The State of Packaging in Today’s Market

Landfill Aurá in Belém do Pará, Brazil

Some weeks ago I was invited for an interview by Chuck Miller of CTI Packaging & Fulfillment in Libertyville, IL. He runs a company blog at Package Talk. My interview was one of several, as Chuck interviewed a number of professionals highlighting all aspects of packaging. I take the liberty to publish the answers I gave in my interview here, but it is worthwhile to visit his blog and see what all the other professionals have to say. I grant you it is worth a read.
Here is my opinion about some packaging aspects:

1. Will sustainability concerns in packaging level off or continue to rise?
You are aware, I suppose, that a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study unveiled that the term Sustainable Packaging is no longer relevant today as the debate about good vs. bad packaging has moved on. The study concluded that industry has moved toward a shared understanding that “the product, its packaging, and the related supply chain have to be viewed as a single solution”. In other words packaging is only a part of the wider sustainability story, focusing on packaging alone in the sustainability debate is counterproductive and short-sighted.
And now your question: “Will it level off or rise?” We will see a more holistic approach incorporating economic, environmental, and social considerations. Consequently the accent on packaging sustainability will be buried into the solutions of other aspects. This might give the impression that sustainability concerns in packaging level off or even are neglected. But I don’t think that will happen in reality. In my opinion the search for more sustainability in packaging will intensify.

Fresh Produce section in Russian supermarket – photo: Getmansky Andrey

2. With package manufacturing going overseas, do you see a decline in this activity?
I can’t answer this question. I have no data related to package manufacturing overseas. But I doubt it is of any significance. Look, all the voluminous packages are manufactured on the spot. Often in a through-the-wall configuration. So we are probably mainly talking about film and pouches. Well, don’t forget, the innovations are still coming from the USA and Europe. It is much more important that we have the manufacturing of the innovations and novelties and leave the production of the simple items, such as films and pouches overseas. It stimulates innovation. Makes us sharp.

Coffee brewer incorporated in the stand-up pouch – Photo: Brian Green

3. Do you see the package to product size relationship getting closer?
In recent years we have seen CGC’s making the packaging smaller and smaller and skipping the secondary packaging if possible. Minimizing the size of packaging or foregoing the secondary packaging has its advantages in terms (among others) of sustainability, but consequently we face a much smaller printable area for consumer information. That’s the down-side. Where do we put all that increasingly more information the consumer wants to see? There is more. Look at the small objects, which need a proper sized packaging to be handled. You can’t always go for the minimum, you have to consider consumer convenience as well as supply chain requirements. But it is true that the packaging to product rate has been effectively optimised, but there is a final boundary we can’t pass. Again, take labelling. We have to find proper solutions for storing the required product, production and packaging information on or within the reach of the packaging.

DuPont Packaging Award Winners 2012

4. What one trend do you see rising in package manufacturing today?
Ohh, my friend, there is not one trend, there are several trends running alongside each other, and all with equal importance. Let’s start with plastics. We see the transformation from a petroleum-based industry to a renewable biomass industry. The market trend is clearly moving to bio-based polymers (I am not talking about bio-degradability) that are identical to polymers made from petroleum. We’re seeing start-ups in every corner of the world focusing on developing building blocks to make large commodity polymers. If you can make existing polymers from renewable resources, and show you don’t use food-based feedstocks and arable land such as corn and sugarcane, you are a winner.
Then we can have a look at paperboard. With its ‘green’ credentials paperboard packaging will move into the huge beverage and liquid food markets. Take a close look at the LamiCan paperboard can, the variations and developments in Tetra Packs, SIGCombiblocs and EloPacks.
The influence of EPR and recycling are decisive to new developments. That’s why I foresee more integration of the various basic packaging materials into one packaging format. I.e. the integration of, let’s say glass, metal, plastics, paper etc, into one integrated new packaging material. Homogenous mixtures or solid solutions composed out of two or more basic components. Something like a paper-metal material, a paper-plastic, a metal-plastic etc. As one material, not as two components separately recognisable. That will be the most important and significant trend in the next years.

Landfill Mongaguá in São Paulo state, Brazil

5. Is recycling of packaging more successful today than 10 years ago and what do you see for the future of recycling?
It is indeed successful to a certain extent, but the findings that environmental and recycling messages are both misunderstood and not noticed by most shoppers is even more troubling because another recent survey found that most shoppers want to choose environmentally friendly packaging and that more than half of them are willing to pay more – especially those under the age of 40.
The majority of shoppers want to select environmentally friendly packaging, but they are frustrated over how to do it. They are confused and don’t know which package is best for the environment.
Look at the PlantBottle, it doesn’t get the recycling attention it deserves, as awareness of the negative impact of plastic bottle consumption increases. Apparently consumers don’t get it yet. Maybe something to do with credibility, as the image of the consumer goods industry, in general, of course is at an unbelievable low level. If we don’t start labelling honestly and clearly, skip all the ‘green-washing’ and start educating and informing the consumer, and set up proper selective waste collecting systems everywhere, we will not move much further with recycling. Bio-degradability, compostability and all that modern ‘green-washing’ slogans aren’t solving the problem. Only recycling can solve the problems around our growing quantity of waste and recover value from it. There is a lot of money in recycling.

