What are the key trends in sustainable packaging innovation and what challenges lie ahead in 2022?

2021 was an exciting year for food and beverage packaging with many innovations hitting the market. The dominant theme amongst these innovations was a trend towards enhanced environmental sustainability. In this blog, we analyse some of the pressures that are driving the packaging sector on this sustainability pathway, highlight some of the recent innovations, and identify some of the key challenges.

The ‘Blue Planet’ effect

Much of the current sustainability-focused innovation activity in the food and beverage packaging sector today can be traced back to 2017 and the ‘Blue Planet effect’. The BBC documentary series’ vivid portrayal of the impact of plastic pollution on our oceans and their inhabitants was credited with propagating a ripple of environmental concern for marine habitats that has since developed into a tidal wave. A survey of UK consumers conducted by WRAP in 2020 found that their top concern about food packaging was ‘impact on oceans and marine life’.  And whilst all forms of packaging material that might end up as marine litter are relevant, the overwhelming focus of consumer interest has been on plastic.

This ‘anti-plastic’ sentiment amongst consumers appears to have influenced policy makers in recent years as well. The EU is trying to phase out the use of plastic for the 10 most commonly found single-use plastic items on European beaches, alongside fishing gear, which represent 70% of all marine litter in the EU. The Single Use Plastic Directive covers packaging items including food and beverage containers, plastic bags, packets and wrappers. The Directive introduces new design and labelling requirements for these items and goes as far as banning some specific items, such as beverage stirrers and expanded polystyrene food containers, where the EU considers that a ‘sustainable, easily available and affordable’ alternative is already available. France has gone a step further and faster, having recently introduced a ban on the sale of unprocessed fresh fruit and vegetables under 1.5 kg packaged in plastic.

Plastic litter on beach

UK Plastics Pact targets and progress (source: UK Plastics Pact)

The industry has itself responded strongly to the sustainability concerns and anti-plastic sentiment of consumers in the form of voluntary agreements. With input and coordination from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Plastic Pact Network has seen manufacturers come together within national or regional forums to agree industry targets for the reduction of plastic consumption. The UK Plastics Pact has established a range of ambitious targets to be achieved by 2025 and signatories of the pact are making good progress (see figure).

The combination of consumer demand, regulations and voluntary targets means that there is considerable pressure for the packaging sector to innovate towards a more sustainable future.

Packaging manufacturers are responding with sustainable innovations

Responding to these pressures, packaging manufacturers are developing a range of innovations that will help to reduce the resource consumption and carbon footprint of the sector. Below we pick out some of the key trends in packaging innovation for sustainability.

Increased recycled content and improved recyclability

Unsurprisingly, many of the recent innovations in the packaging sector have been focused on reducing plastic consumption through material substitutions. A common approach is to use the same type of plastic but increase the recycled content. This approach aligns with the Plastics Pact goal of 30% recycled content in plastic packaging. Achieving this goal in the UK would avoid the consumption of 660,000 tonnes of plastic packaging, which, coincidentally, equals the quantity of plastic packaging waste exported by the UK annually.

As an example, US brand ZenWTR is now using 100% recycled ‘ocean bound’ PET for its water bottles. The company explains that, whilst they would like to use plastic recovered from oceans, the salt water degradation makes this impossible for a drinks bottle. Instead they focus on recycling of packaging litter collected in coastal areas or from rivers that was likely to end up in the sea, with up to five littered bottles being recovered and recycled to produce one ZenWTR bottle.

ZenWTR bottle made from ‘ocean bound’ plastic (Source: ZenWTR).

Biobased, biodegradable or compostable plastic

Other strategies include substituting a fossil fuel-based plastic with a biobased, biodegradable or compostable plastic. In 2021 there was a 26% growth in food & beverage packaging featuring a claim about the biodegradability of the material. For example, Kompuestos now produce a range of bioplastic resins produced from potato starch. Fruit bags and packaging films can be produced from the resin and are home compostable in accordance with the EN 13432 standard. However, there are some issues with the use of biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics that might limit the sustainability benefits they offer.

Advanced fibre-based packaging solutions

Fibre-based packaging solutions have a significant advantage in that they are typically viewed as being inherently sustainable by consumers. The problem up to now has been that fibre-based solutions have often struggled to match the technical performance of plastic packaging in food and beverage applications for which barrier properties and grease or moisture resistance are commonly required. Plastic liner materials and laminates have often been used in the past to provide these technical properties, resulting in a ‘monstrous hybrid’ that is impossible to recycle.

