The problem of plastic: Open Innovation Forum tackles sustainable packaging

Can major industry challenges be addressed more effectively by taking fresh approaches to how innovation happens?


At a recent meeting, industry experts from across the food, drink and FMCG sectors were presented with the challenge of rethinking packaging for sustainability. Around 50 members of the Open Innovation (OI) Forum were asked to pool collective knowledge and creative thinking to grapple with the pressing need to find more sustainable packaging solutions for perishable products.


Delegates took part in an exercise over two days, to create a prototype for an innovative sustainable package. Six teams were assigned a product area within food/drink/FMCG – fresh food, snacks, protein/meat, drink, chilled food, and care/beauty – and each was asked to investigate, design and create an innovative package for a chosen product.


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. 


Watch the video from the Open Innovation Forum here:


Collaborative approach to innovation


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.


The Forum meets three times a year, to discuss ideas and share best practice on innovation strategy, enabling members to learn from each other and from guest expert speakers. The Forum’s Roadmap, a powerful sector-specific tool actively used by the members to identify current issues and trends, provides topics for focus, including the issue of sustainable packaging as the topic for this meeting.


Design Thinking


The packaging challenge was structured using ‘Design Thinking’, an approach 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.


As HPI expresses it:

“In a time in which the boundaries of technological feasibility are continuously pushed, the key question remains: What is the user need?”


User-centred design can result in completely rethinking fundamental preconceptions of product attributes. One example given was rethinking the experience and perspective of children in hospital needing to have a CT scan; by empathising with the child’s viewpoint and understanding the need to make it a less frightening and more child-friendly experience, designers created a scanner that is decorated as a pirate ship.


The five principles of Design Thinking are: 1) user orientation, 2) experimentation, 3) problem identification, 4) collaboration, 5) visualisation. Team working is essential, particularly respecting inputs of those who aren’t ‘experts’ and bring valuable, different perspectives.


Open Innovation Forum Design Thinking 5 Principles 


Design Thinking encourages experimentation early and often. Failure is more helpful if it happens early.


Open Innovation Forum Design Thinking cost of mistakes 


Challenge day 1: Understanding user needs

Working with the Design Thinking framework, on day 1 each team was asked to focus on a different product area (fresh food, snacks, protein/meat, drink, chilled food, and care/beauty) to understand consumer needs. They 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. Each team captured, refined and synthesised the user needs and insights, before briefly presenting findings back to the full Forum.


Open Innovation Forum Design Thinking Dominic Oughton

Dominic Oughton from the Institute for Manufacturing explaining Design Thinking principles to facilitate the team exercise on sustainable packaging.


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.


The protein and meat team decided to look at packaging of a whole chicken, which typically uses flexible packaging combined with a plastic tray. They identified different types of users, from farm shoppers through to busy, time-poor parents.


As part of the Disruptive Innovation Festival, representatives from each team took part in a live-stream session, explaining their discussions so far.


During day 1, there were also keynote talks from expert speakers who helped inform the discussion on sustainable packaging. 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. Adam emphasised the need for fast action across the supply chain, starting with how packaging is conceived at design stage. A holistic approach to the plastic problem was shared by Libby Peake of Green Alliance, covering the disturbing environmental damage of plastic pollution. She 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. Evidence suggests that when given clear advice, consumers tend to do the right thing, but more clarity is needed.


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. He also pointed out that innovation is not simply about products, but also about R&D, technical activities, process development, culture and training. 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.


Open Innovation Forum Design Thinking iterating ideas

Day two input from expert speakers helped to shape and inform the issues behind sustainable packaging and the potential solutions.


Chris Elliott from the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) 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.” IGFS works with industry partners on research to address major challenges in global food supply, including how to mitigate foodchain vulnerabilities to accidents, contamination, fraud, as well as how to track and trace food to reduce waste.


Design for sustainability was addressed by Simon Clegg from RPC, suppliers of plastic packaging. He 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. RPC has developed a grading system to help their industry customers assess how sustainable a particular design is. Aluminium as an alternative to plastic was discussed by Chesta Tiwari of Crown Packaging, who explained the long lifespan of aluminium through high recycling rates, with 79% steel recycled, makes it a more sustainable choice when measured over a longer period.


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. In terms of the most effective ways of solutions for addressing the issues, Steve Thomas from Cambridge Consultants pointed to product strategy as the starting point, including market analysis, reducing incorrect preconceptions. For example, a lot of the plastic pollution in the oceans comes from only ten rivers around the world, and a more impactful priority for tackling plastic in the sea would be to fund the building of recycling facilities on the Yangtze river rather than focusing on replacing plastic straws with wooden spatulas in London cafés, with the added benefit of improved waste sanitation in China to lift people out of poverty. Waste streams as a valuable resource was discussed by Eoin Cunningham of Queen’s University Belfast, who highlighted 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, saying that 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 (watch the film to see these in action, about 19 minutes in -


Open Innovation Forum Design Thinking team prototypes


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, making a tasty glaze. There’s no mess, no fuss, no waste, and the kids will eat it.


Open Innovation Forum Design Thinking protein group


From the beauty and care team came a lipstick in which the container barrel would be kept, and colour ‘cartridges’ bought and replaced.


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 some innovative thinking about how 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.



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IfM Briefing - Innovation for Food Security and Sustainability


For further information please contact:

Dominic Oughton

T: +44 (0) 7778 873512