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.