In times past, the function of packaging was simply to contain or protect a food or beverage so that it can be transported more efficiently. The very first packages used natural materials available at the time: baskets of reeds, wineskins, wooden boxes, pottery vases etc. A thousand innovations have since taken place. Packages have become lighter, transparent, water-proof, branded, biodegradable, eco-friendly, personalized, child-proof, convenient, active, product specific, collectors’ items, sources of information, micro-waveable, consumer friendly, digitized, re-sealable, edible, food safe, and so much more. Packaging has allowed access to many foods year round that otherwise could not be preserved.
Once upon a time glass reigned supreme. The milk and juice we drank came in glass bottles. All the ketchup and pepper sauce that we put on our “chicken and chips” also came in glass bottles. Traditionally,glass came in one colour, clear transparent with a metal screw cap. Then they were coloured to protect the product from light, plastic covers were introduced, shapes and sizes were exciting and even exotic. Remember the bottle of whisky that would “swing”?
Then came the plastics. PVC (polyvinyl chloride), polyvinylidene chloride also known as Saran, polyethylene, polypropylene, PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) and many others. They were made into bags, pouches, bottles, tubes, wrappings, trays, tubes that stand on their heads called tottles, in all conceivable densities, shapes sizes, colours and combinations. Juice and milk cartons made of paper, aluminum and plastic laminates replaced the milk and juice bottles.
The plastics also made it possible to mould and innovate traditional forms of containers, so there are plastic pouches with spouts, plastic bottles that are heat resistant, trays with compartments that could discreetly hold different types of food, bottles with spray tops, plastic boxes with snap lids, squeezable
bottles, pouches that can be retorted, jars in the shape of cartoon characteristics and the list goes on. In between the mix, cans became popular, and they still are, especially for the preservation of low acid foods like peas, beans, meats and fish, but the technology is expensive and is slowly being replaced.
The food label is a fundamental part of the food package and traditionally the label informed the customer of the product name, ingredients, net contents of the package and who made and packaged the product. The label has however evolved so that we can now know per serving of product all of the major and micro-nutrients it contains, the allergens therein, recipes for preparation, instructions for use, health claims, which sports team or individual has endorsed the product, whether it is fresh, organic, fortified, low fat, low sugar, high fibre, preservative free, non-GMO, local or for export only. They bear bar-codes that can be swiped at the checkout counter, stickers that change colour as the product loses freshness and graphics that span the gamut from the simple to the ridiculous and sublime.
Packaging, as with everything else, has had to adapt to the ever changing needs of consumers who are constantly looking for the latest trends and for products that offer greater versatility and functionality. Today, consumers are more environmentally conscious about the importance of reducing their ecological footprint. Brands and consumers are forced to recognize that the lifecycle of products does not simply end once it is consumed.
This increasing pressure, instigated by what is now known as the Attenborough effect, and recent pledges from the UK government to eliminate plastic waste by 2042, have forced brands and retailers to rethink the sustainability of their product’s packaging. In the Caribbean, Haiti was among the first to ban the importation of plastics in 2012, followed by Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and US Virgin Islands. Dominica has taken the fight to another level by announcing the ban of common plastics and single use Styrofoam effective January 2019.
The packaging industry has accepted the challenge and has responded with the implementation of new disruptive technology that focuses on: recyclability, reduction of unnecessary packaging and compostable or biodegradable materials. To those of us in the food industry and persons with an avid interest in all things food, we are excited to see where the future takes us.