by Lydia Tan
Food packaging is often overlooked as we simply see it as something to hold or wrap our food. But if you think about it, food packaging has been around for ages in Singapore and has developed a lot over those years.
Singapore’s F&B industrialisation
From the early 20th century, food businesses in Singapore were mainly family-run, producing products like sauces, vinegar, and noodles. As the age of industrialisation began, it brought about a shift from small unit production to automated factories, which created a strong food industry in the 60s and 70s.
The rise of canning and preservation techniques saw pineapples become a lucrative crop, and Singapore’s canned pineapples became heavily sought after exports. With more food being mass produced, the manufacturing of metal, bottles, paper boxes and other packaging materials also increased.
Mass-produced cans became lighter and cheaper by using tin-free steel and less metal. The invention of the recyclable pull-tab aluminium can turned out to be a more convenient and environmentally-friendly way to package beverages.
The Tetra Pak packaging was also a new form of packaging that consisted of paper board reinforced with plastics and aluminium. The contamination-free technology allowed for easy and sterile distribution and storage.
Packaging as a brand
As supermarkets emerged into our cosmopolitan society, selling food became a competition to attract casual shoppers browsing the aisles. Manufacturers soon started getting creative with their product packaging to distinguish themselves in the market.
By using distinct logos, graphics, and colours in their designs, local brands such as Khong Guan, Ayam Brand and Tiger Beer created iconic brand images for themselves that made them instantly recognisable on the shelves. Khong Guan’s tall bright red biscuit tins, Ayam Brand’s crowing rooster logo harking back to its French founder, and Tiger Beer’s tiger and palm tree logo are still familiar features that still represent the brands today.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, packaging also started to include more detailed labels with more graphics and information, like nutritional benefits, ingredient allergen warnings and use-by dates. This reflects the evolution of what people started looking out for in what they consume.
Practising the 3Rs
If you thought sustainability is a current topic, think again; the awareness of the need for sustainability was around since the 20th century. Public agencies like the National Environment Agency (NEA), citizen advocates, and initiatives like the Singapore Packaging Agreement encouraged producers to reduce waste and use more sustainable materials in their packaging.
For example, McDonald’s used disposable polystyrene foam “clam-shell” boxes to hold their Big Mac burgers in the 1960s and 70s, but switched over to paper packaging in the 1990s due to public pressure.
People also got creative with how to reuse their food packaging after all the contents have been consumed. For example, biscuit tins were used for sewing kits or to hold small ornaments and other objects, even to this day. Oil tins were sometimes repurposed as steamers by punching holes in the lid and adding wooden handles to the sides.
As overlooked as it may be, our food and drink packaging can tell us a lot about Singapore’s history and culture. It also reflects how the societal changes affect the materials and production methods of packaging.
In an era where people are starting to be more aware of the negative environmental effects of disposables, we are making use of modern technology to create biodegradable or reusable packaging. Who knows what the future of food and drink packaging will bring?