Nick Joy muses on the links between Christmas, smoked salmon – and packaging.

Just lately I have been buying rather a lot of smoked salmon. Having received a lot of packages, I noticed how little these things have changed during my exceedingly long career. I am sure that the plastics used may have changed and also the composition of the boards, but the style, substance and volume of the packaging has changed remarkably little. I wonder if this is more to do with the consumer than the producer. As smoked salmon consumers tend to be the older, more affluent section of society, maybe packaging is influenced by the fact that this group tend to be more resistant to change.

Nonetheless, packaging is a very serious part of our industry’s impact. I am often reminded of my mother’s attitude to Christmas packaging when I was young. She is of the war generation, and from a very early age she knew that life can be horribly unreliable. Both my grandfather and step-grandfather died relatively young from their injuries from the wars.

When faced with such experience of the impermanency of life, habits develop to counter the likelihood of being left without. As we travelled round the world as children (my father was a diplomat), we experienced Christmas in many different countries.

It was nearly impossible to have the usual British Christmas, but one thing remained the same: Father Christmas always gave us our presents in rather wrinkly reused packaging. Rather suspiciously he also wrote in the same illegible scrawl as my mother. Surely the two things could not be linked? Our cynicism grew with time and so did our taking the mickey out of my mum for her parsimony.

Yet her example is a good one and I know that many in our industry use reusable boxes with long-standing customers, precisely because of its sustainability. The cleaning is often a pain and the fact that boxes disappear is also unexplainable even when the company name is imprinted on every possible face. Still, we all know that this is the right way. It’s just not possible in so many of the market situations that we face.

It’s always been galling to me that the frozen product can use a perfectly sustainable cardboard box, which is easy to dispose of and costs fairly little energy. Now, I do want to point out that polystyrene can be recycled into other things. My only issue with it, apart from its source, energy profile and waste issues, is that it can only be recycled into something else, which means that it is a single-use box.

Please understand that I accept that polystyrene is the best insulator and in a one-use scenario is extremely good at keeping fish fresh. It’s just that I wish we could find a good alternative with the same thermal properties that is multiuse or easier to dispose of.

Actually one of my most embarrassing cases of polystyrene waste came when I was taking a fairly high-profile customer for a walk near our farm. I was just rather pompously explaining to her that we had our name put on our feed bags to ensure that we were found responsible for any we let drift when I looked into the wood and saw one of our polystyrene fish boxes impaled on the branch of a tree. It did make the case for having your company name on anything that might go into the environment, but it also was a salutary reminder that you can always do better.

As to packaging further down the chain, the public is still wedded to small packs and plastic, which means that the supplier has little choice. I wonder if the reduced salt and smoke levels also mean that we have to have a much more sterile environment.

My father used to have his fish smoked when I was young and the amount of packaging was minimal. The pellicle on the smoked sides was thick and the smoke very strong with oodles of salt, so perhaps this is why it needed so little protection.

I’m not arguing that we should return to this, but we have, it seems, forgotten that smoking and salting were used as preservative measures before the advent of fridges. So the trend to reduce salt has contributed to the growth of packaging.

I wonder, too, where that delicious pellicle went and why. Who thought of the wonderful idea of shaving it off? Was it because it actually required some use of the teeth? For my part I thought my dad’s fish were delicious at the time, but palates were different then.

I won’t end this with a “bah humbug” as I have grandchildren now. If you ever feel jaundiced about the modern world – the waste, the laziness about preparing food or the hideous over-consumption – then just look into the eyes of a three-year-old at Christmas. If your love of this time of year isn’t restored, then you’re a tougher person than me.

So I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a prosperous and successful New Year. Maybe, just maybe, the world will have a bit more sense next year!

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