They call us consumers, but there are an awful lot of things that you buy but don’t consume. After you’ve finished a bottle of wine or a jar of antipasti, you’re left with a container that weighs around half of the weight of the original product. Is this an efficient delivery system for our food and drink?

Glassrite was a project within the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) that aimed to reduce glass wastage, and carbon emissions.

glass half full

Have a look at this…

Is the glass half full, or half empty? If you’re an engineer, the right answer is that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. In a government-funded landscape that features plenty of talking shops but precious little in the the way of action, Glassrite stands out, offering (among other things) a tool to encourage those who buy glass containers to choose lightweight ones: it’s a simple online directory of producers, where you specify capacity, style, closure type, colour, etc., and then get to choose between the various suppliers, seeing the weight of the empty bottle or jar. Lighter bottles means less embodied material and energy, and additional energy saved in transportation.

So far, so good. Very good in fact: the Glassrite project reduced the amount of glass used in bottles by 27,048 tonnes, simply through promoting the use of lightweight ones. Additional savings came through increasing the recycled glass content in UK wine bottles by 44,295 tonnes, but they didn’t stop there.

(If you’re a “wine snob” you might want to stop reading, but I thought this was interesting…)

Why send wine bottles across oceans? Why not just send the wine? Eliminate all that faffing about with fragile, heavy glass bottles that don’t fill the space in a shipping container at all well, and let the importer worry about final presentation.

Bulk importation of wine became the goal, with bottling taking place close to market. That allows the importer to do all kinds of interesting new things with branding, and it also reduces the landed cost of the new, highly commoditised wine. (Just don’t tell the customer that their favourite wine wasn’t lovingly bottled at source, but crossed the oceans sloshing around inside a huge bladder…)

containerised bulk wine

Wine, and bladder… a match made in heaven?

If your small boutique vineyard can’t deliver wine by the bladder-load, palletised alternatives are available in 275 and 330 gallon sizes (1,041 or 1,249 litres). Of course, they occupy the same amount of container space when returned empty, which is a shame. Maybe we can export cider in return, or something.

Palletised 275 gallon Intermediate Bulk Container

Palletised 275 gallon Intermediate Bulk Container

The Glassrite project increased the bulk importation of wine by the equivalent of 190 million bottles; all bottled right here in the UK. By 2012 the South Africans were crying foul: it seems the practice had cost 700 jobs among people who formerly packaged wine, and there was talk of a retaliation with the bulk import of whisky. I can’t see that working myself… but it’s interesting to see how importers can drive down the price of a commodity in the name of reduced carbon emissions – causing job losses in the process.

I say let’s take things a bit further, and instead of bulk importation in shipping containers let’s put pipelines in place. A least-distance surface journey from Australia to the UK would be around 20,000 km, but you would only need to pump the wine gently such that it flows at a leisurely 1km per hour and it would have aged by a perfect 2 years by the time it arrives. (And since France is so much closer, Beaujolais Nouveau is no problem either.)

Obviously, pipes could have sections lined with oak, in order to yield the right level of tannins, for optimum flavour. (The oak sections of the pipe would be in places where it crosses land, for ease of replacement, since the oak would need to be renewed over time: you don’t get those flavours for free, you know!) For closer nations whose wine we consume, you’d simply vary the pumping rate to achieve the desired ageing.

Of course, you’d need one pipe for each variety, which is costly, but that’s a one-off setup cost. Think of all the drums, barrels and bottles that would be saved! Another regrettable cost is that at any given time (assuming a 25mm diameter pipe) you’ve got almost ten million litres of inventory tied up for two years… but that’s not much worse than sticking it in a bonded warehouse.

Shiraz Cabernet? No problem... you could achieve blending at the point of use, like they do with post-mix bar dispensers...

Shiraz Cabernet? No problem… you could achieve blending at the point of use, like they do with post-mix bar dispensers…

One hazard of the new wine pipeline is that of theft: unscrupulous people could steal some of the commodity as it crossed their land, and there is a precedent for this. In the grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, beer was brewed and then brought into the house itself through an underground pipe. (Specifications: 75mm diameter, 323m length, gravity-fed.) During landscaping work in the early 20th century it was discovered that the gardeners had added a branch to the pipe where it crossed the Rose Garden, so they could take a little for themselves.

The audacity of those gardeners is today commemorated by the craft beer Gardener’s Tap – available from the Chatsworth farm shop.

