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The race to innovate is picking up pace: but what does that mean for the packaging industry?

02/05/2024

Beverage

Food

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The race to innovate is picking up pace: but what does that mean for the packaging industry?

Last year, we launched our Unpacking Innovation report, addressing burning questions including ‘what are the greatest opportunities for innovation?’ and ‘what is holding innovation back?’

To answer these questions, we surveyed packaging professionals from around the world – these included professionals working across the consumer goods, food and beverage, and medical and pharmaceutical industries.

So how did they feel about innovation? Well, unsurprisingly, almost all packaging decision-makers (96%) agreed that it is important for companies to explore new packaging developments.

Almost every day we see new examples of packaging innovation in the news, for example, world-first materials used to further sustainability goals, and new processes explored. But how is innovation impacting those working in the industry on a day-to-day basis? To answer that, we spoke to a group of experts. Here’s what they said:

 

The expertise barrier

Our research revealed a few challenges related to knowledge in packaging innovation, with the high cost of expertise (62%) and the lack of in-house expertise (38%) featured in the top three challenges when it comes to testing new types of packaging. So, did our experts agree that knowledge is proving a challenge?

Rob Thompson, packaging manager at the Co-op in the UK agreed that there is a lack of expertise, which in turn contributes to its higher cost. However, he also cited challenges that contribute to this issue, such as the variation in testing standards and the variety of definitions for what ‘more sustainable’ means. Rob believes that the lack of standardization is very unhelpful for those innovating and developing their solutions.

Alex Dam, Executive Vice President at Thanh Phu Plastic Packaging Co., Ltd. in Vietnam also agreed that external factors in the past five years have influenced how the industry operates and therefore the expertise required. Alex told us that two of the biggest drivers of innovation are new legislation and changing consumer expectations. He added that nowadays, customers want to see brands operating more responsibly and managing their resources efficiently. Interestingly, these are considerations that our customers have been sharing with us too.

 

Unexpected insights

The experts we spoke to echoed most of our research findings, but there were a few points that surprised them. Here’s what they told us…

Rob Thompson had expected carbon reduction to be listed amongst the top innovation goals for our packaging professionals based on the conversations he is having with industry peers. We certainly agree that carbon output is a big focus for our industry and in this report, will likely have been captured when selecting the broader goal of becoming more sustainable.

Matthew Rogerson, founder of The Pack Scout in California, noted an interesting discrepancy in responses regarding best strategy between recycling, reduction and compostable packaging. In our report, 90% of respondents said they had either reduced or replaced plastic (57%) or flexible plastic (33%). In Matthew’s research, manufacturers and brand owners saw recycling and reduction as the lead choice, followed by recycling, reduction and compostable and finally with reduction on its own. The bigger difference Matthew had noted in discussion with the packaging executives was that manufacturers overwhelmingly preferred recycling whilst consumer goods companies leant into recycling, reduction and compostable as a balanced approach.

Speaking with experts across the packaging space was a highly useful part of our research process – capturing additional experiences only enriches the data we’ve received from professionals all over the world.

 

Sustainability considerations

We all knew that sustainability was going to score highly on innovation drivers. However, in our research report you’ll notice that many of our own experts mentioned that sustainability targets often require a broader context to be truly effective. So, what did our experts think?

Matthew Rogerson expressed that while he could understand why biodegradable materials were revealed to be desirable in our research, the technology is not quite to the level of being a drop-in solution for all packaging needs, as it is something that cannot simply be substituted into packaging lines, and requires careful planning to ensure it is a beneficial innovation and not a production headache.

Speaking further on how cost and scale are important drivers in sustainable packaging pursuits, Matthew explained that larger consumer goods and retail companies are currently navigating the struggle to find innovative packaging solutions that can be made in the vast volumes required. Sustainable packaging is not as simple as choosing the most sustainable technology. It must be the most sustainable solution that fits production, cost and provides an improved alternative to what it is replacing. This can be difficult to achieve, and is one of the challenges of changing materials in packaging in the search for a more sustainable approach. New equipment might be needed, the material might not be available in the volumes of that which it is replacing, or not be made in a more resource efficient way.

An example Matthew provided was the edible seaweed pouch which is an incredible technology but not available at the scale that bottled water companies would need to replace all PET bottles. It is not enough for a technology to be sustainable, it has to fit into the manufacturing requirements, the procurement needs and company objectives to be fit for purpose. To illustrate the sheer size of scale, a major food consumer goods company will use 167KT of flexible packaging film in a year, while one of the larger US suppliers can only produce about 45KT per year. Sustainable solutions need to be able to reach these types of capacity to provide a true replacement.

Rob Thompson added his own biodegradable material example, agreeing that the bigger picture is required when assessing materials and sharing a warning not to over-promote biodegradable plastics as a positive thing because they can be damaging to recyclability if they are not easily segregated.

Alex Dam has seen the result of material reduction and the pursuit of recycling objectives first-hand. He commented that the cradle-to-grave model in the packaging industry has been transformed towards the cradle-to-cradle model in recent years where either we are looking at renewable resources or extending the usage of existing resources. This is in addition to the incorporation of Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) Plastics – both mechanically and advanced recycling. In his role at Thanh Phu, the company has been working on this since 2016 by launching its own certified recyclable Veloflex™ solutions, working with brands to transition towards a more circular packaging reality.

What’s next?

The experts we connected with are as excited as us to see the packaging industry evolve further in the coming years, if innovation is conducted responsibly with quality and safety at the forefront of development.

Alex Dam sees a bright future for the packaging industry, with continued innovation and new solutions catering to the ever-changing packaging requirements of the world’s growing population. He believes that continued urbanization across the globe will keep driving the development of packaging that can safely deliver a product across a longer distance – with a focus on working smarter, using natural resources more responsibly and hopefully extending the cradle-to-cradle cycle indefinitely.

Delivering new packaging products to market comes with a huge responsibility to ensure that new products are safe and perform as they should.

We know from speaking with our own customers that innovation can be stalled when challenges persist so uncovering detail around this issue is of paramount importance. That is why this year we will be undertaking new research and speaking to even more professionals. Keep an eye out for our new research report, launching later this year!

 

You can access our Unpacking Innovation in 2023 report for free by clicking below.

Access ‘Unpacking innovation in 2023’ here

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