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Looking to the Past to Rethink the Future of Packaging

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Karolina Lagercrantz from the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation, Nadira Hussain from UBC Global Lounge
|   October 28, 2021

The need to contain, store, and transport materials, and food in particular, has been around since the early days of humanity. Though food packaging today is often taken for granted, the ways in which we package our food is the result of many years of innovation and has constantly evolved throughout history. 

For example, according to a brief history of packaging, the use of packaging materials to store food in China was traced back to the first or second century B.C. Back then, sheets of treated mulberry bark were used to wrap foods which later on evolved into techniques of papermaking. Knowledge of how to make paper gradually moved west across Asia and into Europe in the 1300s. Interestingly enough, it would take until 1844 that paper bags were first manufactured in Bristol, England.

Indeed, food packaging is part of a long tradition of human innovation and new inventions repeatedly revolutionize the way we store food. Undeniably, today the advent of plastics as a significant player in packaging since the late 1970s and early 1980s is what more people think about when they think of food packaging. Since plastic was first developed in the 1800s, it has advanced to benefit every manufacturing sector including medicine, transportation, technology, and food packaging. Plastics have indeed led to technological advances, design solutions, and financial savings. It’s hard to argue against the fact that plastics have helped make our lives easier, safer, and more enjoyable. But needless to say that we are paying a high price for the comforts plastic is offering (see our previous articles).

From containers provided by nature to the use of complex materials and processes, packaging has certainly evolved throughout history. Various factors contributed to the growth of different types of packaging. Just as no single cause influenced past development, a variety of forces will be required to create the packages of the future, but a very important factor will always be consumer choice. In the end, only the packaging that our society demands would be produced.

At the ICM Falk Foundation, we think it is now time for a new packaging revolution – a revolution that can be found by looking back at the innovations of the past.

Reusable packaging and the move back to a time before single-use plastics

Why could reuse be the solution then? A new report from the Rethink Plastic Alliance and the Break Free From Plastic movement, recently revealed that a reusable packaging target of 50% in key sectors (one of them being takeaway food containers and cups) could drastically reduce CO2 emissions, water consumption, and waste. For example, if 50% of packaging was made reusable by 2030 in the EU it could lead to the reduction of 3.7 million tonnes of CO2, 10 billion cubic meters of water, and nearly 28 million tonnes of material.

Take-away food and beverages are a rapidly growing sector worldwide, and the Covid-19 pandemic has further fuelled the use of single-use plastics. For example, in the EU, the annual use of takeaway containers was estimated to exceed 19 billion and 33 billion units for food and beverage containers respectively in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic drove a surge in demand for single-use plastic, especially packaging – a category that observed a 40% increase in consumption. Presently reusable packaging is at its lowest level in history. Even in sectors where reuse once thrived such as beverages, it has been in gradual decline for the last decades. 

What if we could change this pattern and divert back to reusable alternatives? Attempts to think about how this could be done are many. For instance, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation together with the World Economic Forum developed The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics which is a vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste, and outlines concrete steps towards achieving the systemic shift needed through the principles of circular economy. 

At the ICM Falk Foundation, we want to explore a tangible example of how this could be done in the ASEAN context.

A Reuse Case Study – Thinking back to life before plastics

After learning about the escalating impacts of plastic pollution in Malaysia, Nadira Hussain wanted to think about an alternative that would work in a Malaysian context. Having grown up in Kuala Lumpur, Nadira immediately thought about her grandparents and their use of Tiffin containers to package food. Instead of creating a new, eco-friendly product, which may be difficult for the older generation to adapt to, Nadira thought: “Why not bring back a product that brings about feelings of comfort and familiarity in many of the older generation and that already fits in with the cultural context?” 

The solution is the traditional Tiffin containers, historically used very commonly in Malaysia before the advent of plastic and known as ‘mangkuk tingkat’ (literally translated to stacked bowls). These stacked bowls are perfect for packing a meal for a number of people (depending on the size and style) with space for several different dishes to be kept separately. There are many variations of materials used to produce the tiffin, but they are primarily made of stainless steel and come in different sizes – generally either to pack food for a family, or for an individual. The modern tiffin carriers are attractive and designed to ensure easy maintenance and cleaning. They are also manufactured to comply with food-grade standards. 

The tiffin container is designed with a handle, which eliminates the need for a plastic bag to carry the food. In the late 18th century of the British colonial era, the tiffin culture became popular and was found all throughout Asia until the 1960s. As globalization began to take impact in Malaysia post-independence in 1963, the tiffin faded away from Malaysians’ daily lives and was replaced with plastic alternatives. 

Source: The Star

“A big challenge in changing the behaviors of households in Malaysia is that intergenerational households are common, as children typically do not move out of the house until they are married”, Nadira says. “Hence, in order to create a sustainable change – the solution would be more successful if it can appeal to both the older generation as well as the younger generation”. Drawing from a study on Malaysian consumption in response to influencers, as well as the additional attribution of sentimentality of “connecting to culture” brought upon by the historical product, it is predicted that this product will be welcomed, and encouraged by the younger generation in Malaysia.

But how could a revival of the use of tiffin containers become mainstream and more widely used again? For Nadira, this is when we need to think outside of the box and think about how we can create a shift in mindset in today’s world.  In the present time, young Malaysians have an affinity towards local celebrities. In a study on social media studying consumption culture in Malaysia, it is stated that social media influencers who used hashtags in their posts not only create a benchmark of “must-dos” for their following, but also crowdsources social approval from followers. As part of a potential solution, Nadira argues that it is crucial to include local celebrities to challenge Malaysians in exploring what was used to carry food before plastic came along. By leveraging social media as a tool to communicate a movement to the masses, and also strives to bring feelings of nostalgia and sentimental value regarding the tiffin to the older generation. 

“Besides that, local influencers could then showcase how they incorporate using tiffin carriers in their daily lives such as by bringing it to restaurants when they dine-out in order to pack leftovers home and then promote both their own brand and local businesses”, Nadira notes.

“The goal of the campaign would be to make waste minimization a lifestyle that is appealing and attractive to the younger generation”. In turn, this will help Malaysians to build a connection to the environment. The intention of this campaign is to begin an urgently needed behavioral change and will be funded by tiffin producers within the country such as “The Tiffin Company”, in collaboration with the non-profit organization “Zero Waste Malaysia”. 

This solution strives to nudge Malaysians in the right direction, by making the preferred option (for the betterment of the environment) appealing to them.

The ICM Falk Foundation wants to encourage younger generations to revisit traditional options in their own countries and make them attractive to modern sustainable consumption again. Our first attempt would be in Vietnam where we are funding, facilitating, and fostering Circular Upstream products innovation and adoption – just like the comeback of the Malaysian Tiffin box! What do you think about this solution? Reach out to us if you want support for your idea at contact@icmfalkfoundation.org.


About the ICM Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment to the Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of waste production and pollution within Asia.