How can we predict the future of packaging innovation?

 

Packaging is a part of everyone’s lives in one way or another – it is inescapable. But how can we reduce the environmental impact of something so essential and predict its future trends?

The Trends of Evolution tool is useful to predict the future of an industry, product or market and to give valuable insights for innovation. It is one of the many tools within TRIZ[1], a problem-solving methodology based on logic and data, that can be used to predict future innovations and solve intractable problems.

The original developers of TRIZ noticed that significant disruptive innovations (S-curve jumps) follow common themes across all industries. These patterns can be used to guide the direction of technical development and problem-solving.

The purpose of this post is to uncover what the trends of evolution can say about the future of packaging innovation. There has never been a bigger need for radical change, due to the introduction of new Circular Economy policies in the UK, such as the Plastics Packaging Tax[2], Extended Producer Responsibility[3], the Plastics Pact[4] and a potential Deposit Return Scheme[5].

What are the trends of evolution?

The Trends of Evolution have been formed by assessing thousands of patents and are used to guide innovation. This is done by providing generic technical trends, captured as a series of evolutionary jumps, that other systems have followed during their progression and refinement. Out of the 36 trends, we deemed 22 of the trends to be relevant and insightful to packaging. The spider diagram below shows the various stages and the potential that each trend could achieve within the packaging industry. As you can see there are plenty of opportunities for innovation.

One could write a book assessing all 36 trends for packaging, so for this article, we focus on just two.

Trends of evolution in action

Trend 27: Trimming

As illustrated in the figure below, the trimming trend has the following steps:

  1. A complex system,
  2. Eliminate non-key components,
  3. Eliminate non-key-sub-systems,
  4. A trimmed system.

The trimming trend is useful for improving the environmental impact of a system, where a complex system becomes more efficient and simpler. This is especially evident when comparing the number of types of packaging that would commonly be found in everyday items. Trimming has many benefits including cutting production costs, reducing waste, and reducing the environmental impact of the product. It can also lead to discounts to repeat customers – which in turn, can help build brand loyalty. As an illustrative example, we use an Easter egg to show the four steps of the trimming trend.

Step 1, the ‘complex system’ of the trimming trend is represented by the traditional packaging solution. Easter egg packaging traditionally includes a laminated cardboard box with a plastic window, followed by a plastic mould to hold the egg and other components within the box and finally the chocolate egg wrapped in foil. However, as the trends suggest, multiple (separate) layers and high-complexity packaging will move towards mono-material packaging solutions.

Step 2 is ‘eliminate non-key components’. This is evident in Easter egg packaging from Mondelez, the parent company of Green & Black’s and Cadbury. Mondelez now offers plastic-free Easter eggs, which are delivered by removing the plastic windows from the Easter egg display box and making the internal housing from cardboard instead of single-use plastic. This both removes plastic and increases recyclability[8].

Step 3, ‘eliminate non-key-sub-systems’, is evident in the newer Easter egg packaging, where the separate inner tray for ‘holding’ the egg, has been removed and the packaging design relies on the box alone to keep the egg secure and prevent breakage.

Step 4, ‘a trimmed system’, eliminates all unnecessary packaging or enables the required packaging to be used again after its initial use. For Easter eggs, this could be foreseen as losing the cardboard box that protects the egg from damage, leaving only the foil wrapping to cover the egg. However, removing the cardboard box leads to the risk of the egg becoming damaged. Overcoming this issue requires an innovative step. This could be modifying the product by adding internal structural supports to the egg (made from chocolate), to increase the ultimate strength of the egg, thus removing the need for the cardboard box. Alternatively, the foil could be removed by adding vapour and moisture barrier properties to the cardboard. A further alternative could be to remove the box by adding damage protection properties to the foil.

Case Study – Cleaning Products

The trimming trend is also apparent in many water-based cleaning products, such as soaps, anti-bacterial sprays and washing detergents. It is possible to purchase refill packs that offer the same content, but with less of an external plastic casing (a pouch instead of a bottle), thus, reducing unnecessary packaging, as shown in the figure above. Additionally, the refill pouches are often concentrated, meaning less water and packaging have been required for shipping, further reducing the product’s environmental footprint.

