While cost reduction is fuelling packaging reduction, the high cost of environmentally-friendly packaging relative to oil remains a barrier to widespread adoption by the food industry, according to Datamonitor packaging innovation director Andrew Streeter.
FPD: What are the emerging consumer and industry trends driving the sustainable packaging market?
AS: Cost reduction - often about material reduction, which has a positive impact on the sustainability agenda. Several large brand owners have come out with material content reductions statements these past 12 months.
Allied to this is material reduction without loss of brand values, so consumer packaged brand perceptions remain intact.
Simplification of packaging is a trend. There's a need for creating mono-material pack structures, often an impossible task but en route it has stimulated simplification of packaging containers.
Consider spreadable fats for example, or trays, pouches of salads. All are simpler, often more lightweight than 10 years ago.
I find the food and drink industry very serious about addressing the sustainability agenda, but reticent about making claims. I guess it's being careful and not drawing comments upon itself, keeping improvements under wraps until required.
FPD: Are any formats preferable to others in terms of environmental impact, for example recycled or compostable? Should certain approaches be favoured above others?
AS: In packaging you cannot really escape ‘horses for courses’. Flexible packaging offers advantages in the context of material content reduction, coupled with off-line printing delivering potentially high impact presentations.
As structural design improves flexibles' formats in areas such as shaping, dispensability and other consumer functions we'll see increasing applications of this medium.
Attendant reductions in material content over rigid packaging applications will be regarded as an environmental benefit, as the impact is proportionally less.
Short supply chains benefit the environment and contribute to the sustainability agenda. I have seen shifts in the concept of selected packaging suppliers to a model where the packaging manufacturing base is the key issue.
I saw this first with major brands in the ‘emerging consumer class’ countries across South East Asia, where brands started buying packaging locally, not from the designated supplier list.
Other benefits kick in, like just-in-time and speedy problem solving. Now the practice is spreading to first world countries.
We have to add to this the growth of in-line packaging manufacturing, reducing the packaging supply chain to often just a few metres. As packaging is constantly competitive, ridged packs – tubs for example - come back into their own and can challenge the power of flexibles.
Compostable packaging needs industrial standards for processing and a willing and knowledgeable consumer. So recycling is a powerful answer, but the science for everything seems a long way off and in the meantime becoming very skilled with packaging formats and ‘localism in the supply chain’ are making important advances.
FPD: What barriers exist in the development of different types of sustainable packaging?
AS: Cost is a major barrier. Cost of development and science, cost of risk and market acceptance, but above all the price of oil.
While oil loiters around $100-$110 a barrel, packaging materials are commercially acceptable. It's only when the oil price increases above these levels do alternative new sustainable materials start to become commercially viable.
The economic difficulties since 2008 have more or less suppressed the oil price but I would have thought global population growth will eventually increase prices on a supply and demand basis unless shale gas and other energy sources undermine the oil market.
FPD: What technologies and techniques could increase packaging sustainability and effectiveness?
AS: The packaging specialist has to use ingenuity, innovation and determination to minimize the impact on the environment of packaging and contribute to the sustainability agenda. More packaging specialists would improve the situation.
I also anticipate that computer software programmes will escalate to the extent of de-skilling the creative side of package branding.
Retail ready packaging (RRP) is optimising a layer of the supply chain. This trend can only increase, and budgets used in brand promotion like TV and digital press, will be drawn upon to take up promotional opportunities offered by RRP.
I see modified atmosphere packaging continuing and extending its reach. Longer shelf life will result and across more products.
Nanoscience will deliver barrier coatings at molecular levels, reducing environmental impact but also, I think, making recyclability more accessible. We should speculate what the possibilities could be if we, for example, nano coated cellulose film.
Then there's barrier packaging from principally tree products, plus availability in a growing format of flexibles. Could the recycling feature here be energy recoverable? In effect we could grow and crop trees, release their vast cellulose resources for packaging and then reclaim used packs as an energy rich material.