The need for packaging first arose from the need to contain, store, protect or transport items, often food. As soon as early man became nomadic hunter-gatherers about 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, constantly relocating in order to forage for mostly plant-based food, there was a need to collect, contain or carry any surplus of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, tubers or seeds needed to survive.
The same need for packaging exists today, although those items we want to store, protect and transport are considerably more numerous and diverse. Just about everything bought and sold in today’s consumer society is packaged – which gives rise to a huge amount of packaging.
This may have been a leaf. Large enough and freshly picked, a leaf could be both tough and flexible enough to wrap around a piece of meat to keep it free from dirt, or a handful of nuts to keep them temporarily contained. Tough vines or plant tendrils could be used to secure and carry packages.
Once man had developed primitive tools, it was possible to fashion containers from other materials. The gourd, which comes from the same plant family Cucurbitaceae as squash and pumpkins, has a waterproof outer skin and an inside that could be hollowed out, forming a tough, durable container.
By the time hunter-gatherers had tools, killing animals for food also meant making use of animal skin or hides, not only for warmth but also as another form of packaging. Prior to use, skins had to be cleaned with water, dried in the sun, softened by pounding and using animal fats or oils to crudely preserve them for use, then made into a constantly reusable wrap or bag.
Horn and shells
Animal horn was also used. By 1284, when The Horners’ Company was first set up in London, horn and shell were used. It was tortoiseshell, made from a marine turtle rather than a tortoise’s shell, which became known as ‘natural plastic’, because it could be refashioned when heated, retaining its moulded shape once cooled. Not only that, but it could be highly polished into beautiful objects, making it very popular for hair combs, buttons and jewellery, as well as small boxes, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The shift from hunter-gatherers to agrarian communities gave rise to textile production from wool, silk and flax, which could be spun and woven into fabric. There’s evidence from Ancient Egypt that flax was grown c. 5500 BC, along with other fibres including rush, reed, palm and papyrus.
It was from papyrus that the first paper – as the name suggests – was originally produced, and used for writing on, rather than the tablets of bone, bamboo or silk fabric that were previously used. Now packaging could also be marked or branded.
It was in ancient China during the Han Dynasty of 206 BC – 220 AD that Cai Lun came up with a new papermaking process, said to have been inspired by watching wasps make their nests. This new technique consisted of soaking a mixture of organic fibres like hemp, bark and silk, draining the water and pressing the pulp into a thin sheet, then drying it in the sun.
One of the earliest uses of paper documented around this time was to protect and wrap delicate objects. By the 6th century there is evidence that paper was also used for packaging tea and the first paper bag was created, although it wouldn’t be until 1870 that Margaret Knight patented a machine to make flat-bottomed grocery bags.
From paper came cardboard, and also waxed or waterproofed paper, although today much of that waterproofing of paper packaging, for example paper cartons designed to hold liquids, is plasticised with polyethylene.
The term plastic describes the ability of a substance to change shape without breaking, making it possible to mould into light containers or bottles, replacing heavier ceramics or glass, and its invention would revolutionise packaging. It was in 1907 that the name was first coined by Leo Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite. Polymers – the simple building block of plastic – occur naturally in the keratin found in horn, shells, skin and nails, and also in rubber, but it wasn't until the late 1800s that the first recognisable synthetic plastic was created by Alexander Parkes. Patented as Parkesine in 1862, this was a mixture of cellulose, alcohol and camphor (a waxy substance derived from the camphor tree). From there, the composition of plastic could be modified to produce different sorts of polymer compounds, for example polyvinyl chloride or PVC, polystyrene or polyethylene, making it suitable for different sorts of packaging from plastic bags, moulded trays to plastic wrap (cling film).
The commonest plastic in current use is polyethylene or polythene, produced from the petrochemical ethylene. Although first produced by accident in 1898 by German chemist Hans von Pechmann, it wasn't until the 1950s that what we recognise today as modern plastic was developed enough for commercial and cheap production. It is used mainly for packaging – bags, plastic film, bottles, containers – and although it has a low melting point of 80°, it is very durable and resists water.
