It's easy to have a pop at packaging. But where would we be without it? It has extended product life, cut down on food preparation time and reduced waste. In fact it is high time it was celebrated rather than censured, which is why The Grocer has asked three industry experts to pick the 10 best packaging innovations of the past century. Prepare to be surprised by some of their choices, says Noli Dinkovski

All food and drink packaging ever seems to get these days is bad press. If it isn’t accused of being harmful to the environment, it’s admonished for being tough to open, difficult to carry or for being used in excess. But imagine a life without it.

In today’s sometimes over-sanitised food environment, it’s easy to forget how different life was before packaging became part of everyday life, says Packaging Federation chief executive Dick Searle. “I remember the days you’d go into a store and have your kilo of sugar weighed for you,” he reflects. “I also remember all the tricks a grocer would use – putting his fingers on the scales, mixing in a bit of sand, that sort of thing.”

These days, of course, that’s not a problem. Packaging is not just a mechanism to communicate brand values or command a higher retail price. It can also protect a product, extend its life, reduce waste and slash food preparation time.

The impact of everyday items such as tin cans or sachets has revolutionised they way consumers lead their lives. It has also completely changed the way grocery retailers operate in a way that has redefined the whole shopping experience.

“I say to my environmentally conscious friends who moan about packaging – just imagine a supermarket with all the packaging taken away,” says Steve Kelsey, partner at packaging design consultancy PI Group. “It wouldn’t be able to function.”

Although those who have called for excess packaging to be reduced have a point, it would be wrong to dismiss packaging per se. That said, more should be done to educate the consumer on the role of packaging, believes Kelsey. “Consumers only see packaging when it’s completed 99% of its work,” he complains. “The only time they really have to worry about it is just before they put it in the bin.”

If they could be encouraged to see packaging instead as a “delivery system”, they might understand how important it is, he says. Without it there would be no ambient food; we’d be reliant on fresh food, and as he points out: “You physically couldn’t support a city of greater than one million on fresh food alone.”

There are other benefits too. Jane Bickerstaffe, director at the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen), even claims packaging aided the emancipation of women. “In the 1930s women spent on average three hours a day shopping for, and preparing, food. Now, if they choose to get a ready meal delivered, and one that is in microwaveable packaging, it’s possible to do it all in a few minutes.”

Despite all the negative press about the packaging ‘problem’, the packaging industry has made important strides in reducing its environmental impact. Incpen’s Packaging in Perspective report reveals that 60% of packaging from industry and households in the UK is now recovered and recycled.

The challenge now is to demonstrate to the public why packaging is essential. “We must get better at explaining why strawberries sold in a plastic tray are likely to be greener than those without,” says Alasdair James, director of waste, recycling and packaging at Tesco, in the 2008 Salterbaxter Directions report. “We must also help them embrace innovations that may not feel quite right first time, like wine sold in cartons or shower gel in pouches.”

Packaging’s environmental responsibility will be one of the key themes at the easyFairs packaging shows at the NEC next month (11-12 February).

Innovation will also be a major area of debate. What better time, then, to look at the greatest food and drink packaging innovations of the past 100 years.

The Grocer asked three champions of the packaging industry to choose 10 innovations that stand out from the crowd. The results might just change a few people’s opinions:

1. Tin cans
The greatest innovation may be nearly two centuries old, but that doesn't stop it from being a very modern solution in a recession-ravaged environment.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. The greatest packaging innovation of the past 100 years, as chosen by our experts, in theory shouldn't even qualify for the list. The tin can is actually nearer 200 years old and was first patented in 1810 by English inventor Peter Durand, who learned how to dip metal plates into tin to protect them from rust before soldering them together.

According to Bickerstaffe, however, the early "shell-case like" cans were very different to the lightweight ones we see today. "The cans were so heavy that they had to be taken home in a wheelbarrow, and you needed a toolkit to break into them."

Cans only became mass market in the 1930s and have remained the most important food packaging format ever since. With the recession now focusing consumer minds on reducing food waste and buying cheaper food, cans can only go from strength to strength.

2. Aseptic cartons
Tetra Pak cartons have become so ubiquitous that there are not many drinks or liquid-based foods you can’t buy in them these days. They’re also a great example of an innovation driven by retail need.

The development of aseptic cartons for storing liquid, invented by Tetra Pak founder Ruben Rausing, is an excellent example of how retail has driven packaging innovation, say our experts.

"Once liquid packaging cartons were established in grocers, packaging firms set about developing techniques to sterilise cartons so they could be held in ambient conditions," says Searle. "Without the retail environment there wouldn't have been anything to sell an aseptic pack into."

Liquid packaging cartons are often criticised for being hard to recycle but were one of the first types of food packaging designed with material reduction in mind. "It's ironic - a carton is as close to skin around a pint of milk as you can get, yet it gets so much flak," says Bickerstaffe.

3. Modified atmosphere packaging
As with food cans, the invention of modified atmosphere packaging was a major step forward in the battle against food waste, says Bickerstaffe. Indeed, when it was introduced on a mass scale about 20 years ago, in-store meat wastage was immediately reduced by a quarter.

