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Packaging Materials

Interesting Facts about Packaging Materials

Packaging is considered to be the materials which enclose a product, and can be used for protection, storage, functionality or even for promotion and sales.  The design and manufacturing of packaging is an art, it is scientific, it is technologically challenging and usually seen to be a system of getting goods into a suitable form for transportation, for storage and delivery, and a wide range of packaging materials are used for the various purposes. Packaging preserves the appearance and quality of a product, and it can be used to inform the consumer about the product. In most industries, packaging is a vital part of the process – one is either unpacking raw materials from packing or packing new materials into new packaging.  This can range from chemicals, fruit, takeaway food, even clothes, shoes and cars.

Packaging has always been part of human life and through the ages packaging materials have always existed in some form or another – in ancient times it could be a basket to carry and store produce, it could be a loaf of bread wrapped up in a banana leaf to keep it moist, it could have been a glass object wrapped in cloth to protect it from breaking.  Modern packaging still has to protect, but packaging materials have to conform to a range of requirements in order to be suitable.  Weight, water resistance, breathability, sustainability, re-usability, cost, ease of use, shape and appearance all have an effect, and can positively or negatively affect the sale of the product being packaged.

The development of packaging materials really started taking off in early 1900 when tins were made for the preservation of food.  Sometimes iron or steel were used.  The ever-important cardboard was invented in the mid 19th century, and not too much later paper carton and corrugated boxes were used commonly.

Later in the 20th century, glass made an appearance, and bottles were closed using synthetic plastic, called Bakelite.  Shortly after, cellophane was used on carton to make it waterproof and to enable easier writing or printing on the cartons.  Aluminium made its appearance soon afterwards and is still one of the most commonly used packaging materials today, especially for food. 

Several types of plastic packing materials have been developed over the last 30 years, and plastics where even used in combination with other materials such as paper or carton in order to improve the capabilities of the packaging materials.  Polystyrene make great packaging materials as it is super lightweight and can take a lot of impact.  However the plastics used to make it has a strong taste and smell, and significant changes had to be made to the original formulae before it could be used for food packaging.  Today, a lot of takeaway food outlets use this material, as it is a good insulator and can keep the temperature of food constant for a while.

Some of the greatest innovations in packaging materials were made during wars.  Military supplies, weapons and food had to be distributed safely and in huge quantities across vast distances and rough terrain.  Food had to be light but concentrated in order to be distributed effectively and then carried by soldiers, yet it had to be nutritious and easy to open and consume.  The science of packaging materials became extremely important during these times and amazing progress was made with innovative packaging materials and designs, some of which are still in use today. 

Packaging problems experienced during WW2 gave rise to certain packaging specifications which is subject to stringent standards.  This has translated into various other standards in packaging, especially when it comes to food.  Safety and hygiene are of utmost value in food packaging.

Recycling and sustainability are very important issues for the packaging industry, and as a result, packaging materials are made more and more environmentally friendly.  Packaging manufacturers spend a lot of resources on researching and developing new packaging materials which will leave less of a footprint, and also try to find ways of re-using or recycling their products. 

Paper-based products are still the most environmentally friendly as it is made from natural resources, whereas glass can be re-used various times.  Plastics such as polystyrene and nylon are the most difficult to deal with environmentally – they are not very environmentally friendly to make due to the processes and materials involved, and they also do not degrade easily.

As almost all products come in some form of packaging, it has become a huge industry, and in some cases amounts to more than three percent of GNP in certain countries.  About 50% of this market would be for food packaging.