No AFP without supermarkets?
A possible reconstruction
This story starts 20 years before the establishment of AFP. It’s 1948. The United States sees the opening of the first supermarket, where customers themselves take their groceries from the shelves. Even more significantly: they no longer have to go to the baker, butcher, greengrocer, grocery store or chemist.
The success of the supermarket concept provides an enormous growth boost for the food sector and also, in its wake, the packaging industry. For supermarkets, bread is an important facet of getting customers into the store, because bread is a daily requirement.
Bread comes packed mainly in waxed paper until 1966. The disadvantage of this packaging is that customers can’t see what they’re buying. Today bread is still an important driver attracting customers into supermarkets. You’ll certainly have seen how bread selections have become ever larger and more luxurious.
Alongside the rise of the supermarket, several other developments have been significant, including the rise of plastics for food packaging.
• Polyethylene was discovered by accident in 1931, but only became available after the war.
• The discovery of the so-called Ziegler-Natta technology in 1952 led to the introduction of polypropylene onto the market later that decade.
These transparent plastics and the development of the associated (co-)extrusion techniques enabled the manufacture of transparent packaging film.
In the first half of the 1960s two new technologies were developed bringing transparent bread packaging closer:
• Invention of the Quick-Lock (the white tag which still closes bread bags in 2019);
• Invention of the bag-sealing machine to make bread bags quickly and in large quantities.
Van Gelder Papier occupied a good position in the ‘waxed paper’ market in the 1960s, and saw the rapid switch from paper to plastic in the US and in parallel, the rise of the supermarkets in Europe. Alongside its application for bread, polyethylene is also used to refine paper. I wasn’t there, but I can well imagine that the company thought at the time: we’ve got the customers and we’re not giving up our good business to other parties.
The first supermarkets in the Netherlands only became possible in 1961 with the arrival of the new Establishment of Businesses Act. The law abolished the requirements for separate sales of meat, vegetables and bread.
The paper industry was a mature one in the 1960s. As an outsider supporting innovation, I admire the speed with which Van Gelder Papier embraced this new technology. Even more so when you learn that the first polypropylene bread bag was launched in the US in 1966, and that Crown Van Gelder PFI, AFP’s predecessor, was founded in 1968.
My conclusion: without the arrival of the supermarket, AFP might not have existed.
Eddy Hilbrink (AFP R&D Manager 1996-2013)