Food packaging: unwanted villain or unsung hero?

There are signs that the demonisation of certain materials is giving way to a more collaborative approach, say IOM3’s Jude Allan and Colin Church.

Primary packaging – especially for food and drink – plays three main roles. Firstly, it protects the product from manufacture to shelf to consumer cupboard, reducing food waste and in turn costs, carbon and other resources. Secondly, it provides a way of conveying information, from allergens and ingredients to cooking instructions and competitions. Thirdly, its design catches the eye, elevating this product above others nearby to make it the one to buy. 

Indeed, significant skill, time and money go into making packaging both functional and attractive. This also means that packaging is vital for the modern food industry both in retail and food service. Changing business models and shopping habits may alter the way in which we consume and purchase food and drink over time, and packaging will need to evolve with these changes. 

So why is there such a love-hate relationship with packaging?

Part of the issue is that many people don’t think about the role packaging plays in enabling our modern lives. Historically, industry hasn’t helped, saying ‘consumers don’t buy the packaging, they buy the product’. 

The public perception of plastic as the villain of pollution is another issue. In the right circumstances, plastic is absolutely the most sustainable packaging material. But the misuse of plastic, its poor end of life handling and the subsequent demonisation of it have not helped the case for single use packaging as a whole. Instead of there being a debate about which is the right material, in the right place, at the right time, the argument has become distorted and sometimes deeply unhelpful.

In this conversation, the food retail industry, whether it likes it or not, ends up being in the front line. Shared and collaborative solutions across the value chain are needed. And there are changes happening that give us hope. 

For example, the nature of packaging is evolving. More e-commerce means the way in which we interact with packaging is changing – the theatre of unboxing and the demands from consumers for their brands to be more eco-friendly could offer real opportunities to make packaging more sustainable. The change of focus from single-use plastics to single-use products is a significant shift that looks at function instead of material.

In recent months the packaging industry has started to come together, trying to speak with one voice rather than arguing about which material or format is best. This is significant. 

Indeed, if we can do more to engage other parts of the value chain – as started to happen with responses to the recent UK consultation on extended producer responsibility – then there is real hope.

Packaging is seriously mixed up. But working together, the packaging value chain – across all materials, all formats, and all products – has the opportunity to address the problems and help us move to a more constructive and positive relationship with this important part of our lives.

Jude Allan is chair of the IOM3 (Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining) packaging group and Colin Church is CEO at IOM3.

1 Response

  1. Thanks…. a useful perspective that will help us find a solution to a problem that will only create more issues if we “ban” packaging!

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