Gardener’s Tap beer

Gardener’s Tap

Now, no doubt there are other challenges and hazards associated with the wine pipeline, – and also other possibilities. (Toothpaste on tap in the home? Tomato ketchup?) At this point, sadly, we had to abandon any further speculation because the pub was about to close.


“They don’t make it anymore”

When Samuel Clemens wasn’t working as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, or writing novels under the pen name of Mark Twain, he was quite the humourist and philosopher.

“Buy land,” he advised: “they don’t make it anymore.”

It’s not entirely true: for centuries, mankind has been turning sections of the seabed, lakebeds and such into land that can be used by people. Without this practice, many rivers would be wider, the Netherlands would be 17% smaller, and much of Mexico City wouldn’t exist. ‘Land reclamation’ has been going on for centuries.

I’m not quite sure why it’s called reclamation, since the ‘re-’ part seems to imply that land was previously in existence, when clearly it wasn’t. Consider Samphire Hoe, a country park located at the base of Shakespeare Cliff near Dover – and made almost entirely from material excavated during the construction of the Channel Tunnel. Some 4.9 million cubic metres of material were deposited there, expanding the United Kingdom by thirty hectares.

In the South China Sea something similar is happening, although the building material isn’t left over from some other engineering project: it’s specifically being dredged up in order to construct artificial islands to bolster some extremely dubious territorial claims over a patch of sea.

While it isn’t true to say that “they don’t make it anymore”, new real estate certainly is expensive. Samphire Hoe came about because it’s basically a made-over spoil heap from a £4.65 billon project. The cost of the project by the People’s Republic of China in the Spratly Islands is unknown, but the adventure began with a naval battle at Johnson South Reef in 1988, in which seventy or more Vietnamese sailors were killed.

Land, it seems, always comes with a very high price.

Johnson South Reef

Artificial island under construction by the Chinese military at Johnson South Reef (Agence France-Presse)

At the same time, land elsewhere is disappearing. I have previously written about how Nauru is threatened by rising sea levels, and parts of the east coast of England seems to be melting away, too. Spurn Point, at the mouth of the Humber estuary, may soon become Spurn Island. In fact, during some extreme tides, it now does exactly that. The nearby port of Ravenspurn is long gone, and that’s a shame because it once played a significant part in history as the place where Henry Bolingbroke landed in 1399, on his way to defeat Richard II and become Henry IV, King of England.

Ravenspurn is far from the only settlement that Yorkshire has lost to the sea. Other curiously-named places include Hornsea Beck, Colden Parva, Ringborough, Monkwell, Waxhole, Owthorne by Sisterkirk, Old Withernsea, Out Newton, Dimlington, Old Kilnsea and many more… all places that you’ll now find only if you look below the chilly waters of the North Sea. The major east coast towns are protected by substantial engineering works, but that probably increases the rate at which less protected sections of coastline are washed away. Even the sturdy coastal fortifications that were built during the World Wars now lie broken and jumbled at mad angles, which doesn’t bode well for our attempts to resist coastal erosion, long-term.

Going, going... gone? Skipsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Going, going… gone? Skipsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

“What is the price of holding back the sea?” That’s the question the BBC has been asking recently. The cash-strapped government requires that a pound spent on flood defence must bring at least £8 in economic benefit; a requirement easily demonstrated in a densely-populated area, but much harder to achieve where it’s farmland that is under threat – despite the fact that even a temporary seawater inundation would leave fields unfit to grow crops for years.

The cost of flood defence is expected to rise by 60%, to £200 million, by 2030. One possible strategy is that of managed retreat: instead of trying to defend every single farm, selected ones would be allowed to revert to salt marsh – which is what they were, centuries ago. This sacrifice (allowing the sea to re-reclaim them, if you will) offers a number of potential advantages, including shortening the overall length of the coastal defences, and allowing the outlying marshes to absorb much of the wave energy before it reaches the sea wall… but on our crowded island, we can’t really spare the loss of too much fertile farmland.

On the global scale, there’s about 0.02 km2 for each person – based upon a planetary land area of 149 million km2 and a current human population of 7.25 billion. We can’t actually have 0.02 km2 (4.94 acres) each, because that would leave no space at all for wilderness, and in any case some of the land area is buried under thick ice in Antarctica. Still more is covered with roads, businesses and your share of public buildings. Some of it is old mine workings, landfill sites, mountains and so on.

