Under the heading “About life and packaging”, the Internet portal Unipack.ru offers an interview with Anton Steeman, an international expert in the field of packaging, owner of the blog Best In Packaging.
As a packaging engineer you are a long time associated with the packaging industry, How did it start? Do you have special education skills in this area?
In the sixties of the previous century after my study in mechanical technology and a 2 years stretch in military service, which was by the way obligatory during the Cold War, I got my first job with a large food company in the south of the Netherlands. From day one the company pronounced me to be its new packaging engineer. Of course I had my basic technical education, but I knew nothing specific about packaging. Don’t forget packaging was in its infancy and seen as a nuisance to production as well as marketing. There were no educational options in Europe. Fortunately the company was very generous as it allowed me to visit all types of exhibitions worldwide, even in the USA, and allowed me to buy whatever book or magazine I wanted. The company was very anxious to make a qualified packaging engineer out of me as fast as possible.
Often we can hear that the packaging is one of the factors of environmental pollution. Do you agree with that? Your attitude to the problem of packaging and the environment?
When we look at packaging from an integral point-of-view, we indeed must admit that packaging is one of the factors of environmental pollution. Look from the mining of aluminium and iron ore to its final packaging product, look from the harvesting of wood to the final paperboard result for the packaging industry. Fortunately the wood is often (but not everywhere) from managed areas, in contrast to aluminium, iron ore and let’s not forget the oil industry in relation to plastics.
As you can learn from my blog “Best In Packaging” I promote “innovations in packaging technology with a ‘touch of greenness’ and an accent on sustainability and recyclability”. Well, that’s my attitude towards the relation of packaging with the environment.
It is well-known that I, in principal, am averse to bio-degradable and/or compostable packaging material. Not because it mightn’t be a solution, but because the consumer is unable to see the difference and consequently the bio-degradable and compostable post-consumer packaging ends up in the recycling stream, where it frustrates the purity of the recyclate. We haven’t yet sufficient facilities in place to compost. That’s why you see in the USA regulations that PET bottles with biodegradable additives have to have a warning on the label, which instruct the consumer not to add the bottle in the specific recycling stream.
I don’t say that we should stop with developments of bio-degradable packaging material, not at all, but we have to design simple instructions for the consumer. It all comes back to selective collecting of post-consumer packaging in all its formats.
You were born in the Netherlands, isn’t it? And you live in Brazil. How did you get in Brazil and why Brazil?
Yes, during the last World War I was born in the Netherlands and now I divide my time between the Netherlands and the Amazonian Delta in Brazil. In both places I write about packaging, not only for my own blog, but also for various professional magazines. Furthermore I am frequently invited as a speaker about packaging developments in various places of the world.
Now, how did I end up in Brazil? Well, for some 40 years I had been working as a consultant for many (international and well-known) food and non-food industry worldwide, mainly in Europe, USA, Asia and some in North and South Africa, but never in South America. So, when I travelled from Mexico through the Caribbean and ended up in Belém do Pará in Brazil, I was fascinated by the huge potency it had, and not only in terms of packaging. At was at the time that the Soviet Union transformed into what it is today. In my eyes, it was a transformation period which not only influenced Eastern Europe and EurAsia, but many other parts of the world, including South America. I stayed, as I wanted to see and undergo the development of this country. It didn’t disappoint me, although … (but about that later).
In addition to the blog ‘Best in Packaging’ you have a blog about Brazil that is called ‘Brazil in Hot Pants’. This reminded me of the old song (1971) called Hot Pants. Do you know this song? Do you like women in hot pants?
No, I don’t remember this song. If it is one from 1971, it’s almost certain I never heard it. At that time I was very serious, probably too serious. Not spending time with pop songs. Oh, I like hot pants, as long as they are worn by the right body. But that has nothing to do with the blog “Brazil in Hot Pants”. When I created the blog, I was fed up with the general world view about Brazil of being a country solely known by its semi-naked girls on the beach. I wanted to write a blog showing the real life in Brazil, its problems, its developments. But I needed a name which would attract viewers looking for the female side of Brazil, while I hoped they would also read some more serious articles. That’s why I have a mix of articles about Brazilian beauties (Carnival) and political and human themes.
It is a pity that I have too little time for this blog, particularly at this moment, when so much is going on in Brazil. Let’s hope in the future I can spend some more time with it.
What do you like about Brazilians and what do you like not?
