The evolution in packaging over the last 30 years

Posted on 15 Apr 2014 by The Manufacturer

James Crick, business development director at manufacturer Nampak Plastics, details how materials and business practices have shaped the evolution of the packaging sector over the last 30 years.

Three decades ago packaging was just “packaging”. It was a means to an end; it was the container that allowed people to transport their food, drink and other items from one place to another. It was a functional and practical item.

James Crick, business development, Nampak Packaging.
James Crick, business development, Nampak Packaging.

That’s all different now, of course. The modern packaging industry, rightly, is under huge pressure to constantly evolve, to meet new environmental standards, and to create products that are lighter in weight than their predecessors.

Britain is at the forefront of providing solutions to these challenges, and I’m proud to work at a company that is helping to push the sector forward. However, when I look back on my career – spanning some 20 years at Nampak Plastics (or its previous incarnations) and many more prior to that at other firms – I’m amazed at the transformation that packaging, overall, has been through.

The changing face of the industry

The most glaring difference between now and thirty years ago is the make-up of the industry. In the 1970s, smaller, independent businesses reigned supreme. But globalisation, mergers and acquisitions – as happened in so many other industries – came along and changed all that.

Indeed, my first role in packaging was at Metal Box which was, in itself, a UK company that was made up of lots of different, previously family-owned firms. And as the market and the demand for packaging grew, so did Metal Box: expanding from metal cans to cartons, plastic bottles and closures, flexibles and even central heating.

Nowadays, former Metal Box plants are part of industry heavyweight, Crown Packaging, and that’s just typical of the way that the industry has evolved. Companies changed names as they were snapped up, much like Nampak Plastics in the UK was formed by the coming together of Plysu and BlowMocan under South African ownership.

It’s not just the names of businesses that have changed, either. The material used to make packaging has also been through something of a transformation.

The milk market is a perfect example of this. In the 1970s, milk bottles were all made of glass and were almost all delivered to the doorstep by the nation’s milk men. Considering the UK’s annual output of milk bottles is currently around the four billion mark, even allowing for a smaller market 30 years ago, that’s thousands of tonnes of glass that went into putting the ‘white stuff’ into the nation’s fridges each year.

The birth of the revolution

Between the mid-1980s and the early-1990s, we saw the ‘plastic revolution’. As more and more people had careers, and awareness of environmental issues grew, so too did the demand for an alternative packaging material.

Plastic was perfect because it was lighter, meaning it could be transported easier, and it had the ability to be made even lighter still with the right technology. Not only that, but it didn’t break as easily, and it was compatible with another major new development: the microwave. It really did work for all parties.

To that end, we’ve seen high density polyethylene (HDPE) become the material of choice for the milk market, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) become much more prevalent in the bottled drinks sector.

What pleases me most about the packaging industry is how it has responded to the changing demographics and demands over the years. To me, one word sums up the key to the success for the sector – innovation. We’ve kept on re- engineering ourselves and developing new products, no matter what challenges we encountered.

Even just thinking about an example as basic as the ring pull can-end shows what the industry is capable of. As the demand for individually portioned, easy-to-open drinks cans developed, packaging firms responded with a simple, but hugely effective, little device. The ring pull has gone on to become a staple of modern packaging.

Patterns repeating

That pattern has repeated itself more recently in the British milk market. Spurred on by two new initiatives that aimed to cut waste – the Dairy Roadmap from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Dairy UK,  and the retail industry’s Courtauld Commitment with WRAP  – packaging manufacturers were under pressure to create a lighter, more sustainable milk container.

Nampak responded with the Infini bottle, which we believe to be the lightest plastic milk bottle of its size anywhere in the world. We’ve also developed versions that contain up to 30% recycled HDPE, another global first.

Infini is an example of the kind of innovation that the British packaging industry is capable of producing . There are many others. And that’s why it can be infuriating when people outside the sector decry packaging as a drain on the environment, completely forgetting the role it plays in preserving food and drink, and thereby saving on waste.

Undoubtedly, packaging’s challenges will grow even more complicated in the future. The booming global population, particularly in Africa, combined with changing diets and even lower-carbon living, will fuel demand for different types of packaging products. And that’s exactly why the future is so exciting. In my experience, over the last 30 years, every time packaging has been under the microscope, we’ve responded in the only way that we know how: with products that are lighter, greener and more innovative that the previous generation. I know that, whatever happens, that trend will continue.