Inside Ernest Shackleton's 1907 hut in the Antarctic are shelves of the original tinned provisions with still readable paper labels indicating their contents. Even after the passage of almost 100 years, they remain microbiologically sterile and safe to eat, but are understandably taste-free. They stand as a testimony to the superb effectiveness of packaging, fulfilling the three functions of product containment, product protection, and provision of product information. If Shackleton was alive today, consumer packaging – especially the humble tinned steel can – would be one of the few items of our world that would be familiar to him.

That we still have the same technology today is not packaging's fault. Hammered on cost grounds by suppliers and retailers, packaging has been forced into innovation retreat for years, and lately has become a soft target for environmentalists. While a piece of packaging might initially bring positive feelings and reassurance of product quality, once it has to be discarded, it becomes just another pain in the garbage. But there are forces driving packaging change and these are growing.

For consumers, the existing functions of bringing the product safely to the shelves and then being part of the buying decision are largely taken for granted. Now, consumers are tired of packs that make demands on their time and attention, are difficult to open or dispose of properly, and contain instructions in font sizes that cannot easily be read.

For brands, differentiation and emotional engagement with the consumer are becoming essential properties. All too often, the identification of unmet consumer needs seem to elude most marketers who react by launching a plethora of new products, most of which quickly disappear. This contributes to the sea of colored noise that greets shoppers in most supermarkets – row upon row of near-identical products that fail to engage the senses, lift the spirits, educate, inspire, or entertain.

The opportunities for change in packaging draw heavily on the development of new and novel materials. Smarter packaging will extend the traditional functions of protecting, containing, and informing to also include an ability to enhance the product and its consumption, safety, convenience, and security. To do these things, traditional packaging materials – glass, metal, plastic, and paper/board – will need to be modified by the incorporation of smart and functional materials, deposited largely as coatings and as part of printed labels and thin-film electronic devices.

A further challenge will be the growing information needs of an increasingly technology-literate consumer base. In the future, the majority of consumers will expect information on food packaging regarding freshness, ripeness, ingredients, nutritional content, allergenicity, health benefits, organic content, pesticide residues, additives, and the ethics of food production, all in the language of their choice. The printed paper label will simply be overwhelmed by these demands, suggesting shifts toward visual and audio forms of communication are the only answer. Already, smart labels that change color are being used on seafood products and fruit to give an indication of product freshness.

But it is the ubiquitous sell-by or use-by product dating system that simply has to go, since it is temperature, not time, that has the major influence on perishable product degradation. Typically, a product shelf life of 23 days at 4°C plummets to just 2 days at 22°C. Fifteen years ago, the US military, sitting on a $1 billion stockpile of drugs past their printed expiry dates, commissioned tests to check whether they should be discarded. They found that ∼90% were still safe and effective. Smart packaging will use color-change labels, which integrate temperature and time, to create a visible and accurate indication of product expiry. Such packaging already plays a critical role for the World Health Organization in the distribution of temperature-sensitive vaccines in developing countries. Sadly, consumers are yet to benefit from this technology, which not only better protects the consumer but can also contribute to reducing the amount of perishable product waste.

In the future, more sophisticated indicator labels will need to be developed that combine chemical sensing with simple electronic processing and low-cost displays in a flexible, disposable format. Including radio-frequency identification technology could remotely warn users and automated systems whenever stability problems have occurred. Real sound and vision communication needs to wait for the commercialization of cost-effective printed electronics on packaging, powered by either printed polymer photovoltaics or thin-film batteries.

So packaging in the future will be radically different from that of today. Sound and vision on packaging will be ubiquitous – together with aromas, automatic updating, and other useful responsive features. The technology enablers for this journey are strongly materials based. So while packaging is not a very fashionable subject, there are fascinating challenges in the development of inexpensive, disposable packaging incorporating smart labels, coatings, and devices. Simple but useful functionality could make a difference to people by preventing errors, saving lives, and helping to limit waste.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71469-9