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A talk with Johannes Bergmair, General Secretary of the World Packaging Organisation

“...packaging is always a compromise”

Dr. Johannes Bergmair is General Secretary of the World Packaging Organization and an expert in the field of packaging technology. We talked to him about "good" and "bad packaging" and which aspects make up successful packaging. You will be amazed how many factors have to be considered in the design and how difficult it is to bring all requirements under one roof. Find out more about "intelligent" packing units, recyclable raw materials and what a millennia-old, decorated coconut has to do with it.

Interviewer: When it comes to packaging, laypeople generally imagine simple, standardized boxes and crates that are often tightly wrapped in plastic. How do you convey to a layperson that “not all boxes are the same” and that containers and packaging often differ in small details that can have a big impact?

Johannes Bergmair: The best thing is to address one of the basic issues right at the start, namely how complex so-called “packaging systems” actually are. Especially for outsiders, packaging becomes waste in one “magic” moment, from one second to the next. Then it is considered a problem that must be disposed of correctly. Unfortunately, we often overlook the wide range of functions that packaging fulfills up to that point.

In the course of my work at the WPO, I educate people about the key benefits of packaging: on the one hand, packaging has a very important protective function – it protects the contents from external influences such as moisture and light so that the goods do not spoil, corrode or even change their color or taste. This obviously also applies the other way around: sometimes you have to protect the outside world or people from what is inside, e.g. in the case of hazardous materials.
On the other hand, packaging also lets us transport goods in the first place. Humans have been trading goods for 10,000 years. The products that come into circulation must, of course, be transportable. Without packaging, this would not be possible. We should not underestimate the encasing function either, as packaging creates a single loading unit.

Finally, packaging is also important from a marketing perspective because it communicates messages: What is inside and how should we handle it? What is its shelf life, how many pieces does it contain and what information is stored in the printed barcode? In addition, packaging creates identity and a high recognition value. Think of a Coca-Cola bottle: most people around the world would recognize it by its shape alone, even without a label.

We at the WPO are also available to advise on these matters. Companies can make big mistakes by not keeping this range of functions in mind. If a package does not suitably live up to its requirements, then it is not a good package. “Bad” packaging just does not succeed in practice on the market and can cause problems which could actually have been avoided if the planning had been better.

That sounds like a lot of factors go into designing a successful package. How do you balance all these different considerations?

Quite frankly: packaging is always a compromise, because some of the factors I just mentioned are contradictory. The person responsible for marketing would prefer it to be colorful, with a beautiful design and eye-catching shape, while the logistician wants the most advantageous, angular, standardized shape, which is ideal for stacking on a pallet. At the same time, it must be easy to handle and open – but if it opens too easily, the product could cause problems during transport. As I said, you always have to look for a compromise in packaging design that ensures the best overall performance. It is a relatively complex interaction of many requirements and functions.

What demands are currently being placed on packaging containers specifically in the world of transport and logistics? After all, packaging is expected to withstand mechanical stresses as well as climatic stresses. Are there significant differences between individual industries?

In addition to the aforementioned requirements, the transport sector is primarily concerned with logistics and storability. Does the packaging allow the transported goods to move easily through the existing supply chains? Standardization is particularly important here. When goods are packaged in standardized smaller units they fit optimally on pallets and are subsequently also “container-compatible.” In addition, the packaging should be lightweight, easy to handle and allow for simple labeling.

The topic of sustainability has also come up, especially in recent years – which packaging materials are used, and are they produced in an ecologically-friendly manner? Are the materials reusable and what is the best way to recycle them?

Of course, there are significant differences between individual industries. In the case of edibles, hygiene and food safety are paramount – there must be no interaction between the contents and the packaging. The automotive industry is very much about workflows: how is the package delivered and how quickly can the goods be passed on? In the pharmaceutical sector, on the other hand, particular attention is paid to cleanliness and freedom from dust.

The choice of the means of transport also often determines the type of packaging. In cargo aircraft, negative pressure must be taken into account, and the stress during takeoff and landing is also much higher than on an ocean-going vessel, for example. There, on the other hand, moisture and corrosion due to salt is an issue. In the case of rail transports, one must expect greater vibrations due to shunting work.

One major new trend in the transport industry is the detailed tracking of container shipments, including information about the current position via GPS, the temperature curve during transport, humidity during storage, etc. To what extent does similar information apply to packaging? Will cardboard packaging in the future be automatically delivered with integrated data loggers, smart chips, NFC, etc. and will this become an “off-the shelf solution”?

This really is a big issue in the packaging industry. We call it AIP – active, intelligent packaging. In the food industry, for example, this packaging is intelligent in that it interacts with the goods being transported: for example, by absorbing moisture or oxygen. Some packages can block ripening gases or emit preservatives. Integrated temperature indicators are also an important aspect.

