01.02.2017

A Look back at the Packaging Revolution

Years ago packaging was just 'packaging'. It was simply functional and practical - a means to an end; a container that allowed people to transport their food and drink from one place to another.

As Colpac marks its 80th anniversary in the packaging business, managing director Neil Goldman takes a retrospective look at the enormous changes that the industry has both faced and effected over the decades. Unsurprisingly, things have moved on rapidly since then. The modern packaging industry helps to drive change, meet new environmental standards, and create products that are both eye-catching and lighter in weight.

Britain is at the forefront of this packaging revolution, continually providing innovative solutions to meet these challenges, and I'm proud to be at the helm of an independent, privately owned company that has played a key role in this sector for almost a century. Our company was established some 30 years after products were originally packaged in corrugated cartons rather than wooden boxes. For 80 years we have seen the evolution of the industry and ensured that a firm finger has been kept on the global packaging pulse to meet the different trends and styles each decade delivered. This has been essential in not only adapting to the changing packaging landscape, but in continuing to thrive as a British company in a world where, particularly during the 1970s, globalisation set in. During the 50s manufacturing was the bedrock of British industry. Small, independent businesses reigned until the late 70s when mergers and acquisitions saw larger, global companies take over. Embracing globalisation through product changes and exporting, whilst maintaining the values and customer service of a privately owned company, has been integral to our success, along with a belief in the importance of combining design and manufacturing capabilities from a single site so that excellent standards are consistently met.

Working in the highly competitive and diverse market of food packaging where everybody wants exclusivity, being a typical SME, we have needed to be increasingly flexible, providing a creative and personalised service on a global platform. Indeed, it is the food industry which has helped companies such as us diversify and channel creativity to deliver cutting edge packaging. From the fast food craze, when McDonalds hit the high street, to the plastic revolution of the 80s and the promotion of environmentally friendly and sustainable materials, the food packaging industry is one of the most vibrant and competitive sectors to be in. Retailers and manufacturers are always on the look-out for efficient packaging solutions which will stand out, provide convenience, as well as a longer shelf life in a bid to reduce food waste. It isn't just the look of the packaging which has seen an overhaul either; the material used has gone through a transformation over time. Plastic packaging still has a place in the market and, very occasionally, we have to admit that paperboard alone does not offer the solution.

A number of years ago we realised that there was a definite space in the packaging market for a pack that combined the best of both paperboard and plastic and our Fuzione® range was born, followed by the successful Vizione® and Combione® ranges. Combination packaging is here to stay. The 80s signaled the dawn of the convenience meal and, coupled with the introduction of the microwave, packaging evolved further to allow consumers to reheat their purchases. This also heralded an increase in the popularity of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in food packaging, both of which could withstand the changes in temperature without breaking apart. With the onset of increased environmental awareness in the 80s and 90s, demand quickly grew for an alternative packaging material.

Back in the 80s we had recycling, and in the 90s our 'here today, gone tomorrow' campaign for biodegradable packaging was ahead of the times! Today, however, the standards are high, and you can find a myriad of eco-friendly packaging materials on the market. From biodegradable, recycled, to fully compostable paperboard, even the rPET plastic lids used within our combination packaging are constructed from 50 per cent recycled material and window film is compostable. Every manufacturer of food packaging needs to ensure that their sustainable credibility is transparent, with accreditations like the FSC and PEFC as well as the EN 13432 standard certifying compostable boards and film.

As a company, we have benefited enormously from the sustainability movement which plays to the paperboard industry's strengths. Up until the millennium, the market was largely driven by price and, since paperboard products generally tend to be more expensive than plastic, the going was tough. It was in the early Noughties, when Marks & Spencer helped to pioneer, or at least understand and reflect the changes in consumer thinking and behaviour, that the tables began to turn and the rest, as they say, is history. Alongside sustainability there is increasing pressure on manufacturers to produce food packaging which is lighter in weight than its predecessors. Ultimately, our products are constructed from material which makes the packaging fit for purpose, if there's a thinner gauge that still enables the pack to function as it should, then we use it. That said, there's little point in reducing the weight of the packaging if it's not going to protect the product inside. A reduction in the weight of material could lead to an increase in food waste. As Britain's leading supermarkets pledge to drive down food waste by a fifth within the next decade, food packaging manufacturers need to play a part in achieving this goal. By producing packaging in a wide variety of styles and sizes we are enabling food manufacturers and retailers to be flexible in their offering, catering to a wide range of markets. In recent years a greater variety of packaging sizes has fuelled the increasingly popular 'food-to-go' market, for today's work hard, time poor consumer.

Speed of packing is essential for retailers catering to this market which hit £20.2bn in 2015 - a quarter of all eating out spend. While consumers adopt a more balanced health conscious approach to 'fast food' and snacking they also crave convenience with the rise in 'deskfasts' and 'dashboard dining' driving healthy, freshly prepared eat-on-the-go options. These options no longer stretch to a simple sandwich, in fact the traditional bread based lunchtime staple has almost become obsolete. Sales of wraps and pittas have risen 12.8 per cent in the last year alone, as the demand for alternatives to traditional sliced bread has been driven by some of the biggest food trends of 2016, from grab and go breakfast wraps to street food dishes such as burritos along with salads and sushi. This ongoing evolution of consumer tastes will continue to fuel demand for different types of packaging products.

To cater for this, multi-functional packaging is the way forward, clean and simple, with the ability to label accordingly. Demand for customised packaging, for unique packaging shapes and styles as well as for individual graphic design, is increasing as the market place becomes ever more competitive. Summing up the success of our company, as well as that of the packaging industry over the last 80 years, in one word is simple - innovation. A passion for packaging underpins our ability to re-engineer and introduce new products to meet changing tastes and trends. This will, ultimately, equip us for the future as we continuously seek out new materials, finishes and components for our ever increasing portfolio of packaging products.


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