From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Tetra-pak was broadcast on the 29th May 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
The best way to buy food is undoubtedly fresh from the farm but it’s hard to imagine our lives without the convenience of tinned and frozen foods. And, of course, those that come in a Tetra-pak. It’s the cardboard container that’s more complicated than that sounds, and which revolutionised the transport and sales of everything from milk and fruit juice to soups and even wine. It’s so much part of our kitchen landscape that it’s easy to forget just how ground-breaking it was when it first appeared.
The Tetra-pak was developed in Sweden by Ruben Rausing. When he was studying economics in New York in 1920 he came across self-service shopping and it struck him that food packaging would need to evolve. Old-fashioned grocery stores would make way for what would become modern supermarkets, with items picked off the shelf by the customer. He established a packaging company in Sweden in 1929 and while it was relatively straightforward to package dry goods like cereals, he had been impressed by the American way of selling liquids such as milk in waxed cartons. At that time in Europe, liquids came in glass bottles, which were expensive to transport and complicated to re-use. The challenge was to work out how something new could be done on an industrial scale. The answer came in the singular shape of the tetrahedron, a kind of triangular pyramid.
The idea was prompted by Rausing’s wife commenting on how sausages were made using a tube of meat that was twisted to form separate segments. The same was possible with a tube filled with milk, which could be pinched, twisted and sealed at regular intervals, forming a tetrahedron full of liquid. Rausing patented the idea in 1944 but it took a while longer to perfect the container’s materials, eventually making it from paperboard that was laminated both inside and out with polythene. It was strong, leak-proof, easy to transport, and it could be thrown away after use. An early advertising film described it as packaging a column of milk. Rausing renamed the company Tetra-Pak and the container was made in a variety of sizes, not just for milk but also for fruit juice and even a kind of frozen lollipop for children. In 1963, it was joined by the Tetra Brik, a squared container with folded flaps that could be cut to pour out the contents or punched with a plastic screw-top cap. The material was also refined to include an aluminium coating on the inside of the container which prevented oxidization and was therefore ideal for long-life liquids such as UHT milk. The lack of refrigeration made them cheaper to transport and store, and made the Tetra-pak an invention that was every bit as remarkable as the first metal tin, and an essential in every schoolchild’s lunchbox. That brilliance has been somewhat dimmed by the complexity involved in recycling laminated containers. The takeaway coffee cup has a similar problem, caused by its invisible film of plastic, and which has been partly answered by people using their own keep cups. This is impossible for the global transport of goods. And as research continues to find a way to simplify the process, the world is re-discovering the simple pleasure of glass bottles and metal tins, and even buying goods straight from the farm. Design answers many problems but demands change and sometimes the original ways rise again, unbeaten after all. The Tetra-pak remains a significant innovation in the long and complicated history of food distribution, feeding a world that never sits still.
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