Hygiene and Control: A Packaging Story
LTAI: Reflections with Michael Londesborough
How has the role of packaging changed throughout history? Is packaging just a clever marketing ploy designed to make us buy more? Or is it the best way to maintain hygiene and prevent excessive food waste? Which interests does packaging serve today? Michael reflects on interviews he’s had with industry experts and technological innovators to contemplate whether that which we think of as packaging today is a necessary component of modern commerce or just well-designed waste.
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Michael Londesborough: To package or not to package? That is the question. My name is Michael Londesborough and I'm a scientist and science communicator. I’m concerned with and contribute towards technological solutions for the benefit of all of us. One of the most important projects that I'm currently involved in is called “Let's talk about it”. It is a YouTube platformed series of interviews with interesting people who are leading the way to, or providing the basis for, a sustainable and prosperous future. This series of videos will be a reflection on what I’ve learned in the “Let's talk about it” – the interviews with people who have provided us with multi-angled perspective on certain current topics. Today I’ll be talking about packaging.
Chapter 1 – The Trend of Reducing Packaging
The trend in recent times has been to reduce packaging where possible. Concepts, such as recycling and the circular economy, are reforming our ideas about what is actually necessary packaging or even indeed to get rid of all packaging where possible. The reasons for these are obvious - packaging equals waste which can and sometimes gets into our environment. A particular concern is the accumulation of plastic waste in our waterways and oceans. However, the year 2020 has brought a dramatic change. The Covid-19 virus has suddenly brought into focus the original purpose of packaging – hygiene. All of a sudden, single-use packaging is shown and has become into a different light. Compounded by this is the dramatic shift towards our use of e-commerce during the pandemic. Already packaged goods are being repackaged for the transportation to our homes, so we have a layer of different packaging. What are the likely developments from where we are now?
Chapter 2 – What Actually is Packaging?
Let's begin simply and ask ourselves the fundamental question: what actually is packaging? With a little consideration, it occurs to me that so much of what is around us is actually just packaging. Consider the humble banana. Its yellow skin is actually packaging - it's an antibacterial, anti-fungal wrapping which as an extra benefit keeps the moisture inside the fruit. If we open that layer of packaging, most of the substance here is also packaging of what's really important about the banana - it's seeds, which in another way is also another layer of packaging around what is really important about the banana - the banana’s DNA, its genetic material.
Of course, this applies to almost everything, including me. I’m sitting in a room, in a house which is a form of packaging protecting me from the weather, the elements, UV irradiation, outside dangers. My layers of clothes is another packaging that's keeping me warm. My skin, an antibacterial packaging which is protecting the skeleton and muscle packaging of my vital organs, which provide and protect my DNA. So, packaging at its fundamental core is about two things: 1) hygiene – that are the antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral effects and also 2) containment - packaging holds what is actually really important.
Chapter 3 – Packaging as a Marketing Ploy
There's an interesting side effect of all of this. Consider the banana for a second time. Isn't its packaging, its skin rather nice and attractive? Do we choose our partners according to their DNA? Are we attracted to people because of their DNA? Are we attracted to their external packaging, their skin, complexion, hair, clothing? It seems to me that evolution has stumbled across a marketing ploy, the same marketing strategy that companies discovered a while back. That is that packaging doesn't just protect and contain, packaging sells. For that reason, companies have designed and manufactured all sorts of unnecessary packaging. Well, unnecessary in terms of its hygiene and containment, but absolutely necessary in terms of its marketing and sales. However, I believe that we've become wise to this. Indeed, in the series of talks in “Let's talk about it” we've been talking to experts in packaging and packaging design that have convinced me that the emphasis has changed and it's stripping away the unnecessary attributes of packaging and getting into its core of hygiene and containment. There's an idea that designers are now beginning to understand that, really, what they're designing isn't packaging but waste itself and trying to find a use for that. They've integrated into their thinking the concept that packaging has an afterlife.
Chapter 4 – The Fate of Unrecyclable Packaging
Link to this is society and technology's growing confidence in how to effectively handle packaging once it does become waste. We've had several interesting talks in “Let's talk about it” with people who are, for example, developing new markets for waste materials, they're finding organizations, putting together buyers and sellers of waste packaging which would otherwise, previously, just be dumped. I’ve met with experts who are developing ways to regenerate the raw materials of plastic packaging from plastic waste using the technique of pyrolysis, which is the controlled heating of plastic waste. And I’ve met with the managers who are energy recycling packaging waste by controlled incineration, which is particularly important for the sort of packaging waste which is not suitable for recycling – for example, biohazardous packaging from hospitals.
In the whole managing of waste and its recycling, there are several factors which are very important. Perhaps the first of which is the actual material being used in the packaging, whether they use glass, cardboard, paper, aluminum or plastics. In these cases, what's important is to understand how much they weigh, what is their mass and also their properties - what do they give us, the individual materials, as well as the relative ease of their recycling. On this point and on these levels we have had several discussions with experts scientists from the field that have helped us weigh up the pros and cons of these different materials. And what is clear to me is that we are gradually learning how to make the correct decisions on what materials are worthy of recycling and what is the fate of the unrecyclables in a modern circular economy.
Chapter 5 – Smarter and Cheaper Packaging = Ultimate Goal
The big unknown is what will be the economic situation after the current pandemic. An economic crisis will likely mean that consumers will be less inclined to spend the premium for sustainable packaging and companies will be less willing to invest into new sustainable solutions when they will have other worries and lower margins. Therefore, the solution is to find smarter and cheaper sustainable packaging. This is by no means an easy option or challenge and something we're going to have to learn about as we go. However, I do believe in the skill and enterprise of the scientists, designers and engineers endeavoring to find the best solutions. So, what do you think? What are your questions? Please take a look and watch the associated links on our “Let's talk about it” discussions with the experts relevant to this topic and feel free to comment.