"It changed beyond all recognition how fresh food is consumed. Thanks to modified packaging, broccoli, for example, which once only used to last for a couple of days, now has a shelf life of anything up to two weeks," she says. "It's also good news for the environment - where before fresh food had to be air-freighted, now it can be shipped."

As the name suggests, modified atmosphere packaging contains modified air - the nitrogen/carbon dioxide/oxygen ratio is tailored in a specific way to protect that particular food against rotting. If there is a tray element to the packaging, it will typically contain 'scavenger' chemicals to stop oxygen proliferation.

Film packaging on fruit and vegetables typically consists of several permeable layers to absorb the respiring products. With meat and fish, a 'barrier' film is used to prevent any exchange of gases.

"You get some misguided people who think the film should be made from a single layer," says Searle. "But to be as effective as multi-layered film, it would have to be 20cm thick." There is a similar misconception with the packaging of bananas, he adds. "Many people fail to realise that bananas, like all fruits, emit ethylene so putting them in film not only protects them, but also other fruit around them."

4. Flexible sachets and pouches
Sachets have not only revolutionised the home medicine market, they’ve transformed the single-serve market in low-income countries thanks to their relatively low price points. Their latest manifestation – the pouch – meanwhile has prompted an explosion of ambient and often premium alternatives to ready meals, bagged rice and canned soups. 

Flexible sachets score highly with our team because, as Kelsey puts it, "they are the least resource-intensive way of distributing a wet or dry product that I know of".

We recognise a sachet as a practical packaging device for everything from dishwasher tablets to garden seeds, but in less-developed nations they play a more fundamental role. In India, for instance, Unilever's one-rupee sachets of Lux soap and Sunsilk shampoo are extremely popular with those who rely on river water to bathe with. In the developed world, flexible sachets have evolved. Pouches are giving cans a run for their money down the ambient aisles with anything from rice and soups to fish now packaged this way.

And it's not just their convenience and flexibility (they're often microwaveable) that appeals - they're seen as premium alternatives to cans, giving manufacturers the opportunity to inject value into more mature categories.

5. Glass jars with vacuum closures
If tin cans are old, then glass jars are positively prehistoric. The much-newer phenomenon of glass bottles with vacuum closures, however, is deserving of a top 10 place, say our experts. “The whole concept of glass jars was a step on from the old kilner jars and probably one of the first examples of packaging also used to display the product and brand,” says Searle.

Since the 1930s, when they came into mainstream use, glass jars have been used for a host of foods from jams, preserves and babyfood to pasta sauces, vegetables and condiments. And they’ve evolved. These days, they often feature a safety button or a flip panel at the top to warn the shopper if the product has been tampered with.

6. Easy-open soft drink cans
The more sophisticated offspring of the regular tin can become even more convenient when the rip tabs were replaced with tabs that stayed put after opening.

Made from steel, early metal beverage cans were not dissimilar to tin cans. The arrival of the first all-aluminium cans in the 1950s paved the way for the first ringpull cans a decade later (prior to that the opening method was also like a conventional tin can). Although a massive advance, ringpull tabs were, of course, an inconvenient piece of the can that often got pushed back into the contents or thrown away as litter. That was until the invention of stay tabs in the 1980s, which remain attached to the can when pulled.

"When you think in terms of the years of R&D gone into them and the billions they've sold in, they are amazing items," says Kelsey.

7. Microwaveable packaging
The arrival of the microwave in the 1970s sparked the reinvention of the convenience food market, allowing busy people to prepare meals quickly without using anywhere near the energy used by conventional cookers.

“Microwaves gave us huge savings in time and resources in the home and opened up our food options a huge amount,” says Kelsey.

But it wasn’t until the invention a generation later of the susceptor layer – an aluminium layer bonded to paperboard which distributes the power from the microwave in a more even way – that the quality of microwaveable food started to come close to that of conventionally cooked food.

Susceptor layers were added to packaging so that food would crisp and brown and were first used for chips, which beforehand would cook but stay white and floppy. “Foods would cook erratically and would often be quite soggy,” says Bickerstaffe.

They would also have to be decanted into microwave-friendly containers. Not any longer. These days, there’s a whole host of microwaveable packaging options, from cartons, pouches and plastic tubs to bags, boxes and trays – some of which use susceptor layers, some of which don’t.

Ready meals and soups are rarely heated in conventional ovens any longer and companies have been quick to spot the potential for microwaveable pop corn and steamed vegetables.

And now, the next generation of microwaveable packaging beckons. “In Japan, there is a company that puts susceptor labels on the lids of microwaveable packs,” says Kelsey. “As the product cooks, the labels burn through the film, making a whistling noise to let you know it’s ready. It’s a fantastic idea.”

8. Plastic/PET bottles
It be easy to think of them as a fairly simple innovation but plastic bottles have evolved significantly through the years. They first appeared after the Second World War, but didn’t become more commercially viable than glass until the early 1960s.

Even then, they would typically be inflexible bottles with base cups at the bottom to help them stand up. These days, however, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is very much the material of choice thanks to the fact it’s lightweight, easily moulded to requirement, shatterproof and environmentally friendly.

