Plastics and packaging are nearly synonymous. Packaging of all types from food and beverage to consumer goods to durables makes use of plastics because of its durability, consumer friendliness, sustainability and recyclability into myriad new products.
PET is one of the primary materials used for packaging, and the PET packaging marketing is forecast to reach 21.2 million tons by 2021 with sustainability and lightweighting expected to play a major role in the development of the industry, according to a report by Smithers Pira. In 2016, PET packaging amounted to just under 16.7 million tons, representing a 3.8% increase from 2015. Growth for 2016 was projected to reach 4.8%, amounting to 17.5 million tons, with demand coming from new product developments in markets such as preserved foods (think Milacron’s Klear Can and Sonoco’s TruVue); thermoformed food containers; fruit juice containers; and other beverage packaging.
However, recent studies of consumers’ food-buying habits are showing that many are moving away from canned goods and toward fresh fruits and produce and prepared meals from the supermarket deli counter. Additionally, big-name food brands are losing shelf space to local or regional brands and smaller start-ups. Market research firm Nielsen said in a May 1 Wall Street Journal report that “sales for packaged food and products—reflecting the number of items sold—fell 2.4% in the first quarter of 2017.
Another recent market study from Ceresana focuses on global plastic films. The report from the international market research and industry consultancy noted that “packaging is supposed to be light and handy, neat and durable, microwaveable and also environmentally friendly.” Oliver Kutsch, CEO of Ceresana, said, “sales of plastic films will presumably reach a volume of about $250 billion until 2024. That’s a lot of packaging, and there are several “megatrends” that are driving this sector.
Millennials aren’t just changing the employment picture—they are changing food tastes, as well, which is having an impact on the major processed food producers and the packaging industry. A number of surveys have revealed that millennials want fresh produce and meat; they want simple food—real food—and are moving away from processed food with too many ingredients including additives and preservatives that promise a longer shelf and refrigerator life. They also look to sustainability in packaging: Is it recyclable? Compostable? Biodegradable?
The processed food producers want to satisfy these changing consumer tastes. To do that they are looking for advanced packaging technology that plastics provide, such as multi-layer barrier film that blocks oxygen and prevents food spoilage. This means less food waste, which is a big goal for many in the packaging industry.
Hoffer Plastics (South Elgin, IL) is very active in the flexible packaging market and has been working with some of the large processed food producers to develop packaging that keeps packaged food fresher longer. “We have seen the potential in the flexible packaging market and agree that the growth projections are becoming more real,” said Alex Hoffer, VP of Business Development for Hoffer Plastics, in an interview with PlasticsToday.
With Interpack 2017 coming up in Düsseldorf, Germany, interest in food packaging is at an all-time high. Exhibitor Constantia Flexibles (Vienna) recently shared some of the megatrends it is seeing in packaging. “Urbanization, sustainability, changing demographics, brand protection, responsibility and globalization are the six megatrends that Constantia Flexibles will be focusing on at Interpack this year,” explained Alexander Baumgartner, CEO. “Our employees develop and produce flexible packaging solutions designed to meet the changing demands placed on products and the evolving needs of our customers and end users. In other words, we’re actively adapting to the current trends.”
By 2050, it is estimated that around 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, noted Constantia Flexibles as it tracks the trend of single millennials to favor small apartments in cities over suburbia. With birth rates declining and fewer people starting families, the “city dwellers are more likely to buy convenience products from supermarkets and don’t have a lot of space to store their purchases. As a result, packaging solutions that don’t take up much space and can easily be transported are becoming more important. For example, there is increasing demand for on-the-go formats such as spout pouches for drinking yogurts, which are convenient for single usage and provide excellent protection against moisture, oxygen and light.”
Hoffer explained that many of our consumer habits are tailored around convenience. “I think also that the emerging trend that everyone is seeing is e-commerce, which will see an upward swing,” he said. People are ordering their groceries online, and flexible packaging weighs less than other materials and is easier to ship. There are also advances in fitments and caps, which means flexible film pouches make more sense. More produce can fit in a box, and a beautiful aspect of the film is the brand gets a bigger showcase for its messaging.”
Hoffer’s collaboration with processed food producers in the pouch segment has given it a unique perspective on that packaging. “There is a perception that pouches are healthier, and brands like Plum Organics and Happy Family have done a good job of creating that impression. Now you see companies like Yum Butter jumping into the mix, and it’s truly exciting,” Hoffer commented. Collaborating with several technology partners, including Karlville Development LLC (Miami, FL), one area of focus for Hoffer will be high-pressure processing (HPP) and advanced ultrasonic sealing technology.
Sal Pellingra, Vice President of Innovation and Technology for ProAmpac, commented in an interview with PlasticsToday that “flexible packaging is booming,” particularly in Asia and Japan as they move toward a circular economy. “They focus on getting rid of bulky packaging that can’t be reused and shipping more product and less packaging.”
In Europe, Pellingra explained, consumers are being charged based on the amount of packaging being used, which is driving demand for more flexible packaging. “We did a mayonnaise pouch last year and talked about replacing the rigid container with the customer,” he said. “What was shocking is that one pallet of mayonnaise in flexible packaging held the same amount of product as 90 pallets of rigid containers. Because of this we’re seeing more and more condiments in flexible pouches as well as new liquid applications in pouches.”
Recycling is a problem for the mixed material pouches that are required to attain extended shelf-life; Pellingra noted, however, that there is a move away from metal film layers and going to all-plastic pouches. Sustainability is a big factor for packaging companies, as they wrestle with recycling issues; like many others, Pellingra agreed that it’s “difficult to get past the cost issues, not just of the pouch itself but the infrastructure to switch from can filling lines to pouch lines. But filling machine technology is improving, and the infrastructure is smaller and more affordable, making the transition easier and easier. Plus consumers find the pouch a more current format than rigid alternatives.”
Constantia has committed itself to reducing its CO2 emissions (per square meter output) by 40% by 2023. Various measures will be used to achieve this goal, including the reduction of packaging materials, the development of new specifications and the use of recyclable materials.
Hoffer commented that a big part of what we in the industry must do is educate people that plastics aren’t really so bad. “We can make plastic packaging better and we’re working on that,” said Hoffer. “I even want to challenge the status quo at Hoffer to develop fully recyclable packaging, but we must balance that with what the market is telling us it wants: Products at the same price consumers are currently paying.”
Constantia added that in today’s globalized world, it’s possible for companies to sell their products just about anywhere. This has led to ever-greater competition between multinational brands. “Packaging plays a key role in the consumer’s decision to purchase one brand over another,” Constantia said. “Consequently, packaging solutions must not only have a high quality and be convenient, but also effectively communicate the brand message and differentiate the product from the competition.”