• Innovation, Business

Food packaging – the most underrated invention since the fridge?

Few everyday objects are as controversially debated as packaging. Although it is everywhere in our daily lives, many believe that it is unnecessary and even outrightly harmful. This worries Eric Le Lay, President for Fiber and Foodservice at food packaging manufacturer Huhtamaki. He urges the public and policymakers not to underestimate how essential and beneficial packaging is for our societies – and that it can be a force for good in tackling environmental pollution and the climate crisis.

During his time at university, Eric Le Lay and his fellow students were once asked by a lecturer what the most important invention of the 20th century was. After much guesswork by the students, the professor gave them a somewhat unexpected answer: the fridge. By preserving food safely for a long time, it helped to reduce food waste, ensure a steady supply of food, and tackle many illnesses induced by rotten or contaminated foodstuffs. Later in his life, however, Le Lay realised that this revolutionary household appliance was not the only invention with such importance for food security and thereby quality of life: “Packaging does more or less the same,” he points out.

Packaging in a changing world

Le Lay affirms this with the authority and conviction that comes after a long career in the field. “I am a packaging boy,” he says of himself. In his current position as President for Fiber and Foodservice at Huhtamaki, Le Lay oversees the company’s operations in Europe, Asia, and Oceania. As such, he is responsible for one third of Huhtamaki’s sales worldwide. In the course of his many years in the industry, he has seen the way packaging is produced and perceived change quite significantly – and not necessarily for the better.

Recently, the role that packaging plays in our societies has come under heavy scrutiny. As the climate and biodiversity crises put an ever greater strain on the earth’s natural resources and human livelihood, voices calling for a drastic reduction in the amount of packaging we use have grown. Many have also begun to distinguish between “good” and “bad” types of packaging: whereas reusable packaging is widely considered the gold standard, its recyclable counterparts is met with increasing scepticism. While the evidence is actually far more complex, with single-use often having a lower environmental impact than reusables, the packaging industry has come under great pressure to justify its place in modern society.

A healthier planet and packaging can go hand in hand

Le Lay is greatly concerned by this tendency. He believes that – much like the fridge – packaging is often undervalued in our daily lives: “Food packaging brings something that cannot be replaced.” To begin with, it offers the whole package in terms of food safety: it ensures that the food we consume is more durable, more widely accessible, and safer. Moreover, it does so at very little cost: Le Lay thus emphasises that, thanks to the industry’s large and finely tuned production capacities, packaging only accounts for 1% of the price of a take-away coffee, for instance. In other words, it not only keeps food hygienic but affordable.

However, according to Le Lay, one of the greatest benefits of packaging is its ability to reduce food waste by prolonging the shelf life of foodstuff. This is a point Huhtamaki routinely emphasises: given that WWF estimates that roughly 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are down to discarded food, this means that packaging can make an active contribution to tackling climate change. This point is especially important to Le Lay because it underlines that his industry can be an ally in the fight against the deterioration of the planet’s climate and ecosystems: “Packaging is not evil, but the solution.”

To Le Lay, the industry’s ecological credentials are particularly apparent in its value chain: “We take trees from forests which are sustainably managed by our suppliers. These suppliers are carefully selected. For each tree that is harvested, three new ones are planted. The paper mills we work with are self-sufficient in energy. We sell our products to our consumers and see to it that our products are recycled.” Briefly put, the packaging industry is already well on the path to full circularity. What is more, Le Lay points out that contrary to popular belief, recyclable packaging is more suited to master the challenge of sustainability in the sector than reusable solutions: he thus highlights that recycling processes use much less water and have a smaller carbon footprint.

Solving the politics of packaging

At the same time, Le Lay acknowledges that more needs to be done: “We do not recycle enough.” He especially believes that the public infrastructure and systems for the collection and recycling of paper and fiber packaging in particular must be improved. According to Le Lay, however, this task is made harder by the fact that many politicians remain sceptical of the merits of packaging in general and recyclable solutions in particular. Persuading policymakers of the benefits of (recyclable) packaging is thus in his eyes one of the great feats facing his sector: “We have a lot of communication to do, that is the job of the industry.”

There is good reason to believe that Huhtamaki’s arguments are starting to get a hearing – not least as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: Le Lay thus recounts that he was told by an EU official that the bloc’s food system would not have weathered the first phase of this public health crisis as well as it did, had it not been for the resilience of the packaging value chain. This confirms to him:

“You cannot live without any packaging in this world.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss the role packaging has in enabling accessible, affordable and safe food in an uncertain world. The articles are published ahead of our virtual roundtable.

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