Consumers around the world are becoming more aware of plastic pollution as it continues to degrade our environment and oceans. The growing use of plastics across various industries, especially the food & beverage and e-commerce sector, as an essential tool for protection, marketing, and others has created a need for sustainable packaging. Brands are turning their attention towards making packaging as environmentally friendly as possible as consumers are demanding that packaging materials they receive have as little detrimental impact on the surroundings as possible. Major FMCG brands like PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Mars, Unilever are challenging their suppliers to achieve the target of 100% compostable, reusable, recyclable packaging by 2025.
From foods & beverages to the beauty industry, zero waste has become a growing need to keep up with customers’ expectations and tap into a new eco-conscious consumer base. Besides, companies need to comply with new regulations and packaging standards that prohibit the use of single-use plastics. While some have turned to cardboard to fulfill their packaging needs, others rely on recycled plastics like HDPE and rPET, rice paper, seaweed, or cornstarch. The packaging industry is at the forefront of making plastic alternative mainstream, and the progress in this direction has been extraordinary within the past few years. Moving into 2022, plastic-free claims will remain imperative and sustainable packaging will become a hot commodity with rapid innovations that improve packaging materials’ safety and efficacy.
Here are the top sustainable packaging trends that will dominate 2022.
Growing Use of Mono-Materials in Packaging
Demand for mono-material packaging has rapidly increased across various industries, emphasizing sustainability. Mono-material packaging includes a single type of material, which makes it easier to recycle than the products produced with different materials. On the contrary, recycling multi-layer packaging is challenging because of the need to isolate distinctive film layers. Besides, mono materials manufacturing and recycling processes are faster, more efficient, less energy-intensive, and more cost-efficient. Manufacturers are replacing extra material layers with a thin functional coating to enhance the functionality of the mono-materials in the packaging industry.
Japanese multinational food and biotechnology corporation Ajinomoto has introduced a highly recyclable mono-material packaging made with environmentally friendly materials composed of 90% of the same material. A global leader in consumer product dispensing, Aptar has debuted its new eCommerce-friendly, mono-material pump made of polycarbonates or post-consumer recycled plastic. In 2021, IMA Dairy & Food USA launched a set of ZERO Technology tools that enable food manufacturers to easily break mono-material multipacks into individual cups.
- Resorting to Paper-based Alternatives
The sustainability packaging trend has prompted the adoption of cartons, cardboards, bag-in-box, and paperboards, considered ‘green’ alternatives as they are entirely 100% recyclable. Carton recycling has grown nearly 350% since 2009 due to enhanced recycling infrastructure with the emergence of new technology like sorting robots. Lightweight packaging requires less source material and less energy in manufacturing, packaging, and distribution across channels, reducing their carbon footprint. ‘Green’ paper carton packaging is an excellent choice for replacing single-use plastic packaging and allowing customers to continuously reuse and refill containers. The ban on drinking straws, cutlery, and other single-use catering plastics in the European Union has created an opportunity for fiber-based alternatives to be sustainable packaging solutions.
Polyethylene-coated paper features excellent moisture and grease protection, whereas recycled kraft paper bags serve as an affordable alternative to bags previously made from virgin fiber. Suppliers such as Paptic develop versatile paper bags that are durable enough for usable packaging. Another supplier, Arjowiggins, produces translucent paper with strong oxygen barrier properties, making them a viable option for packaging food products. In 2021, beverage maker Absolut recently launched a paper-based bottle prototype made from 57% paper and 43% recycled plastic. Coca-cola is working with Paboco to develop their paper, and Pulpex is partnering with PepsiCo to produce bottles from wood fiber pulp.
Glass used as packaging material holds favorable environment-friendly perceptions among consumers as they are deemed recyclable. The use of glass resonates with the growing consumer base looking for solutions to minimize plastic consumption. Unlike plastic packaging, glass does not contain bisphenol A, a chemical additive to increase strength, making it non-toxic and impermeable to environmental factors and enhancing product integrity. Glass has infinite recyclable potential and does not experience the loss of quality through the process. Since glass is only composed of natural resources, its manufacturing does not contribute to a large carbon footprint or cause any negative impact. Lightweight glass containers are turning out to be more sustainable alternatives compared to conventional glass containers as the less weight simplifies transport to the customer while reducing the cost of transportation and storage. Consumer good companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo, and Unilever are among those companies that sell products in containers designed to be returned, cleaned, and refilled, more than half of which are packaged in glass.
