Easter is a time when many of us gorge ourselves on chocolate – but the excess doesn’t stop there. The increasing wastefulness of food packaging should be tackled at the briefing stage, says Pamela Buxton
OUR bins are again bulging with the remnants of the extravagant packaging that goes hand in hand with Easter eggs. Somewhere, tucked under the layers of cartons, blister packs, ribbon and foil, once was the chocolate, which may have lasted a matter of minutes or just seconds. The packaging, however, will be with us for much longer.
But this very obvious display of packaging bulk is deceptive. The real, everyday culprits are more hidden, tied up in the relentless drive towards convenience. While ‘light-weighting’ is the buzz word in the packaging industry, this is being counteracted by the growth in ‘portionalisation’ or convenience formats. Add to that the trend for products across international markets, that require secondary packs to accommodate all the languages, and a complex picture of packaging emerges, with conflicting trends of excess and minimisation across the sectors.
Ian Dent, chief executive of the Packaging Federation, says there has been a recent drive towards packaging reduction. ‘Over-packaging is always a key issue, because there is the impression that there is a lot of it. But it’s actually on the decrease,’ he claims. ‘Our members are under pressure to reduce costs and weight. We need to engage with the design community a lot more than we do.’
An initiative by Waster and Resources Action Programme may help this to happen. Wrap is preparing a packaging design guide to influence packaging decision-makers to reduce packaging waste. The aim is to get packaging reduction written into the brief, so that designers can tackle it without having to raise the issue themselves.
According to one of Wrap’s design technical advisers, The Brewery managing partner Mark Shickle, getting clients to change their habits is a tough task. ‘Brand owners [will] have to make the most of the brand and ideas that rely less on size and more on being clever. It’s one more issue to include in the brief. If it’s not in the brief, it won’t be included,’ he says.
However, Satkar Gidda, sales and marketing director of Siebert Head, is sceptical that manufacturers will change their habits without outside pressure. ‘Design will only be at the heart of change if we’re so briefed by our clients,’ he says. Unless consumer priorities change, the gifting market will always be something of a special ‹ case, and one that bucks the trend for minimisation. Instead, lavish packaging is widely seen as adding value, rather than as excessive.
And, with Easter, there is the added issue of protection from breakage, which has made the carton and protective blister-pack the standard model. After all, broken eggs are very costly returns. It’s also a highly competitive market, so attention-grabbing packaging of even fairly low-cost goods can make the difference in a sector characterised by big cartons and much smaller products. Terry’s modest Chocolate Orange in a large box stands out in this respect, but with Easter, layers and size are the name of the game.
‘There is no benefit to us to overpack. We have to protect something that’s very fragile – it’s also a gift and, with a gift, the packaging is very important,’ says a spokesman for Cadbury.
There are attempts to break the sector norm – in the 1990s, Cadbury experimented with a blister-free packaged egg. According to a spokesman, it ‘bombed’ because customers wanted the unwrapping experience. Cadbury is in with a better chance with its Easter Egg Delight, originally designed by FutureBrand and available widely for the first time this year. This is an attractive change, with the distinctive Russian Doll approach, creating layers of packaging/ a cylindrical carton contains a purple fabric bag within which are three foil-wrapped eggs, each inside each other.
‘Where designers can draw the line is where you have misleading packaging, so consumers think they’re getting more,’ says Hilary Boys, strategic planning director of Lewis Moberly.
But the greater culprit is not Easter or other special-occasion packaging, but society’s desire for convenience-based products and portionalisation – including the whole industry of tiny health drinks, such as Yakult, each packaged in their daily portion, and the lunchbox-inspired mini cheese portions, such as those by Philadelphia. Fairy cakes come individually wrapped and many biscuit brands are now in plastic skillets. Even fruit – bananas or coconuts – can end up with an outer wrapping. Add to those the welter of ready meals and the endless need for bottled water, and there is still a very long way to go.
‘It’s the quiet ones that are doing the worst damage. The hidden extra packaging – the silicon valves, the widgets, the individual packs,’ says Ela Kemp, structural director of Jones Knowles Ritchie.
‘People expect a contemporary way of living and a certain amount of convenience,’ says Mark Wickens, chairman and creative partner of Brandhouse WTS. ‘Clients are only providing what customers want.’
What’s needed is a bit of lateral thinking to take a wider view of the brief, says Nick Verebelyi, a director at Design Bridge. ‘They need to think outside the box. Instead of coming up with a water bottle that was recyclable, find a way to make tap water pleasant to drink’.
‘Sometimes, the best solution to reduce environmental impact will be quite radical – new types of delivery mechanisms, new product formats, moving from supplying products into providing services,’ agrees Samantha Dumont, creative director of Dragon. ‘We all need to think broadly enough to spot these opportunities, rather than just focusing on incremental improvements.’
And, in the end, its not just designers and their clients who have to change, but society. ‘The whole challenge is whether consumers are willing to accept different kinds of packaging – how they open, prepare and dispose of food,’ says Dent. ‘That won’t happen for a long time.’