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A healthy package

By: Will Herman, Account Director & Manufacturing Sector Lead

The end of the calendar year is traditionally a time for reflection, a point at which we consider all that has led us individually and collectively to where we are now, and perhaps what we might do differently in the year ahead.

I am reliably informed by my elders and betters, that it comes around more quickly with every passing year. So, perhaps it’s a sign, but looking back on what seems a remarkably short period of time, it’s hard to believe that the Horsegate scandal, which saw so many unsavoury facts about the state of our food supply chain exposed, broke a decade ago.

Communicating change & increasing confidence

Clearly, a significant amount of change was required and when the media’s attention moved on, the food industry was left with a mountain to climb to demonstrate it had full control of the value chain and to communicate the provenance of its products, not to mention regaining consumer confidence.

In the wake of the scandal, it was interesting to see major brands such as McDonald’s respond by unveiling new packaging designs. New carry-out bags and beverage cups featured a blend of text, illustrations and a QR code to deliver interesting facts and make nutritional information easily accessible from mobile devices – all part of what McDonalds claimed was its commitment to providing consumers with the information they needed to help them make informed choices.

It was an obvious move and reflected the change many brands were keen to be seen to deliver. But few were prepared for what would come next.

The Blue Planet Effect

That same year – while many of us were still eyeing beef burgers and indeed any form of processed meat suspiciously – the BBC announced plans to broadcast a new marine nature documentary series. Production continued for four years and in 2017, Blue Planet II debuted to universal critical acclaim. And since then, it seems many of us have been more concerned with what surrounds our food than what’s in it.

Widely credited with increasing public and political concern regarding plastic pollution, the Blue Planet Effect has transcended marine conservation and influenced the packaging and packaging waste debate at every level, from the local corner shop to European Parliament and beyond. And the statistics are shocking.

In 2018, packaging generated a turnover of EUR 355 billion in the EU and remains an ever-increasing source of waste – the EU total having increased from 66 million tonnes in 2009 to 84 million tonnes in 2021 when each European generated 188.7 kg of packaging waste a year.

That figure that is expected to increase to 209 kg by 2030. It was encouraging therefore to note that the European Parliament’s Environment (ENVI) Committee recently demonstrated its support for more ambitious recyclability measures in the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) while the EP is set to negotiate with other EU governments on new rules to reduce, reuse and recycle packaging, imminently.

Circular thinking: driving change and progress

Thinking on the many challenges we are facing on a local and global level and reflecting on the last year and beyond, and despite the greenwashing that has occurred in some quarters, it is encouraging to see the progress that is being made by enlightened manufacturers and brands striving to improve their environmental performance and move towards a more circular economy. And the fact is, packaging plays an essential role in protecting and preserving resources and of course, reducing food waste which remains one of the most urgent challenges of our time.

But is the quality of the food this packaging protects any better than it was 10 years ago? Food inflation may be continuing to ease, but prices were approximately 30% higher in October 2023 than in October 2021. Meanwhile, in a recent survey reported by the Office for National Statistics, one in 20 adults (5%) said they had run out of food in the past two weeks and been unable to afford more. Coupled with the demand for sustainable packaging, the pressure on food manufacturers to deliver better quality food without increasing their cost base is only going increase, and as some noted 10 years ago, attempts to square that same circle were at the heart of the Horsegate scandal.

If we needed an open and honest debate about the cost and content of our food a decade ago, then the truth is we need one even more urgently today – the years are passing more quickly than ever before and put simply, time is running out.

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