In this short series of articles, A.Warne looks back into the historical origins of packaging. From its humble beginnings as a simple means of protecting goods, to the modern use of packaging on a global scale.
With the development of the wider consumer market and a shift away from the smaller self sufficient community the containment, presentation, transportation and protection of goods have become of increasing importance to both ensure sales and maintain the value of a given product. Historically goods were stored in gourds, shells and leaves followed by a shift towards worked containers such as hollowed logs woven grasses and animal organs and finally to modern formed materials such as paper, plastics, metals and glass.
One of the original modern packaging materials to be produced was Glass; it was first seen during the Stone Age as sharp cutting tools using volcanic obsidian. However, the first real archaeological evidence of glass production occurred in Mesopotamia, namely Ancient Egypt, in the form of glass beads ca 3500 BCE. Since these original fabrications the essential elements that make up glass have changed very little from limestone, soda, sand and silica. What has changed though is both the technology in the production of glass and sourcing of the key components.
Originally, glass was formed into coils and then pressed together to form the desired shape, this process was improved by the introduction of pressing moulds, allowing the formation of containers. The next major step in this production was the introduction of the glass blow pipe ca 300 BCE. This enabled the production of round vessels at a cheaper price. The advancement of glass making stalled until the invention of the split mould (allowing more complicated shapes to be formed) in the 17th century.
With the industrial revolution the production of glass became ever cheaper due to more efficient production methods and the invention of specific machines that enabled increased production to meet increased demand. It was only once this point was reached that glass became a common and viable container for packaging products. However in recent years with increased importance placed upon transport costs, glass’s popularity as a packaging material has decreased. This has resulted in it being used infrequently and generally only within liquid storage or where flavour and aroma are of particular importance. Reliance on glass has declined due to the replacement and substitution by a combination of plastics, paper and metal.
Metals are another class of the first packaging materials. Found naturally within rocks as chemical compounds they are extracted by the smelting process to return the metal to its elemental state. The impact of metals upon mankind has been such that there have been eras named after the metal that was prevalent during that time (bronze and iron age). The use of metals as storage have been observed since metal was able to be worked, however as originally both expensive and rare this meant that items were not in everyday use. It was not until the use of alloys and cheaper metals became available that metal packaging became more commonplace e.g. Food Packaging.
Modern technologies for packaging food materials within metals are based upon the tin plating process which was developed ca 1200 CE. However it was not until the early 1800’s that it was widely understood that this enabled expensive (but inert and non toxic) tin to be plated onto another cheaper metal to form a container for food packaging. This gave birth to metallized packaging that is still common today (for example the tin can and foil) although tin is now rarely used it has been replaced by cheaper alloys, aluminium alternatives and metallised plastic films. The continued presence of metals as both the main body and a component part of the overall packaging with ridged or semi flexible packing products is mainly down to the fact that they are light, strong, flexible, relatively cheap, with good barrier properties and resistant to degradation. Metals however can often taint high end products, often making them less popular in products where such characteristics are desirable.
Paper, along with cloth was one of the first forms of manmade flexible packaging; it allowed goods to be sold in smaller, pre determined quantities whilst at the same time increasing ease of transport and providing a crude form of barrier protection from the surrounding environment. Paper was first used as a form of flexible packaging in China ca 200 BCE (commonly considered to be one of the Four Great Inventions of China). This knowledge gradually spread throughout the world to Europe ca 1300 CE, it was not until the 1860’s that the process for deriving cellulose from wood pulp was developed, and has remained the major source of cellulose for paper to this day.
The use of papers in modern day packaging continues within semi flexible and flexible sectors however there has been a shift from purely paper in the form of a bag, box or overwrap to a hybrid cardboard and plastic container, in the case of semi flexible packaging, or in the case of flexible packaging often a laminate or single layer plastic film product. This has been due to the inherent structural strength of plastics and the ability to combine material properties through laminate design along with the ability of the end consumer, when necessary, to observe the product that they are potentially purchasing. Despite these developments paper continues to occupy a key roll in food packaging to this day.
As previously mentioned, paper was historically the predominant form of flexible and semi flexible packaging material until the creation of plastics. Derived from crude oil, it was not until advances in the petrochemical process coupled with modern organic chemistry that allowed the discovery and development of plastic polymers. The first real plastic to be created and used commonly for packaging was Cellophane. Cellophane was first developed in 1912, by its inventor Jacques E. Brandenberger who then sold the rights to DuPont who built the first dedicated manufacturing plant during 1924 in New York. DuPont then developed a lacquer, using nitrocellulose that significantly reduced the water vapour permeability of the Cellophane in 1927. This opened the door to a significantly new and untapped market – food packaging. This resulted in a widespread expansion in the market for Cellophane film as it offered a combination of flexibility and barrier properties which prevented external contamination and increased shelf life. This was the start of the modern plastics industry as we know it and which lead to Plastics becoming one of the predominant components of packaging.