A lot of research has been done in this area in the past 10-15 years, yet not much has made it to the market. One thing is noticeable here: these technologies are used extensively above all in Japan, while the rest of the world is lagging somewhat behind. The exact reason for this is still being researched, but I suspect it has to do with the cost. The packaging industry is under a great deal of cost pressure and margins are very small.

So these modern systems exist, but are not yet seeing widespread use. However, experience shows that as soon as one large provider or corporation decides to implement a new standard, its competitors quickly follow suit. Such technology breakthroughs can happen very quickly in the packaging industry and it will be exciting to see which direction new solutions will come from.

“Kaum entscheidet sich ein großer Anbieter oder Konzern dazu, einen neuen Standard einzusetzen, ziehen die Mitbewerber rasch nach. Solche Technologieumbrüche können in der Verpackungsindustrie sehr schnell geschehen und es wird spannend, aus welcher Richtung neue Lösungen zum Durchbruch gelangen werden.”

Johannes Bergmair über Innovationen im Bereich AIP (active, intelligent packaging)

Environmental protection, recycling and a careful use of resources are very important topics these days. How are these buzzwords relevant in a field with disposable cardboard or paper packaging and significant use of plastic wraps and other synthetics? Would it be possible to switch to wraps made from corn starch or something similar?

As I mentioned earlier, this is considered the main issue in our industry. A great deal is happening in this area, especially in the field of “circular economy” by bringing packaging back into a cycle. In addition, there has also been a trend in recent years to use slightly less material, for example thinner structures that still provide the same protective performance. Now we are increasingly seeing a countertrend to make the packaging thicker after all, but to use only one material. This in turn makes disposal easier. We are still working on finding the right balance.

Plastic materials are currently under pressure because they are produced from petroleum and not from renewable raw materials, the way cardboard is. Recycling is also more difficult in this area and is not particularly efficient. On top of this, crude oil is currently relatively cheap so recycling plastic seems expensive in comparison.
Compostable plastic is an interesting approach, but contradicts the effort to keep these materials in the material cycle for as long as possible. In the best case, materials are used that can be recycled many times, if only because of the carbon footprint.

Let’s talk about “Smart Packaging”: What trends seem to be taking hold at the moment and what could be the biggest challenges in the future? Is there a need for special packaging related to the recent surge in e-commerce shipments?

E-commerce was big before COVID-19 but it received a massive boost from the pandemic. When it comes to packaging, this is certainly not the end of the road. Here, too, there is a discrepancy between the fact that, on the one hand, you have to keep things modular and safe for transport. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every item can have its own separate packaging.
On the other hand, no customer wants a big box with a tiny little printer cartridge in their mailbox. Unfortunately, these contradictions have not yet been resolved, as this would require a complete overhaul of packaging production. The next trend might be toward individualized packaging in just the right size, rather than inappropriate standard-sized boxes. These could be produced on site along the lines of a 3D printer. However, this is still a distant dream and would probably be more of an issue in the lifestyle sector than, for example, a simple USB cable that is shipped from Asia to Europe. It remains a cost issue and any development must still be economically viable.

From the relatively standardized amphora models used by the ancient Greeks in Mediterranean maritime trade, to the “super-sturdy” high-end carton with electronic applications for monitoring the shipment, a lot of water has flown under the bridge and numerous innovations have seen the light of day. As an expert in the field of packaging, would you dare to look ahead to possible developments of the next 50-100 years?

This is a really interesting question and difficult to answer, but one thing is clear: we will always have packaging. A short anecdote comes to mind about the ancient amphorae. We were in Rio de Janeiro some time ago for one of our WPO meetings and I went to visit the Museo Nacional. On the fifth floor there were showrooms about the first traces of humans on the continent. When I stepped off the elevator, the very first object I saw was an old, decorated coconut that was used to store milk – a package that was thousands of years old. It looks like human beings – all along our evolutionary chain from pure hunter-gatherers to sedentary cultural beings – will always need packaging. Exactly how this packaging will look in 50-100 years will probably depend on how we develop as a society.

Thank you for the interview!

Johannes Bergmair - World Packaging Organisation

Johannes Bergmair, born in 1973, studied food and biotechnology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU). His specialty in packaging is cross-company quality management in the foodstuffs supply chain. In addition to numerous publications in journals, he completed a dissertation in this field at the Vienna University of Technology (TU) in the fall of 2002. From 2000 to 2016, he worked at the Austrian Research Institute for Chemistry and Technology (OFI) in Vienna, where he was also the institute director starting in April 2003.
Since the beginning of 2017, Johannes Bergmair has been working independently as a packaging technologist with his company PACK EXPERTS. He holds numerous courses on packaging technology at several Austrian and German universities and technical colleges, works as a court expert in the field of goods packaging and as a product expert for “packaging,” and also as an auditor for hygiene management systems.
From May 2015 until the end of 2017, he served as “WPO Vice President for Sustainability and Food Safety.” As of January 1, 2018, he has been general secretary at this international packaging association.