PaperBarrier Seal from Coveris (Source: Coveris).

A new generation of fibre-based materials are coming on to the market that make use of novel structures or coatings to provide the technical performance required for food contact applications whilst maintaining the recyclability of the substrate. Coveris and B&B Paper Solutions have developed a recyclable paper pouch that claims to offer the same functionality as conventional plastic pouches. Known as ‘PaperBarrier Seal’, the pouch provides oxygen, moisture and oil barrier properties and is designed to be used on standard pouch packaging lines.

There is also an exciting race on between two groups looking to launch the first 100% fibre-based bottle for beverages. UK-based Pulpex are working with the packaging giant Stora Enso and leading brands including PepsiCo and Diageo on a fibre-based bottle that they claim offers a 90% reduction in lifecycle carbon emissions compared to a glass bottle and 30% reduction compared to PET. Meanwhile, in Denmark, Paboco are working with BillerudKorsnäs and bottle specialist Alpla on a fibre bottle with brands including Carlsberg and Coca-Cola. Having already released a first version of their fibre bottle that featured a polymer liner, Paboco are now developing a fully biobased bottle that will be compatible with the paper recycling stream.

Fibre-based bottle for beverages

Paboco fibre bottle (Source: Paboco).

Reusable packaging systems

With increasing scrutiny of single use plastics, some manufacturers are now investigating the potential for reusable or refillable packaging systems. Ferrero has teamed up with Loop and the retailer Carrefour to pilot a reusable jar for Nutella. The scheme requires the consumer to pay a deposit which is reimbursed when they return the jar to store.

The jar itself has been designed specifically for reuse taking into account the need to be durable, safe and hygienic. For example, it features an optimised label and seal that can be easily removed during the wash cycle.

Nutella reusable jar

Reusable Nutella jar (Source: Ferrero).

This example from Ferrero was one of 147 pilot activities for reusable packaging that were launched in 2020 by the signatories of the Global Commitment and Plastic Pact network. However, the overall share of reusable plastic packaging (as a percentage of the mass of packaging produced by Pact signatories) decreased from 1.8% in 2019 to 1.6% in 2020. This has led the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to call on the industry to accelerate the “alarmingly low” rate of growth in reusable packaging.

Bumps in the road ahead

Despite the fantastic innovations highlighted above and the many others that have come to market recently, there remain many sustainability challenges for food and beverage packaging. One of the key challenges will be communicating to consumers how to dispose of packaging in the most responsible manner.

The introduction of new materials and packaging solutions will require changes in consumer behaviour in some cases. For instance, in the UK, HDPE and LDPE packaging materials, often used for bread or cereals, are not suitable for the kerbside recycling collection system but can be recycled along with carrier bags at large grocery stores. This creates an extra layer of complexity and effort for the consumer, who now has to separate and store this material until they next visit a large grocery store.

Similarly, the terms ‘biobased’, ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ often result in confusion amongst consumers as it is often not clear how they should be treated at end of life. Compostable and biodegradable materials are also problematic in that they are not compatible with the plastic recycling process and will contaminate the recycling stream if placed in the domestic recycling system.

Another challenge is that the trend of material substitution to avoid plastic could lead to an increase in carbon emissions linked to packaging materials. An estimate by PwC has suggested that if the UK switched away from single use plastic packaging in favour of other materials for single use items then carbon emissions could triple.

Other potential pitfalls for novel food packaging include:

All these challenges indicate the complexity of innovation in the packaging sector. They also underline the need for a systems perspective to ensure that innovations do not produce unintended consequences. This will require thinking about the complete lifecycle of the packaging, from material extraction through to disposal (or reuse). At SI, we use a rigorous process termed ‘Sustainability Hotspot Mapping‘ to identify where companies might best focus their efforts to improve the sustainability of their products.

A systems perspective also requires consideration of the wider context in which the packaging must operate. One of the key concerns raised by the packaging industry is that the current anti-plastic sentiment amongst consumers (and policy makers to some extent) will result in hasty changes to packaging materials that may reduce performance and result in increased food waste. Such counterproductive moves can be avoided by systematically considering the impacts on the performance of the overall food system. At SI, we are experts in the use of Systematic Innovation methods that enable our clients to see how their products fit alongside the people, processes, technologies etc. that make up the wider system. So if you want to ensure that your packaging innovation activities deliver against your packaging sustainability goals whilst continuing to provide the performance and experience that delight your consumers then please get in contact.