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A Short History of Packaging Innovation

Examining historical methods of managing waste can inspire and inform modern day packaging innovations that prevent waste from entering a landfill. In North America during the 1880s, most packaging was reused. Broken packaging was mended or...


Examining historical methods of managing waste can inspire and inform modern day packaging innovations that prevent waste from entering a landfill. In North America during the 1880s, most packaging was reused. Broken packaging was mended or transformed into new products. For example, a barrel might be transformed into a chair. Previous generations conserved and reused materials, and thus produced less waste.

In the 1880s, many consumers were not comfortable discarding packaging once a product was used. Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want, explains that dual-use packaging was purposely designed for a second use, so the material was not wasted. For example, a tin filled with tobacco could later be used as a lunch box. An Ocean Spray cranberry sauce container was designed to be used later as a savings bank. Similarly, parchment paper used to wrap butter could be washed and used for a variety of household needs, including washing dishes. Not only did this provide advertising for the respective company (in this case Paterson Parchment Paper), but, after it had been used for household tasks, could simply be burned in the fire.

Originating around 1910, flour-sack dresses were another innovative marketing strategy that promoted dual-use packaging. Flour companies, such as the Bemis Company, advertised that the cotton bags used to package their products could later be used as material to make dresses. The Bemis Company even advertised that the cotton bags came in a thousand different material patterns. These dresses proved particularly popular during the 1930s’ Great Depression and were worn by women of different social classes (not only the poor). According to Strasser, flour-sack dresses were a particularly long lasting initiative – for they were promoted until the 1960s.

After the Second World War the concept of “disposability” became increasing popular in marketing food-packaging products. New post-war technology provided innovative, easy-to-use product alternatives that hadn’t previously been available. Disposable products became popular, such as aluminum pot-pie trays, paper napkins and tissues, and aluminum foil. These products were convenient because they reduced household workloads and prevented the need for hired help. In addition, there was a transition towards multilayer and single-use packaging, often made of plastic. When compared to glass, plastic was a technologically advanced material because it was lighter and unbreakable. However, a major disadvantage of plastic was that consumers could not repair it. As is well known, this new attitude towards disposability was widely embraced; material conservation and reuse became associated with poverty and a digression from innovation.

Disposable packaging was not without its difficulties, and resulted in increased waste production and increased litter. In Holland during the 1960s, Heineken beer bottles were refilled. However, Heineken produced single-use containers for its international market because it was impractical to return containers for refilling. These single-use containers were often littered, so Alfred Heineken designed a dual-use bottle that could be used as building material to support low-income housing. The interlocking “brick” bottles were designed to be stacked and held together with mortar as an alternative to traditional clay bricks. The World Bottles’ innovative dual-use design ensured the bottle had valuable post consumption and would not be littered. Over fifty thousand World Bottles were produced in 1963, but Heineken management eventually rejected the initiative. Daniel Imhoff, author of Paper or Packaging, speculates that a faulty bottle design, market acceptance issues or excessive production costs, may have contributed to the demise of the World Bottle.

Convenient disposable products and packaging are ubiquitous in today’s society even though there are more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives. Consumers can purchase either single-use sandwich bags or a reusable sandwich container, a 24-pack of single-use water bottles or a refillable bottle, and paper towel or a rag. Dual-use and reusable products are far less common than they once were. In a brief survey of a supermarket, tomato sauce held in a mason jar (a jar designed to be sanitized easily for a second use) was one of the only products designed for dual-use. Cereal boxes with games or puzzles printed on the cardboard interior could also be defined as dual-use. Examples of products that are still reused include refillable beer bottles and some large format water bottles.

Since landfill space is limited and the lifecycle of reusable packages is superior to any alternative, perhaps it’s time to re-examine how dual-use and other packaging innovations can be incorporated into modern society. There will always be challenges associated with change. At the end of the day, historical examples of packaging innovation are inspiring. We must wonder what other possibilities exist if we a little further outside the recycling box.

Catherine Leighton is a graduate of the University of Waterloo’s environment program. Contact Catherine at c2leight@uwaterloo.ca


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2 Comments » for A Short History of Packaging Innovation
  1. Peter - Junkk.com & REtie.co.uk says:

    Nice to see so many historical precedents set for designed-in reuse!

  2. Rebecca Love says:

    Great article! Bring back the flour-sack dresses!

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