Basically, usable land is very precious.

In the UK, the land area per person is just 0.003 km2 (243,610km2 divided among 64.1 million people), so it should come as no surprise that we import 40% of our food. This is a figure that is rising, but the really surprising thing is that it isn’t already a lot higher. With climate change, coastal erosion, worldwide population increase and pressure on the water supply, there are significant food security challenges ahead.

When, in the mid 17th century, astronomers began to use the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons to measure the time accurately (and thereby, to deduce their position upon the Earth) it caused a lot of maps to be redrawn. When King Louis XIV of France was first presented with a new, more accurate map of his nation, he is reported to have grumbled that he’d just lost more territory to his astronomers than to all his enemies.

You might have heard that “money is the root of all evil”, but surely land is at the root of everything, ever since our culture decided that land belongs to people, rather than the more ancient viewpoint that people belong to the land. From warfare between nations in search of Lebensraum to construction companies seeking a supply of sites suitable for development, it’s all about land. Even the most virtual of ‘Dot Com’ Internet businesses requires premises (or at least server rooms) somewhere, their staff must live somewhere and their equipment must be manufactured somewhere…

This is the real challenge: making use of something finite to provide for an indefinite future.

Buy land. They do still make it, but not nearly enough of it, and some of the old parts are disappearing. Choose the land you buy with care… and look after it.

Supplying Pumpkins…

It’s that time of year again, when goblins cavort in secluded dells, and children call at your house for a consignment of sweets. At least, that’s the way it works in North America and much of Europe; I really don’t know what to expect here in Southern Africa, where my work has brought me.

At home, my son will be out on a trick-or-treat mission, obtaining sweets from the neighbours. The universal sign of tolerance for small children making such visitations is of course the carved jack-o’-lantern, left by the doorstep with a candle burning inside… but where do our pumpkins come from? They’re originally a North American vegetable, and their incorporation in festivities of a distinctly American character suggests that they might be imports.

In fact, pumpkins can and do grow just about anywhere. The supermarket price of £5 or more for any decent-sized specimen is a little bit excessive, as my recent visit to a farm near Pickering, North Yorkshire revealed. The things were just sitting there, out in the field… in their hundreds.

field of pumpkins

My background is in manufacturing, and I’m not used to saleable products just popping up out of the ground. In my world, you cast, cut, grind, drill, weld, measure, polish or whatever… production is hard work. You don’t just go out into a field and pick up the finished goods.

Pumpkins were carefully loaded into the bucket of a JCB, driven about two hundred metres… and delivered to the farm shop. If you want to talk about ‘food miles’, this is about as low as they come.

JCB telehandler and pumpkins

Choosing your pumpkin: serious business

Are they still ‘food miles’ if you don’t use the pumpkin as food? I’d say yes, because an awful lot of the food that we buy in the UK ends up as waste anyway. It’s a shame in this case because there really is nothing quite as nice as a bowl of pumpkin soup on an autumn day. Tomorrow, when the supermarkets are selling their remaining stock off for a fraction of the original price, that’s the time to make soup.

A very fine specimen indeed, my pumpkin was just £2. Apparently, there had been a bumper crop this year, although BBC radio reported that not very far away in Lincolnshire, 40% of pumpkins were rotting in the fields, due to wet weather. This is the difficulty that growers face: the products might require much less intervention than manufactured goods, but farmers have far less control over conditions – as evidenced by the UK today having its hottest Halloween since records began. That random element has got to be a problem when your products have to mature exactly on time to reach the shops shortly before October 31st… or else the value of the crop will fall to almost nothing.

sheep eating a pumpkin

On the positive side, they might not be worth much as animal feed, but they certainly are popular!

Happy halloween!  grinning pumpkin

Malawi Shows a Way Forward in Adaptation to Climate Change

Once in a while, I encounter the opinion that concern for the environment is a “full stomach phenomenon”: that only people who have enough to eat can afford to care about the natural world, and In some instances it’s true. For example, I’ve seen evidence of people illegally using mosquito nets for fishing: if you’re hungry, it’s a way to obtain a meal… but the use of such a fine mesh means that you’re taking not just the mature fish, but everything. In effect, you’re borrowing against the future food supply, and that never ends well.