Different plastics have different densities from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which makes it tougher and more opaque like detergent bottles, to low-density polyethylene (LDPE) like film wrap. Each of the main plastic polymers has a plastic identification code (PIC) to help identify them for recycling purposes. Annually, the global production of polythene is estimated at around 80 million tonnes.
Not only used to contain, protect or transport consumer durables, packaging is now used to advertise and promote its contents or brand and is often beautifully designed. Packaging also has to be fit for purpose and comply with health and safety standards, particularly for food, which also has to include various statutory information and warnings, which is also required to be true and conform to advertising standards.
The durability, lightness and protection afforded by the cheap plastic packaging that we’ve come to expect has its downside. For all its usefulness in packaging, plastic packaging has become a problem because of the time it takes to degrade. Concerns have long been raised about its disposal in landfill sites and oceans, and although it’s possible to recycle, this remains comparatively low and energy-expensive. New biodegradable plastics, made from plant materials like corn or potato starch that are compostable and break down easily, are now coming into more common use especially for ‘plastic’ bags. This use of plant materials for packaging brings us almost back full circle to the use of leaves!
Other ideas to reduce the environmental load includes refusing extra packaging when not needed, using a reusable bottle for drinking water and your own cloth shopping bag.
It seems impossible to imagine now, but a world saturated by single use plastics is a relatively new concept. Looking to the past people used a variety of natural materials to packaging and transport goods, the norm was to refill containers when shopping, or use minimal packaging. Looking to our future we can learn a lot from our past shopping habits. What would a world look like with very little packaging, without single use plastics? It might not be as unattainable as you think!
The sun shines on my pillow as it rises lazily into the sky, waking me up refreshed for another day. I swing my feet from under the bedcover, and head to the bathroom. Dabbing my bamboo toothbrush into my glass pot of tooth powder, I brush my teeth whilst I contemplate the day ahead of me. Hopping into the shower, I lather up my bar of shampoo and enjoy the warm water and fresh lemony scent of the shampoo bar.
Breakfast is simple, oats soaked in fresh cashew miylk I made yesterday. I pop a few strawberries on top, they grow well on my balcony at this time of year. I make a mental note to purchase some more cinnamon and tea after work, and pop a couple of clean jars into my bag.
Arriving at work I park my bicycle at the side of the building. I love how energised I feel after a morning ride, and really appreciate the new self-locking bike stands, meaning I no longer have to carry a lock around with me. I head to the kitchen area in the office, and pop some tea leaves into an infuser -, peppermint tea is perfect first thing and my colleague brought this in herself, she’s been experimenting with drying the herbs she grows in her garden. It’s delicious.
Oh no! Somehow I’ve managed to break my laptop. Note to self : drinks and computers don’t mix! Luckily there’s a spare. I arrange to send mine off for repair and pack it into the reusable laptop box the courier arrives with. Better be more careful with this one.
Lunch time, and I’m having leftover chilli with a baked potato. Chilli is my go-to meal when I get to the end of the week and need to use up some veggies. I decant it from its jar onto a plate and warm it up before heading outside to enjoy it. It’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining. An ice cream truck stops by, and I decide to treat myself. I have a scoop of vanilla and strawberry, and hand back the little metal tub and spoon when I’m done.
I head to the shops on the way back from work. I fill my jars with tea and with cinnamon respectively, and head to the counter to weigh my goods and pay. I also pick up some apples and pop those straight into my saddle bags.
Dinner is simple, veggie pasta. The local supermarket has a few types of pasta available, and I like that I can scoop as much as I want into my produce bags, it keeps my cupboards well organised and I don’t waste anything. Vegetables are purchased with no packaging required and I refill my olive oil at the local market.
Time for bed! I make a cup of chamomile tea in my strainer, then settle into bed with a book I borrowed from the local library. Perfect!