What has packaging ever done for us?

May 17, 2016 3:23 pm Published by

What has packaging ever done for us?

Life Of Brian

I recently attended a talk on peoples’ perceptions and behavioural responses to global warming and learned that our assessment of the reality of global warming has less to do with personal experience or access to the scientific data on climate change – and more to do with our values, political and social. This means that even if you have experienced the misery of having your home flooded due to unprecedented rainfall and water levels, as experienced in the north of England last winter (remember Storm Desmond), you are more likely to remain sceptical of climate change if you advocate right-wing political views.

A denial about the reality of global warming on account of our values, or more specifically the lifestyles we have bought into, got me thinking about the role of packaging. Inevitably, whenever the subject of global warming and the environmental unfriendliness that causes it is raised, a discussion on the evils of packaging and packaging waste invariably follows.

Packaging is perceived as superfluous, wasteful, an unnecessary evil. Certainly, as a medium for branding and improving the appeal of products, packaging supports the rampant consumerism that fuels our growth-focused economies and is the antithesis of a low carbon lifestyle. The huge investment of resources that pour into packaging – including the design and development of new raw materials, conversion processes, innovative pack shapes and colours – literally all end up in the bin. It certainly seems like a complete waste of the earth’s finite resources and it’s easy to imagine a take on the famous Pythonesque sketch with a militant voice demanding “What has packaging ever done for us?”!

In line with the Monty Python punchline, the truth is that packaging does a lot more than make us buy more stuff; it facilitates our sophisticated lifestyles that are characterised by expectations of choice, convenience and safety – and here’s how.

First, Choice: We are accustomed to enjoying fresh fruit and vegetables outside the confines of our local growing season so we can have strawberries in

January and asparagus in November. Our sophisticated palates demand a wide range of international foods and flavours – such a choice wouldn’t be possible without packaging to protect and preserve exotic foods that are sourced from around the globe. For instance, the use of high barrier flexible packaging films and modified atmosphere packaging (where oxygen is reduced in a pack and replaced with nitrogen, an inert gas, and carbon dioxide, an inhibitor of bacterial growth) can extend the

shelf life of fresh foods to allow for transportation and storage from grower to consumer. The same forms of packaging help reduce food waste through decay and spoilage.

Second, Convenience: Microwaveable and ovenable packaging films and plastic thermoformed containers allow us to heat up pre-made meals bought from the supermarket in seconds. Freed from the time-consuming burden of food preparation and cooking, we can use our time more creatively.  While many of us don’t aspire to pre-packaged and processed food 24/7, packaging

affords us the choice to rely upon convenience foods when it suits us to do so.

Packaging also allows for portion control during cooking, such as “boil-in-the-bag” rice, stock cubes, sauce sachets, that helps to reduce food waste at the same time as providing convenient portion sizes that saves us weighing and measuring.

Third, Safety: Packaging reduces the risk of contamination from foreign objects, microbiological and chemical contaminants post production and throughout the supply chain.

Labelling on packaging provides information that we now demand with regard to the source of the product (the country of origin and the manufacturer’s name), the product ingredients, including fat/sugar content and details of allergens for health reasons, the all-important “use-by” date to reduce the risk that we are going to poison ourselves and, last but not least, any cooking instructions, which also ticks the convenience box. Labelling also enables full traceability of food stuffs throughout the food chain, thus reducing the risk of a re-run of the 2013 horsemeat-in-burger scandal – and producing a label in the event of food poisoning or spoilage allows the food producer to investigate the root cause of the problem, thus preventing future occurrences.

Last but not least, in a world of ever conscious of terrorist- threat, food security can be provided through the use of tamper-evident and tamper-resistant packaging. Not only does this reduce the risk of deliberate contamination by those intent on causing harm, but prevents harm from dangerous products by keeping children out of bottles of medicines or pills that could cause them serious harm.

In sum, next time we berate the evils of packaging, let us remember that packaging is the effect and not the cause. We get the packaging we deserve! As a packaging converter, we fully support efforts to curb packaging waste through legislation and urge the government to push on from the success of the 5p plastic carrier bag tax. Sadly, word on the block is that Defra lack the stomach for it, which is a real shame given the evidence for “spillover behaviour” (where one environmentally friendly behaviour, such as bringing your own shopping bag to the supermarket, “spills over” to another environmentally friendly behaviour, such as turning the heating down).

On the other hand, the Environment Agency enforces its Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations with gusto. These little known regulations originally came into effect in the UK in 1997 and require packaging producers to take responsibility for their environmental impact by paying a proportion of the cost of the recovery and recycling of their packaging. As a packaging converter with a turnover under £5m, this gives us a tax burden of around £5,000 a year. Not long after the regulations were introduced, I was hauled into the Environmental Agency offices in Tewkesbury for a tape-recorded interview by two apparatchiks for failing to submit our Certificate of Compliance on time. Compared with wilfully polluting rivers with printing inks or fly-tipping thermoplastic waste this didn’t seem like the crime of the century to me (after all it was just the lateness of the submission, not that I hadn’t supplied a Certificate at all), but I was left under no illusion that the legislation was not to be trifled with.

So, while we bask in our multi-choice lifestyles, I leave the defence of the merits of packaging in the imaginary words of Reg of the People’s Front of Judea:-

“All right… all right… but apart from keeping our food safe and protecting our children, facilitating our sophisticated palates for globally sourced foodstuffs, reducing microbiological, chemical and physical contamination, freeing up our time to do what we really want, protecting us from the ever present threat of terrorism …. what has packaging ever done for us?”

“Improved public health?”

“What!? Oh… public health, yeah… shut up!”

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This post was written by Nicky Fussell