At some point, I’ll have to do a post about ecologist Garret Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. The idea of sustainability as a “full stomach phenomenon” really is a tragedy, because the people most at risk from environmental degradation due to pollution, over-fishing, climate change and the like… are inevitably the poor.

An article that appeared recently in the Face of Malawi was very encouraging: not describing some top-down initiative from policymakers, but progress achieved through the Farm Radio Trust. (I’ve written before about the importance of radio for isolated communities…) Radio listener clubs were established, such that family farmers could be informed about climate change, mitigation strategies and the use of compost manure. Radio station staff were trained on climate-smart agriculture, and throughout the radio series, feedback was sought from listeners, in the form of SMS messages and participation in opinion polls. An integrated solution involving outreach workers, broadcast radio and the communities themselves has resulted in a considerable uptake of improved farming practices, shaped by the people who know the local situation best. This is the way it has to be, if initiatives are to be sustained in the long-term.

The premise of the article is that an anticipated human population of nine billion by 2050 will require that food production increases by 70%. Without action of the kind described, even maintaining existing levels of production will be difficult, due to ongoing environmental degradation, but the Face of Malawi article describes an affordable and above all practical way to integrate ten millennia of accumulated agricultural knowledge, a century of radio, and somewhat less than a decade of cellphones in the remoter parts of Malawi – with considerable effect.

The Farm Radio Trust is involved in a whole range of initiatives, such as ‘Integrated Soil Fertility Management’, and ‘Radio for Farmer Value Chain Development’, the latter seeking to enhance farmers’ understanding of the value chain in which they operate, particularly for groundnuts, such that improved communication will make the whole more effective. I’d expect to see a greater share of the value-add for growers, in the future.

Clever stuff.

Fish and Ships

The supply chain for fish could be a lot greener. I’m not going to go into the politics of quotas, territorial waters or anything like that; simply looking at what happens after the fish are caught is complicated enough. The rate at which fish spoils is alarming, so they have to be gutted and packed in ice flake as quickly as possible. As soon as the fish come ashore, they’re boxed up and sent to a fish market. It’s the boxes that are of interest here.

At best, you’ll see fish boxes being backhauled, empty, while elsewhere you find disposable polystyrene boxes lying abandoned at the back of a fishmonger’s or restaurant. Can’t we do better?

For years, this has been the choice: reusable or disposable fish boxes. As with all reusable packaging, there’s the danger that it doesn’t get returned and reused, and the investment in packaging is wasted. If you’re doing regular business with the same people, a reusable solution is the obvious choice; if you don’t know your customer, a disposable fish box is going to be needed.

The manufacturers of expanded polystyrene fish boxes will tell you that theirs is the ideal solution. It’s lightweight, a great insulator and “mostly air” so it saves materials. So what if it only gets used once: if burned for energy recovery polystyrene is twice as effective (by weight) as coal. So what’s not to love?

expanded polystyrene fish box

End-of-life expanded polystyrene fish box

It’s weak. Boxes made from expanded polystyrene need to be thick-walled, and that’s a bind because it means you can’t nest them together. You don’t get many expanded polystyrene fish boxes on a truck… and that makes them expensive: not to manufacture but to deliver. Then you fill your polystyrene box with fish and crushed ice, and send it on its way. Once it reaches its destination, you’re left with a fishy-smelling and none-too hygienic polystyrene mess. Flies love them – and of course, the waste is light enough to blow all over the place, and it floats on water. Waste polystyrene is not at all pretty, and when you consider that the UK fishing industry gets through 14,000 tonnes of the stuff per year, the light weight is no longer a virtue: it indicates an awfully large volume of waste. When I noticed that the mountain of waste polystyrene at Grimsby fish docks was visible on Google Earth, I decided that something had to be done.

So what do you do?

The normal industry solution is to invest in a machine that crushes expanded polystyrene fish boxes (with or without the application of heat: the hot version achieves better compaction) and then send the material for “recycling”. This is disingenuous as the fishy smell normally relegates fish boxes to the energy recovery route (it gets incinerated). Still its calorific value is high, so waste-to-power seems like a win… but I wanted to try a new material for fish boxes.


If you’re going to all the trouble of keeping your fish and ice flakes cool anyway… why not keep the fish box cool as well, and create a container that literally melts away when you’re done with it?

Except that ice isn’t strong enough. Give a box made of ice a little bump, and it will shatter into a million pieces… right?