I can’t answer that question. Look, you can’t answer the same question about the Russian. Both countries are very large with a wide variety of original tribes and people. Brazil is a mixture of the many original tribes of Indians, the descendants of the Portuguese colonists, the descendants of the black slaves from Africa and the emigrants from all over Europe (East and West) and don’t forget the Japanese. Brazil has the largest concentration of Japanese outside Japan. And now the Chinese are also coming. And they all mix, mingle and marry with each other. From its very origins it is a very easy going society for that matter. Very different from the USA, where intermarriage is still a “no-no”. The Brazilian doesn’t have that problem. Anyway not in the northern part of the country, where I live. So, if I want to talk about the Brazilian I talk about the people living in the wide Amazonian delta and then I can say I like them because of the way they accept life and the way they live their life. With all their poverty, their daily problems, they still see fit to enjoy life. Of course very limited, but what is left positive they enjoy and the negative is for tomorrow. For a strictly educated Dutchman, like me, it was a revelation. It was, and still is, a joy to live in the middle of it and enjoy what you have, restricted or primitive as it might be.
And now what I don’t like. It is the other side of the coin of what I said I like. The meekness of the Brazilian. Of course this is easily explained, as it is due to the lack of quality education, the exploitation by oligarchic families, the low quality of products marketed by the multi-nationals, which is all covered up and suppressed by the immense bureaucracy and its inherent corruption. The Brazilian isn’t a fighter, isn’t a protester. He is used to accept the inevitable, or what is inevitable in his eyes. But times are changing. Without doubt you have heard about the recent demonstrations and street protests. Not only in São Paulo and Rio, but nationwide. Finally the Brazilian gets angry, wants to improve the quality of life, not only financially. No, much more in terms of eliminating corruption, improve public services, education and health care, clean out the Augean stables of politics.
And don’t think the protests will stop. It will go on and on until the politicians (local, state and federal) will satisfy the people. There is no way back anymore.
Of course you can’t compare Brazil with Russia, but in general terms both countries are more or less in an identical stage of development and it is fascinating to see how the people of the two countries cope with their demands and expectations, each in their own way.
What is the situation with packaging in Brazil?
The Brazilian market of consumer goods is dominated by the multi-nationals. Consequently the packaged goods are all more or less a copy of what you find in the international market. There is little packaging development. There are some interesting design agencies, but they are restricted to graphics and printing and don’t develop structural design. Every now and then you see some tentative design coming up. But this situation also will change. As more people are entering the group of middle-class consumers, the cry for better products and packaging is growing, which have to be answered by the packaged goods industry.
Have you ever been to the famous carnivals? What are your impressions?
Of course I have. Particularly in the first years of my stay in Brazil. Nowadays I find the Carnival too much commercialised and officially regulated/organised. The original and spontaneous fun of the street carnival is gone. But it might be my age, it still is a big event.
What do you do in Brazil? Have you your own company?
I live in a leisured environment. I write, give packaging advices to people who mainly contact me by email, some local companies and sometimes I am invited to be a speaker at a conference.
Do you have a basic principle in the life that you are trying to follow?
I am not sure it’s a principle, but when I die I like to have the feeling/satisfaction that I have assisted/supported some young people in obtaining improved life conditions. Furthermore I wanted to leave my experience and knowledge about packaging to others. Universities and schools aren’t interested in old blokes, so the simplest way was to start a blog and that’s what I did. With some 40.000 visitors a month from all over the world, I praise myself that I am reaching my goal.
Do you consider yourself a person with a sense of humour? Were there any funny stories with you, it may be related to the packaging industry?
Yes, I think I have a healthy sense of humour. However don’t ask me for funny stories. I am not a storyteller and mostly can’t recall funny stories or jokes.
In 2014 the FIFA World Cup will be held in Brazil. How is the country preparing for it?
Ahh, that’s a good question. I almost say: Forget the World Cup 2014. Brazil will not be ready. Oh, the stadiums will basically be ready, but not the related infrastructure, such as airports, public transport, hotels etc. It will be a mess. Ten, twenty-times worse than the JMJ (Jornada Mundial da Juventude) in Rio last week.
The investments in the World Cup are sky-rocketing and goes hand-in-hand with corruption. And that’s exactly why the street protests and manifestations will continue. The common man can’t pay the entry-fees. They are ridiculously high. But what frustrates them more is the waste of money of the World Cup, while healthcare, education and security are short of cash and are consequently in a very bad state. We will see a lot of public protest in the run to and during the World Cup and after that in the run to the Olympics.
The time the politicians and regents could satisfy the Brazilian with football is definitely gone. The Brazilian wants more and don’t doubt he will get it.
What do you like doing in your leisure time? Do you have any hobbies?
I write and I love writing. But besides writing I read and love books about the combination of history/anthropology/politics. Furthermore I love to research religions. Not the church institutions, but the origin of (pagan, medieval) religions in relation to the modern, or better still, actual ones.
I have one more hobby, a dull one in many eyes. I collect stamps. I know it is an item almost forgone, but stamps represent history and culture of a country as no book has done yet.
Interview: Michael Bredis