Des King | ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’ isn’t our only swan-song

What is it about packaging that makes it so easy to love to hate, asks Des King

Of the moment though the ‘Big Plastics Debate’ undoubtedly was, how well-served was the packaging industry as a result? Was it even a discussion in which the industry is ready to engage in right now, let alone come up with realistic solutions; the practical call for the provision of more litter bins on the streets notwithstanding. Hear hear to that, by the way. With one exception, the panel may well have wished in hindsight that they’d been booked for the following day when the adverse weather conditions curtailed visitor attendance and caused the show to close early.

Responding to the current mood of public disaffection towards the waste accrued from plastic packaging by promising its total elimination from supermarket shelves smacks more of a kneejerk reaction than a long term strategy. It might grab a headline, but that 2023 best-by date is already double Dutch. Meanwhile, the absence of a properly thought out five-year plan merely underlines how dependent the retail trade is on a material technology that’s done more than any other to build and fulfil consumer demand within the FMCG sector.

Producers of alternative substrates anticipating advancement through plastics’ bad press should ponder on the alacrity in some quarters to rubbish such a helpful partner; also to recall their own time spent in apparent disgrace. Think aluminium ring-pulls; ink migration to cartonboard; the glass bottle as hand-held weapon. Meanwhile, despite all that packaging has done to be accorded the epithet of eighth ‘P’ of marketing, at its core lies a conflict between desire and distaste; a dichotomy that can occur anytime after the product has been unwrapped.

It’s often pointed out that we go shopping for products not for packaging, irrespective of the obvious impact the latter has on determining the final outcome. Having served its purpose why should it be treated as anything other than waste: reusable or else disposable. Even so, whilst a medal might be expecting too much a bit more respect wouldn’t go amiss.

What is it about packaging that makes it so easy to love to hate? This ambivalence runs deeper than plastics’ fall from grace. It’s capable of eliciting such a disproportionately highly-charged emotional response that maybe it’s less to do with the packaging itself, but instead cloaks some innate sense of shame over our consumerist tendencies, and guilt about the resultant levels of waste? Park that particular stab at Psychology 101 for now. Meanwhile, if there is research out there that probes this conflict of interest I’d like to hear of it; not least since I’m switching across from page to platform to be part of a panel discussion myself next month on this very issue.

Themed: “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” it’ll be hoping to propose ways in which that initial appeal might be extended beyond the equivalent of a one-night stand; otherwise discreetly slipping out of sight and out of mind with the minimum of fuss. To experience a longer-lasting relationship, my money’s on adding greater functionality, interactivity and sustainability. Not only the Shirelles, but also Aretha Franklin.

Des King is a freelance journalist specialising in packaging

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