Packaging Innovation for Sustainability

by | Oct 11, 2012

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In the packaging industry, groundbreaking innovation is occurring not only in the development of new packaging designs, but also with respect to new technology development and new applications of existing technologies for better packaging performance.

Companies in the industry need to focus on the entire life cycle of their products and ensure that new packaging formats respond to key trends that, over the years, have become increasingly complex. The packaging designer of today must reflect on myriad diverse consumer lifestyles and expectations, resource scarcity and other environmental considerations, retailer and brand-owner preferences, opportunities for branding, and cost. Local and national governments add another layer of complexity, as there are a number of specific regulations that packaging suppliers and brand-owners must abide.

As market drivers for innovation continue to evolve, impressive examples of packaging improvements have emerged in recent years. Through healthy competition and the innovation it drives, packaging producers are working diligently to displace environmentally inferior materials, reduce product damage during transport, extend product shelf life, and improve resource efficiency.

Much work is being done to replace virgin plastics with more sustainable alternatives. A notable example is the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC) of Coca-Cola, Ford, Heinz, Nike and Procter & Gamble which is working to support the development of plant-based PET materials. Another is the development of mushroom packaging, which is promoted as a substitute for expanded polystyrene.  And my company, for example, has recently launched packages with polyethylene caps made from sugar cane derivatives, which is a significant milestone in our commitment to increase the use of renewable material in our packages over time.

To tackle the immense problem of food waste, a number of recent developments are extending the shelf life of food items to reduce spoilage at supermarkets and at home.  For instance, Marks & Spencer is adding a small strip of clay and other minerals at the bottom of plastic strawberry containers that absorbs ethylene to delay ripening and in turn, spoilage. Curwood has introduced its FreshCase vacuum packaging which extends shelf-life and uses a proprietary additive to preserve fresh meat’s bright red colour to increase consumer appeal.

Many companies are rethinking their existing packaging to dramatically improve resource efficiency as well. Starbucks has introduced a new hot-cup sleeve – EarthSleeve – comprised of 85% post-consumer fiber content and reducing raw fiber material use by 34% as compared to conventional hot-cup sleeves. Kraft’s YES Pack for bulk salad dressing uses 60% less plastic during film manufacturing and 50% less energy during package assembly than its prior packaging.

The examples above highlight the exciting opportunities in this space; however, a few fundamentals must be kept top-of-mind when designing new packaging formats.

Feedstock Materials Must Be Chosen Wisely

To bring a new packaging format to scale, designers must assess whether there is a stable supply of material inputs as demonstrated in the PTC example above, as well as potential resource constraints that will affect production such as energy and water. Designers must also be cognizant of the value of recycled commodities to ensure there is a steady stream of supply and demand for the material at end of life. Consumers today are far more conscious of environmental issues; false recycling claims could result in consumer backlash. The design process must also safeguard against improving one aspect of the packaging but creating unintended consequences in another. For instance, prescriptive design requirements such as biodegradability or recycled content can be counterproductive if the resulting packaging does not serve its intended purpose or follow the desired path for disposition at end of life.

The Purpose of Packaging Is to Protect

Innovation should not undermine packaging’s primary role, which is to protect the product and to attract and inform consumers. Efforts to drastically minimize packaging run the risk of negating the very value of packaging itself. Helping a product reach the consumer safe and unharmed ensures the energy, water and materials required to produce and transport it are not squandered. This is especially important to the food products industry given the environmental impact of food production and the fact that food waste is the largest component of solid waste landfills in many countries.

Thinking to the Future

Companies in the packaging industry can take the lead as ambassadors for good design so that consumers understand the value of packaging and its role in preserving the embedded resources in the products they buy. Because designers are constrained by consumer perceptions, it is vital that those with an interest in reducing waste and preserving the environment communicate the important role of packaging in meeting these objectives. The challenge is making the invisible visible and showcasing the environmental gains achieved through innovation.

The pursuit of continuous improvement by market leaders like the companies described above will drive innovation for better packaging that helps to provide for a better tomorrow.

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