Why the food packaging industry needs to sell itself better

Keith Chessell is a packaging evangelist. Being in the industry for the best part of 50 years, he was there at the beginning when consumers and manufacturers alike knew that packaging sustainability was going to be an issue going forward for many industries, including food and beverage. He was there when the Keep Australia Beautiful campaign was launched and knows that the image of the packaging industry isn’t what it could be.

As well as being a consultant at Sustainable Packaging Design, Chessell is also heavily involved with the Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP) and the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) – you could say that packaging and all its issues are in his blood.

Generically, packaging doesn’t have the greatest of reputations among consumers these days. At best, it’s seen as a necessity to transport products from the factory to the retail outlet, while others at the other end of the spectrum see it as an unnecessary pollutant that chokes our waterways, oceans, parks and other recreation areas.

Being in an industry for five decades gives Chessell a unique insight into the issues, not just on what they are now, but how far the industry has come. And while he’s not about to sell packaging as a brilliant accessory to human endeavours, he said that the industry itself needs to do a better job of informing the public of its true role in the wider scheme of things.

At a recent SAI Global Food Safety conference held in Sydney, Chessell outlined some of the issues facing the packaging industry. One of the key discussions at the moment is in the area of reducing packaging. For example, Chessell compares opening up some toys to that of unpacking a piece of IKEA kit. While some may nod in agreement, a large number of companies have spent years reducing the amount of packaging in a product – not that the public would know.

“The focus from many in industry over the past 20 years has been on removing and reducing packaging where possible,” said Chessell.

“ Some companies are now at the stage where they have reduced everything they can. I can remember eight years ago saying, ‘I can’t take any more out of my packaging with my products’. If the boss wants me to save another $2 million, I’ll start having other issues, such as maintaining the integrity of the packaging.”

Chessell also pointed out that most companies now do not want to overpack a product because it is becoming economically unviable to do so. This is where it is necessary to start educating people on the why. He cites the examples of cucumbers and bananas that have plastic packaging.

“Why are some cucumber wrapped in plastic? I know the answer, but most people don’t. Why not put a sign above that cucumber saying, ‘We’re doing this because it extends the shelf life of this cucumber’. It’s the same with wrapped small bananas. People ask ‘why?’ Well, it protects the fruit, stops it from bruising and is designed to reduce food wastage and spoilage.”

However, lauding the innovations that packaging can sometimes have unintended, negative consequences. He talks about a recent entrant into the AIP’s Packaging Innovation and Design (PIDA) awards.

“One of the companies that entered this year’s awards was a fish company with a fabulous innovative pack that extended the shelf life by 15 days,” he said. “But the company chose to not communicate this significant benefit to the consumers on-pack as they did not want a perception that their fish wasn’t fresh. For this company by promoting the extension of shelf life to the customer potentially offered a negative connotation.”

And it’s when Chessell starts throwing out stats on food waste that you begin to appreciate his frustration at how packaging is undersold. Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted at an estimated cost of $1.3 trillion.

According to the National Food Waste Baseline Executive Summary, Australia generates about 7.3 million tonnes of food waste annually. Of that, 1.2 million tonnes is recycled, 2.9 million tonnes is recovered, while the remaining 3.2 million tonnes is disposed of at landfills. Households contribution is 34.3 per cent and primary production 31.3 per cent, while manufacturing comes in at third with 24 per cent. With figures like that, it is no wonder Chessell is passionate about reducing food waste.

“Unfortunately, many consumers see all packaging as a negative. They don’t see any useful purpose for it and don’t understand the true role of packaging. I believe we can change that if we start to communicate better to customers about why we use certain types of packaging. They might then understand there are other benefits of packaging if we start to put more information on our packaging.”

Are there other answers? How can food and beverage companies sell the role of packaging in the food chain to the public? How do we better communicate that packaging plays a huge role long before the pack needs throwing away once the food has been extracted? There are several things, according to Chessell, and it’s all about education, education and education.

Packaging’s main role is to contain and protect goods and keep them in perfect condition until they are consumed. It also carries important information on the label that gives insights into the ingredients. Adding the Australasian Recycling Label on-pack to communicate the true recyclability of the pack is also important.

The final part of the jigsaw is the on-pack communication, that allows the manufacturer to expound the virtues and benefits their food or beverage encompasses. These criteria need to be explained loudly and often, said Chessell. Getting the public educated is one way of reducing stigmas surrounding packaging, and Chessell points out the AIP itself is taking the initiative by developing a set of Save Food packaging design criteria for reducing food waste for the industry. This criteria includes improved barrier packaging and processing; retaining nutrition; active and intelligent packaging; utilising skin (vacuum), MAP and EMAP packaging formats; portion control packaging; easy opening/resealable packaging; and controlled dispensing, which will mean all the product will be consumed as opposed to leftover product being thrown out (i.e. sauce bottles etc).

Chessell believes that the AIP has started the conversation and he wants it to continue.
“Packaging is a difficult topic these days and the important question we need to ask is, ‘What is the consumer’s view on packaging and how can we help change the perception so that they start to understand that intuitive packaging can actually help minimise and prevent food waste?”

This is something the AIP and Chessell are well on the way to doing.