Suppliers such as Ecover and Refill have taken it one step further, removing the packaging required for the refill packs, by offering refills in-stores directly into your existing packaging or bottles[6]. Products such as Brewdog beer, Finish washing powder, Coca-Cola and Redox body wash are also participating in Loop’s scheme, which illustrates that there is interest from large cooperation and consumers in this scheme[7]. Ecover states that:

“If all UK Ecover users switched to refilling rather than buying new bottles, they would save the equivalent of the weight of over 51 London buses in plastic, and enough CO2 emissions to power a hot air balloon for over 5 months non-stop!” [9]

Ecover sells 15L boxes to refill stations (shown in the figure below), which drastically reduces the amount of packaging per volume required. Refilling stations are popping up around the UK with Refill.org.uk advertising more than 274,000 refill stations globally.

This example shows that the household cleaning industry is in its infancy of step 4, a trimmed system. This offers opportunities for innovation, with key opportunities identified in the cleaning of the reusable packaging, the process/infrastructure of refilling and a potential reward or incentive system for consumers to move to the new process.

To further reduce the system, the volume of the product should be reduced in order to offer a more compact solution. Bars of soap, shampoo and conditioner are sold and advertised as an almost packaging-free alternative – often just wrapped in paper. And by removing water, the shipping costs and emissions are also further reduced. A step even further from ‘soap in a bottle’ would be to remove the cleaning consumable completely, and hence the need for packaging, by using alternative means to clean e.g. ultrasonic waves or UV light for cleaning.

Trend 16: Mono Bi Poly

Interestingly, the packaging industry has regressed on the ‘Mono-Bi-Poly – Sequential Functions’ trend, suggesting that either a key innovative step has occurred, or that the main driving factors behind the packaging industry has shifted, i.e. from a focus on the environment rather than a focus on the function delivered.

The ‘Mono-Bi-Poly – Sequential Functions’ trend adds additional functions to a product to give it enhanced usability. For packaging, this translates into adding multiple layers of different materials in order to improve the material’s functionality, creating non-recyclable laminated materials, as is evident in the figure below.

The common sandwich box offers an example; a cardboard box with a protective internal film, which prevents the cardboard from going soggy and improves the shelf-life of the sandwich. The mono-bi-poly trend worked for many years to produce laminates that are cheap and very effective barrier materials – but at the cost of recycling performance.

Laminated barriers resulted in a complex system which makes recycling difficult. If you want to recycle a meal-deal sandwich box, you are expected to disassemble the packaging components in order to recycle separately – which requires more effort than most people are willing to give (we tried!). As customers and companies are becoming more environmentally conscious, a gap for new innovations is created.

More recently, many packaging products no longer contain multi-layered or laminated products, increasing their recyclability, as shown by Mondi’s mono-material in the figure above. This reversal in trend suggests that there has been an innovative step and a shift to a new S-Curve – the ‘next generation’ for this packaging application, delivering the function in a new and improved manner. To increase recyclability, many packaging solutions are returning to a mono-material. However, moving away from laminates creates issues in both protecting the casing material (often cardboard) and keeping the food product fresh.

Examples of products currently combatting this issue include Hubergroups mono-material packaging. Hubergroup has developed a new print solution, the HYDRO-LAC GA Oxygen Barrier. This barrier coating solution protects the packaged food from oxygen and supports the use of mono-material packaging[10].

Over time, the trend is likely to repeat – creating a new combined poly-system that effectively keeps the food fresh AND remains fully recyclable, unlike the current standard packaging.

Final Thoughts

The Trends of Evolution is an incredibly useful tool to aid innovation. This small insight into the capabilities of the tool illustrates how companies are able to identify future trends, such as creating box-free Easter eggs and improving the systems behind refill stations.

If you are interested in hearing more about our other packaging-related findings, the Trends of Evolution or other TRIZ tools, get in touch and we would be happy to have a chat.

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Innovation Consultant at Strategic Innovation | LinkedIn | Other posts