Plastics & Packaging

The vision for packaging – an analysis of future industry movement

Written by Benjamin Lawson on September 25, 2019

As Steve Jobs once said “Packaging can be a theater, it can create a story”. Over recent years, the stories that have been weaved within the theater of the global packaging industry have changed considerably. The on-going research and development into packaging sustainability is an established issue which will ultimately impact on the long-term success of many organisations operating within this space.

As the industry becomes more focused upon circular economy initiatives and aiming to mitigate any further possibility of environmental damage, organisations are evolving to meet the demand and expectations of both customers and environmental governing bodies. As a consequence, this ‘adapt or die’ philosophy is transcending many areas of the global market, focusing in particular on organisations which currently manufacture environmentally suspect packaging solutions. This is the status-quo of the industry today. But what are the patterns which will be evolve into the packaging stories of the future?

The obvious starting point of a discussion in this area is the increasing shift away from plastic packaging, particularly within the food service and retail sector. Waitrose, a British supermarket chain, recently announced several plastic-free packaging options for its customers. The products were widely praised for many reasons including innovative design and the applicability to many types of products within the company’s stores. This is certainly a significant early example of a corporation successfully satisfying the growing needs of its customers whilst effectively contributing to the debate on smart environmental solutions.

However, what has been lost in the more general debate about sustainable packaging is the many advantages that plastic still possesses over other material options. These advantages include the increased transit life of products which are packaged in plastic and the longer shelf-life of plastic-packaged products once they reach their destination. Another interesting consideration in this aspect is the term ‘plastic-free’. The phrase itself seems fairly self-explanatory however what many may not realise is that certain packaging products which are manufactured and marketed as being devoid of plastic based material are actually formulated from bioplastics, with two widely known examples being packaging created from polylactic acids (PLAs) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). Although this form of packaging is another example of an effective sustainable solution, with its mass reduction in non-biodegradable waste, what it potentially signifies is a growing feeling of public confusion as to what fully constitutes plastic packaging and what can consequently be regarded as an environmentally friendly packaging application. Of course, it would certainly be naive to expect every member of the general public to be able to define a biodegradable packaging product. Nevertheless, what would be welcomed moving forward is a widely dispersed and easily discernible definition of plastic packaging which will allow the general public to be effectively educated on the subject and able to join the global discourse on sustainable packaging solutions.

A secondary industry trend which dovetails nicely with the issue of sustainability is the continuous advancement of technology in the context of packaging. In today’s society, consumers have increasingly less time and the balance between work commitments and a happy personal life has never been more apparent. With this in mind, packaging manufacturers are attempting to capitalise on the wider work-focused market. Innovative solutions in this regard include focuses upon an increasing level of food consumption whilst travelling and an emphasis on food packaging products which can impact on the shelf-life of food in between work and the office.

On a wider level, as the global market for online retailing continues, the supply and demand of effective packaging solutions will similarly correspond with this market trend. Over the past 13 years in the U.K, the ratio of internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales has increased from 2.8% to 18.2%. When this is aligned to the growth rate of the flexible packaging industry alone [annual average rate of 3.3% reaching $269 billion in 2024], it is easy to see why packaging manufacturers are seeking ways in which to combat the inevitable complex distribution issues that internet sales present through creating solutions which can safely ship products to various different locations around the world.

Sustainability and technological development will continue to present challenges to the global packaging industry as we move further into the future. Two likely candidates for anticipated future ‘stories’ within the packaging-related theater are greater public knowledge of environmentally-friendly packaging solutions and a continuous evolution of technologically-advanced packaging solutions to meet the needs of the global e-commerce market.

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