Not necessarily.

Not if you’ve heard of Geoffrey Pyke.

Geoffrey Pyke, 1893–1948

Geoffrey Pyke, 1893–1948

Pyke was a loon. Let’s be clear about this: when you think about the archetypal mad inventor… you’re thinking of Pyke. The man was dangerously unconventional… and that was his job. During the Second World War he was charged with coming up with crazy things that the enemy wouldn’t anticipate (and some of them were very crazy indeed, but that’s another story).

The ‘big story’, where Geoffrey Pyke is concerned, was his proposal to win the Battle of the Atlantic with a new kind of ship.

Unsinkable, and made of ice. Codename Habbakuk: a vast ‘bergship’ that would sit in the Atlantic, acting as a base for aircraft that would attack enemy U-boats, all the while shrugging off their puny torpedoes. That the construction of his bergship (and more importantly, its built-in refrigeration units) would have required more materials than a whole fleet of conventional aircraft carriers doesn’t appear to have deterred Pyke one little bit.


A blueprint for Habbakuk, the aircraft carrier made entirely from ice.

There was method in Pyke’s madness… just about. It wasn’t to be made from ordinary ice, but from a kind that was so strong it could absorb bullets – and Pyke knew just how to make it. Back in the 1930s Herman Mark and Walter Holenstein of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn had described how ice could be made much stronger if the water was mixed with cotton wool fibres before freezing. In fact, all kinds of fibres worked, and produced a material at least three times as strong as concrete. Despite the Brooklyn connection, to this day the material carries the name of its most enthusiastic advocate, as Pykrete. Add something fibrous to water; say wood pulp of the kind used in paper-making (about 14% by weight is as much as you can squeeze in) and let the whole lot freeze. Not only do the fibres act like rebar does in concrete (vastly improving its tensile strength) but when melting exposes the fibres, this outer layer acts as an insulator, slowing any further melting.

For Geoffrey Pyke, this meant that cheap and plentiful materials found in Canada could be used to create the biggest ship that the world had ever seen. There are stories (possibly exaggerated, or made up entirely) that a block of Pykrete was demonstrated most satisfactorily in Winston Churchill’s bathtub, while in another demonstration a revolver was discharged at a bucket of water ice, and a bucket of Pykrete. The ice shattered; the Pykrete caused a ricochet and an American officer was hit in the leg.

The bergship idea was taken seriously, for a while. Ultimately, improvements in the rage of aircraft, and the realisation that building Pyke’s invention would strip an awful lot of Canada of its trees meant that the project came to and end… but not before a remarkably successful technology demonstrator was constructed in secret, and sailed on Lake Patricia in Canada, one hot summer.

After coming up with a few more incredibly off-the-wall inventions, none of them adopted, Geoffrey Pyke committed suicide in 1948. From time to time, somebody proposes that Pkyrete should be used to construct seasonal features in ski resorts, or Antarctic base facilities… but nobody ever actually did anything much with Pykrete. You might have seen when ‘Mythbusters’ demonstrated the viability of a Pykrete boat, made from water and newspapers (with judicious use of a CO2 fire extinguisher for freezing when it started to delaminate). You might have seen when ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ did something similar a few years later… but nobody has ever done anything particularly significant with Pykrete.

The BBC consulted me, when they attempted to recreate Pyke’s idea on ‘Bang Goes the Theory’...

The BBC consulted me when they attempted to recreate Pyke’s idea on ‘Bang Goes the Theory’. (Photo: Solent News & Photo Agency)

I wasn’t in the shipbuilding business, but I was interested in shipping fish. My fish boxes would be heavier than the polystyrene kind, but I reasoned that this would be OK as they would only be making a one-way trip, having been made on-site where the fish were landed and processed. (Who wants to transport a truckload of empty polystyrene boxes to each fish dock, anyway?) Once the fish box had been finished with, it could be left to disappear in its own time, being 86% fresh water. The 14% pulp was biodegradable by definition, and if present in quantity it could be rotted down for use as a soil improver, or pressed into fuel pellets.

