’s really important — keeping our planet safe from harmful influences. With that in mind, we should let our wallets do the talking and try not to purchase products that come in disposable packaging.
Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability brand manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.