Packaging, naturally - natural options

Packaging Professional magazine
15 Jul 2013

Ahead of the launch of the Natural Materials Association in autumn/winter 2013, Melanie Rutherford speaks to its new Chairman Angela Morris, CEO of The Wool Packaging Company Ltd, about how the packaging industry can benefit from its natural options.

Throughout history, there is evidence of natural materials used in packaging. Grasses and reeds were woven into baskets to store or carry food. Containers such as barrels, boxes or crates were fashioned from wood. It was found that cellulose fibres could be used to make paper, along with the discovery that metal containers could be made from ores and compounds.

One of the oldest packaging materials is glass, which was first made from natural ingredients such as sand and limestone around 9,000 years ago. While the ingredients and mixing processes are very similar to those used today, moulding techniques have certainly improved.

Around 6,000 years later, the ancient Egyptians used wicker – made from indigenous reed and swamp grasses – for chests, baskets and boxes, and these are often found by archaeologists in the tombs of wealthy Pharaohs. There is also evidence that it was used extensively in Europe during the Iron Age.

It wasn’t until the early 19th Century that hessian was first exported from India. The woven, durable fabric made from the skin of a jute plant, or sisal fibres, has since been used for sacks and bags to protect shipped goods such as coffee beans and sand. While wooden crates and boxes were also widely used for trade, shipping cartons made from corrugated fibreboard started to replace these.

Cardboard was first commercially produced in England in 1817, although the material was invented by the Chinese more than 200 years earlier. While paper and cardboard packaging became increasingly popular in the 20th Century, the invention and development of plastics for packaging during the late 1970s and early 1980s saw paper and cardboard start to lose popularity. Cardboard is an excellent example of widespread use of a natural material. The vast majority of corrugated cardboard comprises 75% recycled material, which is 100% recyclable and biodegradable. Any virgin fibre used is derived from sustainable, managed forest plantations. In around 1990, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was formed, to protect and control the use of virgin fibre in the manufacture of paper and board. Following concern about deforestation and potential environmental effects, the FSC brought about support for an independent international forest certification scheme to identify well-managed forests as sources for responsibly produced wood products.

Wool is a natural smart fibre offering a range of unique, innate benefits and superior insulation. Sustainable and completely compostable, its properties have been harnessed for more than 7,000 years. It is documented that wool was used by Hannibal’s army to collect and store the snow and ice used to protect perishable products. Wool has also been used for its protective qualities – for example in ammunition boxes, where its innate anti-inflammable, anti-static and hygroscopic (attracting or absorbing moisture from the air) properties make it a safe, effective packaging choice.

Wool has recently been rediscovered as a packaging material and is now widely used on a commercial scale in the transportation of temperature-sensitive products such as fresh foods, medicines and vaccines. The development of new products with this natural fibre using state-of-theart technologies has highlighted the potential of natural materials and fibres as a viable option in other packaging applications.

Making a comeback
In recent years, natural materials have been increasingly sidelined for supposedly superior manmade alternatives. As a result, knowledge has been lost and natural materials have been sidelined, with research focused on modern materials technology. Because the packaging industry uses such a vast range of materials across a multitude of applications and technologies, it has the opportunity to benefit from increasing pressure to use environmental and sustainable materials.

Increasing demand from governments, international organisations and society to use sustainable and environmentally friendly materials is forcing many industries to reconsider the enormous wealth of natural materials available for use in a variety of everyday applications. Combining the innate properties of natural materials with modern technological advances will enable the development of totally new and innovative products.

Companies are also under pressure to acknowledge and address the environmental impact of their products. Sustainability is high on the agenda. Pushed by new laws and government directives, businesses are having to take responsibility for their packaging, to make it sustainable and more environmentally friendly. It is so important that the packaging industry views this as an opportunity to be socially responsible and support development helping to reduce the use of finite resources. The industry is in prime position to champion the use of natural materials.  

That said, there are many questions to answer. Can we use more natural materials? Can we increase the supply of natural materials? Are there natural materials with properties not yet explored? The packaging industry needs to encourage designers and manufacturers to revisit the technology and solutions that natural materials can offer. Ten years ago, I had no idea of the properties of wool and how it could be used in insulated packaging. Now, The Wool Packaging Company is producing wool-based products on a commercial scale, while continuing to research the insulation and protective properties of wool fibres to help develop innovative packaging solutions.

As Chairman of the Natural Materials Association (NMA – the newest division of IOM3) and as a packaging professional, I have been given the opportunity to bridge the gap between research into the potential uses of natural materials and the commercialisation of new technologies, by providing resources, support and education to industries wishing to benefit from natural alternatives to traditional materials. Education across society and industry is crucial to change perceptions, develop credibility, create awareness, build knowledge and ensure a sustainable impetus for the use of natural materials.

The packaging industry as a whole should embrace the opportunities that the sustainability issues offer by researching, developing and commercialising natural materials for packaging applications. Their rediscovery will give packaging technologists wider scope for innovative solutions that challenge the position of existing man-made alternatives.