The food and beverage industry is evolving rapidly, as are available packaging options. Innovation and adaptation have become a top priority as companies strive to provide greater product value and meet consumers’ evolving demands for packaging that is convenient to use, fit for purpose, and environmentally friendly. Some of the expected packaging trends and innovation we can expect to see in 2017 are described below.
Adjusting to New Distribution Channels with the E-Commerce Revolution
The growth of e-commerce is a trend with substantial implications for packaging. Analysts expect online grocery sales to increase 21% annually through 2018. While receiving products by mail can be convenient for consumers, it presents many challenges with respect to packaging – both primary and secondary. Products delivered through the e-commerce distribution channel have many more touch points, therefore more opportunities for packaging failure, particularly if co-packed with sharp, heavy, or oddly shaped items. E-commerce vendors and brand owners strive to protect products and their company’s reputation by ensuring that products and packaging arrive unscathed. Packaging used in e-commerce distribution chains may also be less rigid to better withstand the bumps and vibrations of the journey. Closures may be re-designed to better withstand these pressures. Items purchased online have a much higher return rate – subjecting the product and package to additional risk. Therefore, while packaging sold through e-commerce need not have some qualities necessary at the retail level (e.g., large to enhance visibility, stackable, visual shelf appeal and anti-theft features), it needs to be as small and light as possible, optimizing the product-to-package ratio without losing product protective features. Packaging still needs to be visually appealing and reinforce brand attributes and consumer trust, but it becomes less important for conveying product information, as consumers often turn to online resources.
Packaging with “large air space” is eye-catching in the retail setting but a detriment to transportation efficiency in the e-commerce distribution chain. Some product manufacturers are designing packaging that allows for direct shipment in primary packaging (ship in own container, or SIOC), which avoids the use of secondary packaging and may allow for direct shipment from manufacturer to customer. Of course, this requires the development of a new distribution chain and potentially enhanced management system for different SKUs.
Ensuring Food Waste Is Reduced Throughout the Supply Chain
Food security is a key issue globally, particularly in developing markets, yet, one-third of food is lost or wasted before it is consumed. Additionally, food lost along the supply chain is a loss to businesses. Advancements in packaging and labeling will help ensure that food waste is minimized throughout the supply chain and after purchase. Smart packaging has been introduced that monitors food decay and can ensure fresh food products have been stored at the proper temperature, alerting consumers when food becomes inedible. The “Smart Cap” is one example of this type of technology. It uses a 3D cap with an embedded inductor–capacitor that monitors the quality of liquid food (e.g., milk and juice) wirelessly. Similarly, ‘smart labels’ for fresh foods have been developed which change colors to indicate the freshness of food products. This can assure consumers that food is still safe to eat, or encourage them to quickly use a product, thereby reducing food waste. In addition, the USDA recently developed new guidelines for food product labels to encourage the use of a standard “Best if Used By” date, which is expected to reduce the amount of edible food that is disposed. Over the next year, packaging will continue to “get smarter” and become more widely used, thus reducing the amount of food wasted.
Supporting the Circular Economy – Designing Packaging with Resource Conservation in Mind
There is growing pressure on food and beverage companies, among others, to incorporate circular economy principles into product packaging. A 2016 report by the World Economic Forum highlighted this issue with respect to plastics and plastic packaging in particular, and stated that a more systemic approach is required in order to “increase prosperity, while reducing demands on finite raw materials and minimizing negative externalities.” In support of a “New Plastics Economy,” several companies have committed to making their plastic packaging more sustainable. Unilever, for example, has pledged to make all of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Currently the company estimates 70% of its plastics are recyclable.
Companies will continue to adapt their business models to identify opportunities to preserve and enhance natural capital, optimize the use and value of resources, and foster efficiency along the entire supply chain. To do so companies will adopt resource-conserving strategies, such as minimizing the size and weight of packaging, using renewable resources such as sustainably grown trees and bioplastics as feedstock, and using reputable third-party organizations to ensure standards are met. Tetra Pak has made the decision to work with suppliers to ensure 100% of Tetra Pak’s fiber is sourced from traceable, sustainable and renewable sources such as Forest Sustainable Certified (FSCTM) and other controlled sources, and is working with Bonsucro to ensure bioplastics derived from sugar cane, a renewable resource, meet sustainability criteria.
Enhancing Sorting Technology for Recyclables Processing
Packaging manufacturers and brand owners will continue to work directly with recycling processors to improve the compatibility of their packaging in recycling processing systems -- both with respect to packaging design as well as new processing technology. Material recovery facilities and other processors are working to improve sorting efficiencies via the use of robotics and automated material classification systems, which are already in use but are continuously being improved. Research and innovation is also being focused on recycling of packaging that is not currently recycled or is under-recycled, such as coffee pods, plastic film and flexible packaging. One of the ways Unilever expects to reach 100% recyclability, reusability, and compostability of its products’ plastic containers, is to develop technology to recycle its multi-layered sachets.
In 2017, we will see technological and supply chain management innovations to ensure products are better protected than ever and that, increasingly, the resources used in packaging are renewable and recyclable, contributing to the strength of the circular economy.