- Rising Adoption of Bio-based Plastics
Bioplastics are often touted as the ‘panacea of sustainable packaging’ due to their excellent ability to replace conventional petroleum-based plastics and incredibly low carbon footprint. Materials derived from renewable sources and biodegradable polymers are engineered with microorganisms to form bioplastics. Bioplastics have recently grown in popularity as they are rapidly adopted in food packages, straws, utensils, and shopping bags. Biodegradable packaging breaks down faster in the presence of heat and light; however, it can leave behind toxic residues. The advent of nanotechnology will further accelerate the innovation related to bioplastics and make them stronger and durable. Big brands like Procter & Gamble, Tetra Pak, Stella McCartney, Gucci, Heinz, IKEA, Samsung, and Puma have already turned to bioplastic solutions. Even the Food and Agricultural Organizations of the United Nations have recommended industry players to replace conventional plastics with bioplastics to save the marine environment. More brands are likely to adapt biodegradable plastics in their packaging strategies to achieve zero waste goals in the coming years.
To achieve sustainability in packaging, manufacturers must find ways to preserve resources, minimize environmental impact, and achieve green packaging goals. Flexible automation tools can be a powerful and effective solution to increase production and reliability while allowing manufacturers to quickly transform to more eco-friendly packaging materials and options. With automated handling and robots with end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) capabilities, designing new formats that require smaller packages, eliminating secondary packaging, or replacing rigid packaging with flexible ones can help reduce waste, save energy, lower shipping weights, and cut production costs.
Using a packaging machine to cut out packaging pieces can ensure maximum utilization of a sheet of material, cut accurately, and eliminate product wastage. Taking advantage of artificial intelligence and big data, manufacturers can streamline processes and reduce unnecessary steps in the packaging process. Intelligent sensors can identify quality control issues, determine the source, track energy and water usage, and alert for predictive and preventative maintenance. Reducing packaging waste can help preserve environmental resources and improve the quality of packaging.
- Developments in Active and Intelligent Packaging
Food waste is a global environmental issue, especially in countries where people largely rely on pre-packaged food items. However, smart packaging can prove to be a powerful tool to address the critical challenges of sustainable food consumption. Digitizing the food supply chain by promoting traceability with active and intelligent packaging can help minimize the environmental footprint of packaged foods, preserve the food quality, and prevent food-borne diseases. In addition, smart packaging systems can promote a circular bioeconomy as some types of biodegradable polymers can be produced from agro-food waste. Thus, smart technology could create an innovative and resilient, productive waste-based food packaging economy. Smart packaging can help influence customers’ decisions about buying a product by providing them information about the source of the product materials, their manufacturing, and other relevant information. QR codes, NFC tags, thermochromic inks, RFID codes, etc., are some of the smart packaging features that are being widely adopted.
- Redefining Packaging with Antimicrobial Technology
The antimicrobial packaging strategies are being widely adopted to prevent the migration of active agents into the packed food item. Metal ions and nanoparticles are most commonly used for antimicrobial packaging. Silver-based antimicrobial packaging solutions are growing in demand across the world due to their ability to prevent foods and beverages from spoiling. Antimicrobial packaging eliminates the need for preservatives and control moisture, oxygen, ethylene, and carbon dioxide from entering the food items.
Antimicrobials are predominantly incorporated in packaging material composed of plastic, paperboard, metal, and glass. The renewed interest in packaging has arisen from the increased consumer interest in fewer preservatives, mainly due to their side effects. Moreover, the built-in microbial technology can help preserve food from bacteria and keep products fresher for longer, thus ensuring sustainability in the food chain.
- Rapid Elimination of Virgin Plastic by Market Players
The use of virgin plastic for packaging has been rising rapidly for decades. However, brands nowadays are actively working towards reducing waste by cutting down the use of virgin plastic for packaging and increasing the recycled content of plastic packaging. Major corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, P&G, General Mills, Walmart, Target, Mondelez, Amazon, Kroger, and others have reduced virgin plastic use by 2025. The elimination of virgin plastic would be highly beneficial for the environment as it would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced from the manufacturing of new plastic and curb plastic pollution with the use of old plastic for packaging purposes.