The technology has evolved dramatically since it was first used, says Kelsey. “We’ve come a long way from the days when I used to test the very first PET bottles by throwing them up in air,” he says. “It wasn’t a particularly scientific approach, and it was occasionally extremely messy.”

So practical has it proved that everything from washing-up liquid to wine is now available in PET bottles.

9. Child-proof bottles and blister packs
The 60s saw the invention of the push down and twist child-proof cap that is still confounding children today. Although two distinct forms of packaging, child-proof bottles and blister packs were jointly credited by the panel as they are both child-proof and tamper-resistant - at least in most cases.

"A recent report by the WHO showed there still are many blister packs out there that aren't child-resistant," says Searle, who says he has run campaigns to stop the production of these types of packs. There have also been reports claiming child-proof caps are not so child-proof in reality.

At least they're more sophisticated than they were originally when all you had to do was twist and align to gain entry, rather than push down, twist and align.

10. Frozen food packaging
Freezing was the first industrial-scale method for getting fresh food at a good price to the bulk of the population. Before that you either bought fresh non-frozen on a daily basis, or you bought canned food.

To achieve this on an industrial scale an essential element was a reliable and efficient means of packing the product. It had to be waterproof, mechanically consistent and as cheap as frozen chips. No frozen food packaging, no frozen food.

As far as the boxes products such as Birds Eye fish fingers come in, double polythene-coated board did the trick nicely. For vegetables, polythene bags was the answer. "People forget that before a way of storing food in a freezer effectively was discovered, most vegetables were eaten in season," says Bickerstaffe. "At this time of year they were eating potatoes, parsnips and sprouts, and not much else."

These days, there's even packaging that can make the transition from the freezer to the microwave - for ready meals and steam-cook vegetables, for instance. Now that's a cool innovation.

The best of the rest - what do you think?

Corrugated cartons
Without corrugated fibreboard, shelf-ready packaging wouldn't exist.

"What crazy person first thought up the corrugation?" muses Kelsey. "Everybody was using heavy board to transport goods and then one day someone realised that by weaving a really thin piece of board in-between two other really thin flat pieces of board, you could create a stable structure at a fraction of the weight. Without this you wouldn't be able to shift anything in bulk."

It was a Norwegian who patented the first aerosol spray can back in 1927 - for spraying wax on to skis of all things. Most aerosols work when a product such as perfume is mixed with a solvent, which also acts as a propellant, forcing the product through the valve.

Of course, these days the applications are wide and varied - aerosol cans dispense everything from deodorant to insulin for asthma sufferers. Their genius is their ability to deliver the desired amount of product.

Biscuit roll tear-tabs
With the introduction of tear-tabs, the need to pick at the end of biscuit packs to open them disappeared overnight. It’s a device so simple it’s a wonder someone didn’t dream it up sooner.

Plastic pots and trays
Plastic pots are a great example of something we take for granted. Yet there wouldn’t be much of supermarket chiller cabinet without them.

“Just imagine for a moment that there are no pre-made salads, no yoghurts, no quality ready meals, no upmarket food brands of any form,” says Kelsey. “That’s more than £9bn worth sales per year that would not happen without plastic pots – they are a bit of a bargain really!”

Clam shells
Clam shell packaging, whether it's for torches, or lightbulbs, often gets criticised for being bulky and hard to open. That's exactly the point. "Fundamentally they act as a deterrent to shoplifters," says Kelsey. "People fail to realise that it's this type of packaging that allows items to be stocked in aisles. This has big implications on staff costs and hence the cost of the product."

Resealable packaging
Resealable packaging has been around for years in the form of glass jars and plastic/cardboard tubs. But recently manufacturers have started to make more use of resealable plastic packaging, particularly to preserve fresh food. Now a host of items ranging from cheese and salads to snacks and petfood come in resealable packs. With concerns about food wastage top of mind for consumers, expect to see more such NPD this year.

Let us know what you think of our choices. Email

Meet our panel

Dick Searle, CEO, the Packaging Federation

Dick Searle is a massive advocate of packaging and believes it has revolutionised the way we live. For the past 30 years, before his recent retirement, he was CEO of a number of packaging groups and has been chairman of both UK and European trade associations.

Jane Bickerstaffe, director, Incpen
Incpen is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to minimise packaging's impact on the environment. Bickerstaffe spent two years in the late 1980s as a government adviser and organised the first detailed analysis of the composition of household waste in the UK.

Steve Kelsey, owner, PI Group
With a portfolio of clients that include P&G, Diageo GB, Britvic and GlaxoSmithKline, Kelsey has more than 25 years experience in packaging design. In 1996 he was a member of the buyout team of packaging design, prototyping and sustainability specialist PI Group.

Dick Searle, Jane Bickerstaffe and Steve Kelsey will all deliver seminars on key packaging issues at the easyFairs packaging shows at the NEC next month (11-12 February). At the event, there will be a full itinerary of workshops and seminars; manufacturers and designers will showcase their products and services; and brand strategists and consultants will advise on the latest materials, technologies and market challenges. For a full seminar itinerary and talk details, or to register to attend the event for free, go to