In the 1950s there was a huge amount of wasted energy. Every liquid product that companies in one country wanted to buy and package from another required them to send fully formed containers from their country, have those containers filled, then sent back. It meant that shipping containers full of empty containers were being shipped across the world, so 99% of a shipping container would be air - it was wasteful, expensive, and severely limited the amount of product that could be shipped back fully packaged.
However, in 1951 an offshoot from Åkerlund & Rausing - a Swedish packaging company - changed packaging forever. They created a form of packaging that could be sent to suppliers flat, then filled, then sent back. It meant that companies using this new form of packaging could ship containers across to their suppliers and have 90% extra space, have a larger amount of product sent back to them, and save a huge amount of money in the process.
This company was Tetrapak, and they revolutionized packaging across the world and is one of the key reasons why, for instance, people in the UK can buy orange juice made with oranges grown thousands of miles of away relatively cheaply. It has also been good to Tetrapak too, with the company employing close to 25,000 people and reaching a market value of around €12 billion today - not bad for a company that essentially makes cardboard boxes.
This revolution in packaging, however, sparked the current state we’re in today, where millions of tons of packaging is thrown out every year. Packaging is often used not because it’s a necessity for the consumer, but instead because it makes it easier for the vendor to transport. For instance, if you imagine transporting 10,000 strawberries, trying to work out exactly how much space they would take up when being transported. would be almost impossible. However, if a company had them all in the same sized boxes with the exact same number in each, it is possible to calculate how much space this number of strawberries would take up. This system makes it considerably easier to get the exact amount of a particular product to a specific location in a specific time. This often means wasteful use of packaging, huge boxes to
However, this also creates a huge amount of waste as consumers do not need the packaging as much as the vendor, so it is simply thrown away. It is why 30% of all waste in the US is discarded packaging according to Bob Lilienfeld, editor of the Use Less Stuff report, which is actually staying relatively stable given that we now consume 25% more than 30 years ago. However, that is still a huge amount of trash for something that is essentially useless.
This isn’t something that is not passing consumers by either and there is a push to not simply use less packaging or to make it recyclable, but instead to do away with it altogether. Following the move by companies across several European cities including Barcelona, London, and Berlin, a grocery store in Brooklyn opened its doors in early 2016 offering either package free or sustainable (not plastic) packaging for perishables like eggs and milk. Given that this is a relatively new move, its success is yet to be known. However, given that only 12% of all plastic created is recyclable and that figures obtained by the Guardian show that the annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to top 500 billion by 2021, it is a move that is becoming increasingly necessary.
It is not only in small independent shops that this is taking place, there are also moves being made by governments and large lobbying companies to ditch packaging. In the UK, for instance, the government ruled that shops needed to charge 5p for every plastic bag given out, which saw plastic bag usage decline by 80%. They are similarly considering adding 20p to every plastic bottle sold, which could then be reclaimed once it is recycled. Supermarkets in the UK are being lobbied to create a ‘plastic free’ aisle, where there is either no packaging or the packaging used is sustainable and non-plastic, although it is not publicly known whether this is a scheme that any have taken up.
The overuse of packaging is clearly a problem that needs solving, but the benefits that it provides to supply chains is currently doing major damage and it needs to change. In the same way that Tetrapak revolutionized packaging nearly 70 years ago, it will take a true innovator to solve the problem. There is a clear appetite for change, it will just take a push to really solve it.