The Dutch Packaging Association (NVC) is known throughout the industry as one of the most proactive, outward-looking and forward thinking national organisations in Europe. Tim Sykes spoke to NVC managing director Michaël Nieuwesteeg about interpack, the big issues facing packaging, and the way innovation is transforming industry education.
On the eve of interpack, with the entire packaging industry assembling for its triennial snapshot, it seems fitting to discuss NVC's recently published its 'NVC Special' report, a yearly distillation for the benefit of its members of the key issues facing the industry. The 2017 edition picks out four areas: continuous learning, sustainability, retail and innovation.
The first item on NVC's checklist is the importance of continuous learning. "Every second businesses pack and distribute a hundred thousand products, an activity tens of thousands of professionals are involved in every day," comments Mr Nieuwesteeg. "How do businesses keep their employees up-to-date? And how do employees make sure they stay employable in the fast changing and complex world of packaging? The pressure is increasing on all these businesses to get a better insight in the knowledge and expertise their employees have - both now and in the future."
Live and online
In fact, NVC is taking active steps to address this need by supporting organisations in making effective education plans in the field of packaging and offering a range of opportunities for business students to follow education. These range from short courses and workshops to longer course programmes. The lessons can be given at a joint physical location, but nowadays also in a live online NVC classroom.
"In our vision, using online learning means the barriers to lifelong learning in packaging should be lowered while at the same time maintaining - and even improving - the actual learning result," explains Mr Nieuwesteeg. "Compared with physically gathering in a classroom the loss of time is notably less and the environmental impact is a lot lower. It is no longer necessary to travel and therefore there is less counterproductive stress related to unexpected delays and perceived safety risks. The live online NVC workshops and courses are accessible worldwide, with live tutors offering specialised three-hour sessions, full Q&A opportunities and complete interaction between participants and the live tutor during the lessons."
The three-hour sessions provide the flexibility of enabling business students to spend half a working day in the online classroom and the rest of it on their own work. In addition, NVC has found that the effectiveness of knowledge transfer is higher, because the period between two sessions provides room for contemplation and discussion about the material that was shared. "The NVC online classroom is lively," Mr Nieuwesteeg says. "The tutor asks individual participants to share their answers with the group and discuss their ideas or solving particular questions. It is just like in the real world - but in this case in a setting where course participants from various places in the world can follow the lesson at the same time."
Another topic addressed by NVC Special is the environment. As Mr Nieuwesteeg stated, every second a hundred thousand packaged products are unpacked globally, resulting in the same number of empty packs. These generate a serious environmental challenge.
"Over the past two decades (1996-2016) NVC has been working on writing worldwide standards, providing reliable information and effective business education about packaging and the environment," Mr Nieuwesteeg reveals. "The goal of the PUMA project (2017-2026) is to end packaging as an environmental problem. The key element of PUMA is 'spiral' thinking, where recycling transforms in upcycling and the inevitable after-life phase of the packaging material is taken into consideration already at the moment of the design of the packaged product."
The third theme is the role that packaging plays in the new retail landscape.
"Omnichannel is still the most important characterisation of the new retail," Mr Nieuwesteeg remarks. "The location and moment of purchase and delivery of the purchased product are disconnected because of the increasing use of internet on smartphones and tablets. This results in a less predictable supply chain, new forms of return logistics and extra attention to the interaction between consumer and packaging." This is very much a dynamic landscape, and therefore an issue which requires sustained attention and innovative thinking.
Finally, the report touches on packaging innovation, a subject for which NVC is internationally renowned thanks to its famous biennial 'De Gouden Noot' (Golden Walnut) competition. The NVC Special uses the 2016 contest as the reference point for talking about the aim it is promoting, namely holistic packaging innovation.
"De Gouden Noot is the world's most competitive packaging innovation contest," says Mr Nieuwesteeg. It is a global competition with only one ultimate winner selected. The winner receives the unique trophy with a solid golden walnut. The aim is to stimulate truly holistic packaging innovation and to disseminate the considerations that come into play in that perspective to the benefit of the world packaging community."
The judging of the award is arguably the most rigorous of all the myriad packaging competitions in existence. A jury of jury members consists of representatives of all packaging activities, led by one independent chairperson. Judging the first round alone takes up two days. In the first day each jury member gives an individual score to each of the maximum forty entries. The following day all entries are discussed in a plenary session, and the chairman invites jury members to 'propose' or 'oppose' based on their individual scores. That process results in ten finalists, who are then published worldwide via internet for comment. Each non-finalist receives a report with the jury considerations; a very useful piece of feedback for their innovation. Two months later, the jury meets again. In that second round, each finalist is given thirty minutes to explain to the full jury why they should win the solid Gold trophy.
"The ten 2016 finalists represent a phenomenal variety of packaging, from consumer to B-to-B and from e-commerce to conventional retail," Mr Nieuwesteeg states. "They share a combination of user-oriented thinking with unexpected breakthroughs in materials, usability or functionalities. Just have a look online and make up your mind yourself, as each finalist will resonate with your own plans and ideas most surely.
"The 2016 winners and finalists will be promoted by the NVC at their interpack stand near the North Entrance of Messe Düsseldorf. This includes the ultimate winner FLEX/design for the FLEXA Creations Color Testers, a novel package for consumers based on both creative and functional design that fulfils a real consumer need for testing colours to be used at home. The Zilveren Noot (silver) went to the Ecobulk HX IBC of Schütz Benelux, a combined IBC comprising a closed packaging system with an Impeller which enables repeated stirring processes without having to open the packaging. Meanwhile, the third placed 'bronze nut' was awarded for Huhtamaki's GreeNest, an innovative pack that is made out of 50 per cent natural grass and 50 per cent recycled paper fibres.
Another topic featuring heavily on the NVC radar, set to be a focus for 2018 as well as a prominent theme at interpack, is the fight against food waste. "We live in a world in which two billion people are over-fed and suffer from obesity," remarks Mr Nieuwesteeg. "At the same time, 800 million people are at the edge of starvation as they have no food available. This happens at a moment, where substantial amounts of edible food are thrown away as waste, either in the supply chain towards the customer or after purchasing at home." This is a topic NVC recently addressed at the international 13th PDI Conference in Rome, and it will be looking to accelerate and consolidate the work going on at exhibitions such as interpack (with the Save Food initiative) and Anuga Foodtec 2018.
"Packaging as an activity most certainly is playing a very important role in the food industry and retail, both for good and bad," suggests Mr Nieuwesteeg. "The challenge is clear: how to fight food waste via better packaging? First of all, we have to be honest to ourselves and to the outer world. Is an 18 per cent loss of packaged meat in a retail environment really acceptable? What is our operational definition of 'fresh' food and how does this relate to the on-pack communication with the consumer? Last but not least: how can we altogether define the rules that stimulates packaging innovation into the right direction, i.e. less food waste?"
Drawing together each of these themes, responding to the needs of the market, of the environment, of feeding the world, for innovations that solve problems and for people who can deliver the packaging innovations of the future would seem an appropriate summary of NVC's mission. As Mr Nieuwesteeg says: "Packaging has to constantly rejuvenate in order to maintain its licence to operate in tomorrow's society.
"The NVC stand at interpack is located at ENB/03, near the north entrance.