Rethinking packaging for sustainability, was the theme for a recent meeting of the Open Innovation (OI) Forum; a group of industry experts from across the food, drink and FMCG sectors.
Around 50 members were asked to pool collective knowledge and creative thinking to find more sustainable packaging solutions for perishable products.
Over two days the delegates in six teams took part in an exercise to create a prototype for an innovative sustainable package.
This dynamic and action-packed workshop was captured on film for the Disruptive Innovation Festival, a global online event organised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works towards accelerating transition to a circular economy.
The packaging challenge was structured using a ‘Design Thinking’ approach, with tools developed by the Hasso Plattner Institut (HPI). This places the user/consumer at the heart of designing new products, services and systems, by developing a deep and empathetic understanding of user needs. To do this, it advocates going further than traditional market research, by using an iterative approach to define needs, develop ideas and test prototypes, gathering user feedback at each step.
The five principles of Design Thinking are:
- user orientation
- problem identification
Team working is essential, particularly respecting inputs of those who aren’t ‘experts’ and bring valuable, different perspectives.
Design Thinking encourages experimentation early and often. Failure is more helpful if it happens early.
Challenge day 1: Understanding user needs
Working within the Design Thinking framework, on day 1 each team interviewed a target consumer, role-played by another delegate, to gain user perspective and understand physical and/or emotional needs. The aim was to identify an insight, something the team learned about the user that helped them to reframe the problem.
In early discussions, the drinks team imagined a world where reusable containers replace single-use, throw-away packaging. Aiming to build on the increasing habit of consumers to keep and refill plastic water bottles, they hoped to encourage the same behaviour with soft drinks and beer. They also considered edible packaging, for example made from seaweed.
The fresh produce team focused on consumers of grapes, empathising with the user’s need for convenience and undamaged fruit, with the insight that the packaging also gives reassurance that the grapes haven’t been handled by lots of people.
During day 1, there were also keynote talks
Speakers set out some of the background and context, including environmental issues, recycling and waste statistics, consumer trends and behaviour, and current industry initiatives.
- Adam Read of Suez and CIWM (Chartered Institution of Wastes Management) highlighted the current low rate of plastic recycling in the UK, with only 19% of plastics recycled among 2.26 million tons of plastics packaging placed on the UK market.
- Libby Peake of Green Alliance discussed the need to reduce packaging, and avoid simply replacing plastic with another new material as a ‘drop-in’ solution which may have unintended consequences.
- Stuart Lendrum of Edenglas explained how a collaboration of 600 brands and retailers are working together on the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) to improve consumer recognition of recyclable packaging. The hosts for the first day were major food producers Moy Park.
- Guy Wootton, Director of Marketing and Innovation at Moy Park, emphasised that to stay relevant in a fast-changing world, it is essential for industry players to understand the market, innovate and adapt.
- Matt Harris of Moy Park shared some insights into how the company is tackling the challenge of moving to more sustainable solutions, through 4Rs: remove, reduce, recycle, and research.
Challenge day 2: Exploring sustainable solutions
On the second day, teams moved on identifying solutions for sustainable packaging. The ideation phase of Design Thinking moves from understanding the problem to solving it. This starts by bringing many solution options to the table. Ideation involves an open-minded discussion in which team members try to defer judgement of ideas, encourage ‘wild’ ideas, go for quantity, and build on the ideas of others. Ideas are selected for pitching back to the user – again with role-play interviews of a target consumer – and improved iteratively, seeking more user feedback as the idea is refined and developed.
Day two input from expert speakers helped to shape and inform the issues behind sustainable packaging and the potential solutions.
- Professor Chris Elliott from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, hosts for day two, described the system through which we try to feed 7.2 billion people every day as “the most complex network devised by man- and womankind.”
- Simon Clegg from RPC, suppliers of plastic packaging, described how packaging needs to fulfil three Ps—preserve, protect and promote—but that this needs to be done using the minimum necessary resources to get the product to the consumer in acceptable condition.
- Chesta Tiwari of Crown Packaging, discussed aluminium as an alternative to plastic. She explained the long lifespan of aluminium through high recycling rates.
- Eamonn Tighe of NatureWorks talked about how the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has created a language around the circular economy, which has helped to accelerate a transition towards more circular thinking for sustainability.
- Steve Thomas from Cambridge Consultants pointed to product strategy as the starting point, including market analysis, reducing incorrect preconceptions.
- Eoin Cunningham of Queen’s University Belfast, discussed waste streams as a valuable resource. This was highlighted by the EU directive to reuse waste in order to reduce dependence on import of raw materials and facilitate the transition to a circular economy.
- Curie Park from the IfM’s Centre for Industrial Sustainability talked about the long-term relationship we have with plastic: we can’t entirely demonise plastic and need to have a sustainable approach to its use. Technically achieving good quality recyclate is plausible but our current systems and habits don’t make it easy. Curie’s examples of non-fossil fuel plastics included a bioplastic bag that can be dissolved in hot water and sugar cane lego (still painful when you step on it!).
Prototype packages for improved sustainability
For creating their prototypes, teams were provided with boxes of resources – card, tape, scissors, cloth, plasticine, pipe-cleaners, marker pens, and similar – to make their own packages. This was a fun, hands-on process, and created some surprisingly inventive solutions in a very short space of time.
Each team gave an ‘elevator pitch’ of two minutes to explain their packaging innovation to the Forum The chilled products team created a ‘reverse vending machine’, for their user to return the packaging of a ready meal once finished.
The consumer redeems a deposit of £1 by scanning the QR code on the packaging when they post it back into the vending machine. The protein/meat team profiled their user, Maria, a time-poor mum on a budget with three children, who usually throws away all the packaging from a roast chicken. They created a cook-in-the-bag cassava whole chicken, with packaging made from cassava that dissolves during cooking. There’s no mess, no fuss, no waste, and the kids will eat it.
Overall the team exercise, structured around Design Thinking, powerfully demonstrated how much can be achieved in a short space of time. By bringing together knowledge of the impact of non-sustainable packaging including single-use plastic, along with a user-centred approach to understand and meet user needs more effectively, the group showed there are plenty of ideas for more sustainability in the design and use of packaging.
Thinking collaboratively about innovation encourages broader thinking to solve major problems, and offers a positive means to bolster the impact of designs and achieve significant industry progress.
More about Open Innovation Forum:
The OI Forum is a consortium of food and drink companies who regularly come together to consider strategic and collaborative approaches to innovation, actively looking outside their own organisations to harness external innovations. The group includes major multinationals from across the industry, spanning the supply chain from ingredients and materials through processes and technology, to brand owners and retail.
Convened by Dominic Oughton and Paul Christodoulou from the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge, the OI Forum is grounded in research by the IfM’s Tim Minshall, Letizia Mortara and other researchers. ‘Open innovation’ involves embracing both internal and external ideas and paths to market. It moves away from the traditional organisational view that successful innovation requires strict control, towards a set of more outward-looking principles, with a recognition of the power of collaborating effectively beyond organisational walls.
Open Innovation Forum, https://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/ecs/industry/oiforum/open-innovation-forum-introduction/
Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge: https://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/
Hasso Plattner Institut: https://hpi.de/ Moy Park (day one hosts): https://www.moypark.com/en
Institute for Global Food Security, Queen University Belfast: https://www.qub.ac.uk/Research/GRI/TheInstituteforGlobalFoodSecurity/