6. Are we better off trying to recycle packaging or design it for repurposing?
The question is not one or the other, but one and the other. If we are able to recycle cradle-to-cradle that has to be the preferred choice, whatever the design. But we can’t always technically do that and then we have to recycle into a lower level consumer product. If you mean by repurposing creating a second life for the packaging after using the product, I must say, I don’t believe in it in general. People have already too much bric-a-brac in their homes, they will throw out this type packaging. A similar situation you see with refill packages. They are not popular at all. Not at this moment anyway.

7. Is sustainable packaging financially affordable or not?
I have already said that sustainable packaging is an integral aspect of a wider sustainability process. The question therefore is not whether “sustainable packaging is financially affordable”, but whether sustainability as a whole is financially affordable. And of course it is, when you look at the limited resources, when you look at the money-value of waste recycling, when you look at the damage done by food-waste, it is evident. Maybe not always in financial terms, but it always is in terms of morality and social responsibility. And if, at this very moment, sustainability (in some details) is not financially affordable, we have to make it financially affordable, with all the technological and financial power we have.

8. How much involvement should government have in regards to packaging?
The industry in general has proven over and over again that ethics and social responsibility aren’t always part of its characteristics. Apparently food safety and responsible use of the world’s resources can’t be led to the industry’s discretion. Look at the transition to extended producer responsibility (EPR), a future where the producer of a product is made accountable for it once it becomes waste. EPR and greater ‘product stewardship’ are critical to ensuring better source and waste management and recycling in a world on an exponential growth curve of consumption. EPR is a challenging ideology for the producers. The number of companies voluntarily adopting product stewardship is desperately low hence the desperate need for government to step in. And that’s only one example. It is like traffic, we need traffic rules in all aspects to avoid a disaster.
I fully agree with Kim Jeffery, president and CEO of Nestle Waters North America Inc., who stated, that
“EPR is what I call a 21st century solution. If we want to collect multiple streams of material and get all reusable packaging back, we have to rethink the recycling challenge [and develop] a system that does that”.
Unfortunately he is one of a few with a broad vision. The stupidity is that with all their lobbying the industry might delay developments in packaging, but they never ever stop it. It is more effective to spend that lobbying money by changing their short-sightedness for a long term vision.

On-the-Go lunch box, the Nibble box from Tri-Star Packaging

9. If you could see one thing disappear today from packaging, what would it be?
It isn’t only what I can see, but what absolutely should be seen. That’s additives. As I have said recycling is money. Additives used in PET, which has a working and profitable recycling business, would ruin the sector. Or as one PET recycler stated: “Even in small percentages, like one-tenth of one per cent, these are just catastrophic for us. They melt at different temperatures. They ruin our product”.
You might be aware that the attorney general of California filed suits against three companies that make plastic bottles or sell bottled water in California, saying those companies illegally claim the bottles – which are PET mixed with a microbial additive – are biodegradable. The problem is, however, that the claims can’t be scientifically supported.
Don’t forget, recycling as an end-of-life option fares much better in the U.S. than biodegradation. As long as there is a viable market for recycled material, it should be recycled and re-used, not wasted away. Additives claim to make a plastic bio-degradable or compostable, but that’s not true. Additives are simply breaking the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces so it can’t be seen. The plastic is still there. And by the way they are not adding nutrients to the soil, the way natural materials do. It only breaks down without any profitable goal, except that companies can use the ‘green-washing’ label.
In general I object to claims of bio-degradability and compostability as they (may) misguide the consumer. Sorry to say, but people are notorious polluters and often ignorant creatures. Bio-degradability and compostability may stimulate the thrown-away garbage along the roads. In my opinion, promoting a Cradle-to-Grave or Composting-an-end-of-life alternative offered by additives and others, is misleading, inefficient and I even want to define it as immoral and only serves the slogans of marketing.

GreenDustries is changing the way people eat fast food with its two proprietary packages: the PleatPak (for burgers and sandwiches) and the Magic Bag (for French fries and finger foods).

10. And if you could see one new thing today in packaging, what would it be?
I don’t quite understand this question. Packaging is a fascinating industry with an incredible and complicated future. There are so many problems to be solved and so much intelligence involved. It is a pleasure to work in this dynamic environment. There are so many new developments going on into all directions at this moment, that you can’t say what is the one thing which strikes you most. If you love packaging the way I do, it is just energising to write about all of it, as I do on my blog.

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