During my programme of experiments I discovered some interesting things. You don’t actually need a big, wet mass of sawdust or wood pulp: a ‘sandwich’ of corrugated card with a more absorbent layer of paper on either side will create a material that’s as strong as plywood, once wetted and frozen. I found that a broken or melted Pkyrete sample would ‘self heal’ if returned to the freezer. A collection of fibres that were merely damp were almost as good as a much more saturated mixture in terms of impact resistance, although the thermal mass of the saturated material was better. One of the big problems was ‘freezer burn’: water leaving the Pykrete by sublimation, and condensing elsewhere within the freezer. This is what eventually ruins food that isn’t stored in an airtight container, and an exposed Pykrete sample was seen to lose a lot of its strength over the course of six weeks or so.

Pykrete versus hammer

This lightweight sample, made from damp strips of cardboard, was strong enough to withstand repeated hammer blows.

I had some fun recreating the ‘Mountbatten Experiment’: shooting at samples of water ice and various recipes for Pykrete. I can confirm that Pykrete resists impacts splendidly.

And yes, I had some fun recreating the ‘Mountbatten Experiment’: shooting at samples of water ice and various recipes for Pykrete.

Water ice shatters at the first strike. Not a bad shot, if I say so myself…

Pykrete target

Pykrete simply doesn’t shatter the way water ice does. This sample has absorbed several bullets.

I knew the Pykrete fish box wouldn’t be perfect for all applications. It’s out of the running for transport of fish by air, for example, since meltwater is not permitted with airfreight (dry ice is employed in such applications). Even so, I thought somebody would appreciate the idea of being able to make their own single-use fish boxes.

I designed a ‘flat pack fish box’ made from my papery plywood substitute, plus a means of sputtering a Pykrete mixture onto a cold, collapsible former that meant one could cast a Pykrete fish box in minutes.

Pykrete fish box

Conceptual design for a fish box, cast in Pykrete.

Pykrete fish box

Design for a flatpack Pykrete box: just assemble, spray with water, and leave in the cold store.

The fishing industry hated the idea of a reinforced ice fish box. Nobody I spoke to would touch it. Were they wedded to their recent investment in machines that crushed up end-of-life polystyrene boxes? Maybe. Were there food hygiene rules that I didn’t know about? That seemed unlikely, given the perfunctory (in some cases non-existent) washing practices that I saw employed with reusable fish boxes. I began to suspect that those in the cold chain for fish don’t actually refrigerate it as well as we might hope. If the product isn’t kept reliably and consistently below zero throughout its time in the supply network, that would be a powerful argument against trusting to a fish box that might turn to mush due to poor refrigeration. (Was this the reason that a frozen fish box was a non-starter? I think… maybe.)

life cycle diagrams

I still think I was on to something, though.

The biggest nail in the coffin of the Pykrete fish box came when I lost control of the intellectual property. An administrator who was creating web pages for all our research projects decided that she needed some text on the project, and dipped into an internal report to obtain it. When you’re going after a patent (or several) the one thing that is guaranteed to destroy your chances is disclosure: a previous revelation of the features or methods that you were seeking to protect.

With the publishing of several key ideas on innovative features for Pykrete fish box manufacture on-demand, there was no possibility of any commercial return on the project, so it came to an end.

And the administrator who leaked my secrets? I think she’s still in the freezer.

Six of the Best

The 99% Invisible podcast isn’t about the supply chain; it’s about design, in all its many forms… but it’s surprising how often something relevant to my interests crops up. (And even when it’s not related to the day job, this series of podcasts is a delight to listen to.) Here’s a shortlist of some particularly good 99% Invisible podcasts that contain something of interest to a person studying supply chain management… although I’d recommend popping over to iTunes and getting every episode. It’s a great bit of intelligent listening, guaranteed to make your commute seem a little less onerous!

Episode 55: The Best Beer in the World – a bold claim, and worth investigating at any time… but this episode is interesting because the brewer doesn’t seem to obey the law of supply and demand as we know it, and operates a curious kind of anti-marketing.

Episode 124: Longbox – packaging is always a supply chain topic worthy of investigation, I find… but the packaging for REM’s 1991 album ‘Out of Time’ may actually have changed the political landscape of the USA forever. Strange but true. Also, the episode provides an interesting picture of music retail in transition, from LPs to compact disc.

REM Out of Time - longbox

Do you remember when CDs had an extra layer of packaging; the ‘Longbox’?

Episode 64: Derelict Dome – providing an introduction to the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, an early advocate of sustainability. It’s not just about his fascination with geodesic domes, but his motivations.

Episode 30: The Blue Yarn – explaining how the Toyota Production System came to be employed not in manufacturing, but in the redesign of a hospital management system. A piece of yarn was used to map the path that a cancer patient would take on a typical visit for treatment, with surprising results.

Episode 70: The Great Red Car Conspiracy – because everyone likes a good conspiracy story, don’t they? Whatever happened to the Red Car, Los Angeles’ mass transit system that once had 1,100 miles of track? Well, it turns out there was a conspiracy… just not the one you’ve probably heard about.

Pacific Electric ‘Red Cars’ in the scrapyard

Who scrapped the Red Car, and why?

Episode 108: Barcodes – narrowly edging out the episode on Cow Tunnels, which was also good, but I felt I ought to acknowledge one of my sources. When I decided to start this blog to commemorate the 40th birthday of the barcode, much of what I knew about them (barcodes, that is, not cows) had come from listening to this podcast.

Happy listening.

What has packaging ever done for us?

“I took a train to Liverpool. They were having a festival of litter when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes, and carrier-bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. They fluttered gaily in the bushes and brought colour and texture to pavements and gutters. And to think that elsewhere we stick these objects in rubbish bags.”

– Bill Bryson, ‘Notes from a Small Island’


That’s the trouble with packaging: some of it has a useful life that’s measured in hours, yet it hangs around for months; even years… and we’re expending approximately 2% of our Gross Domestic Product upon it.

Easter egg

An Easter egg might not have a whole lot to do with the Resurrection, but life after death is a big problem for packaging. The plastic layer in this one could last for centuries.

Why should a wrapper last so much longer than the sandwich it contains? In short… what has packaging ever done for us?

Eight things, in fact: and here they are. It might provide physical protection (such as when an eggbox protects its fragile contents) or barrier protection (keeping dust and moisture out… or perhaps keeping moisture in, such as when keeping a loaf of bread fresh). Of course, small items might be fiddly, or too cheap to be worth the trouble of selling individually, so another purpose of packaging is containment, also referred to as ‘agglomeration’.

Container Ship

I never knew it, but what I got for my 6th birthday wasn’t a container ship: it was an agglomeration.

Next up, there’s information transmission, and this comes in two forms, probably best summarised as marketing and other information. The text, images and glimpses of the contents that seek to persuade you to part with your money make up the former, while other information might include the ‘best before’ date, instructions for recycling, safety warnings, or a barcode.

Then there’s security: seals so that you can be sure nobody has opened the package before you buy it, and perhaps an RFID tag in an anti-theft role. Anti-counterfeiting features such as labels that are difficult to copy also fall into this category.

The last two purposes of packaging are convenience, and portion control. Carrying handles, features that make a product stackable, spouts, pump dispensers and so on all exist for convenience, while portion control is found with things like yoghurt pots, or in applicators that deliver a single dose of a drug.

Are there really just eight purposes for packaging? Well… that’s what most practitioners seem to think. If you really want a longer list, my personal preference would be to further subdivide convenience, recognising that the features that make a product convenient to the customer might be entirely different to those that are convenient during shipping, or to the retailer. Features that make palletising or load securing easier might be examples of convenience in transit (although some convenience might be derived from characteristics of the product rather than the packaging – have a look at my presentation on design for logistics). For an example of packaging that is convenient for the retailer, we need look no further than punched holes or hooks that allow a clamshell or blister pack to be hung on a peg.

So that’s packaging: a two-edged sword. It’s useful, but it’s a source of a great deal of waste. It also makes an excellent topic for student projects because the complexity is about right. It’s hard to criticise a multinational such as Ford or Toyota for the environmental performance of a complicated system that might have twenty man-years of engineering in it, but critically reviewing the box for an Easter egg (or performing an entire life cycle analysis) is possible… and can be highly informative. Given the scale of consumption, the potential for waste is considerable… and packaging design is a science in itself.

Now, if you made it all the way down here to the end of the article, relax and enjoy this oldie, on the subject of information transmission in packaging design:

They might be pretty, but Apple’s early iPod boxes are actually pretty poor, in terms of design for logistics. Why does a product the size of a cigarette packet need to be contained in a something that’s almost as big as a shoebox? Even allowing for a mains transformer and software on a compact disc (neither of which are included with modern iPods) it appears that Apple were shipping a substantial amount of fresh air around the world.

But it’s Apple air, and who wouldn’t want to pay for that?