There is still much to invent in processing and machine design

annette-freidinger-legayAnnette Freidinger-Legay
International Packaging Expert

Let’s be honest: today’s society is rather gloomy. Economically speaking, we are not overcome with euphoria! And this affects the behavior of consumers who claim for smart shopping and increasingly favor snack food. This may lead to increasing innovation and inventing new ways of processing materials – while still looking for new sustainable materials. It is now essential to ‘give added value to packages at a lower cost’.

In order to treat themselves despite this air of gloominess, French people want to make their everyday life different and purchase product with an emotional value that makes them happy. Limited editions take off, both in the high volume consumer goods and the luxury industry with Champagne.

Because people have less and less time, snack foods are more and more popular… with significant consequences on packaging. Packaging must preserve the food from extreme external temperature variations, include different ingredients, be easy to open, be heatable in the oven, microwave oven and in a water bath, while preventing burns! Brands, whatever the sector, have to innovate and meet both environmental requirements and the snack food trend.

How can we fight both against food waste and for packaging reduction?

Fighting against food waste has also emerged for some months. However, it might go against the fight for packaging reduction that has been on since 1992. For environmental protection purposes, we have worked on the reduction in weight and thickness of packaging materials, and on a weight ratio favorable to the product rather than the packaging. This tends to favor large containers.
This brings up a critical issue : what should be favored: fighting against food waste by offering small quantities and individual doses, or protecting the planet by generating less packaging waste using large containers?

The solution might lie in ‘portion-sized’ or re-sealable packaging that would allow deferred consumption or in active and clever packaging that would allow a longer preservation of the product, including once it is opened (through food substances that fight against oxidation like Vitamin C), or that would avoid the development of micro-organisms on the packaging wall. Laboratories rely heavily on the properties of essential oils in this area. They undeniably are a great future for tomorrow’s packaging.

Today’s… and tomorrow’s most used materials

According to the last market survey carried out by Pira International, the world packaging production ($670 billion in 2010) should reach $820 billion in 2016 (Source: The Future of Global Packaging – Smithers Pira – January 2012), with an average annual growth rate above 3%.
The growth is mainly driven by urbanization, the development of the health sector, and the development of emerging and transitional economies, like China, India and Brazil, but also some eastern European countries, where purchasing power is on the rise.

Overall the classification of the world’s most used materials should remain the same in the next years: cardboard (corrugated and flat) should remain the leader (30.49% of the market, $250 billion in 2016), followed by rigid plastics (24.39% of the market, $200 billion in 2016) that are boosted by the drinks market, cosmetics, personal care products and detergents, and by flexible plastics (19.88% of the market, $163 billion in 2016), used in fresh and processed food products as well as drugs.

Number Four in the market, metal packaging (14% of the market) should decrease by 2016 in favor of rigid plastics. Lastly, number five on the market, glass should still increase but at a slower rate (6.46% of the market, $53 billion in 2016).
Countries with strong environmental sensitivity favor cellulosic fibers, i.e. paper-board. Japan, which has a strong culture of convenience fresh and individual food portions, favors complex flexible materials which ensure that those products are protected. By contrast, for developing countries, we note that rigid plastic materials rapidly take a strong market share since the processing industry for those materials requires significantly less capital than the glass, paper or metal industry. A closer look at the PET penetration rate for water and drink bottles worldwide speaks for itself.

New materials have adjusted their strategy

New materials have slowed to a standstill. 5 years ago, considerable publicity was made around biopolymers. But now we are realizing that using corn or wheat to make packaging materials was perhaps not the wisest thing to do knowing that one billion human beings have no food! Bio-based PET is still used but it comes from sub-products such as sugar cane residues. Some are looking for starch sources that could be available without using corn, such as potato wash water. Another reason for the standstill undergone by new materials derives from the regulations that have precisely defined what is meant by biodegradable and compostable materials.

The future technological developments should lead to a greater consumption of better defined biopolymers. The worldwide production of biopolymers should thus reach 5.8 million tons in 2016, according to the association European Bioplastics. Bio-based PET production would thus be 4.6 million tons, i.e. 80% of the worldwide offer in front of PLA (298,000 tons), PE (250,000 tons) and PHA (142,000 tons) (Source: Salon de l’Emballage, France, 2012).

The focus is also on incorporating recycled materials in packaging. As regards corrugated board, a traditional cardboard box often contains up to 80% of recycled fibers. A wine bottle may be manufactured with 100% recycled glass. Aluminum, whose transformation requires a high amount of energy, is worth recycling. Progress is being made not only on recycling processes which, for example, allow to put recycled PET in contact with food according to drastic European regulations, but also on automated sorting systems that in the future will allow consumers to put all their packaging wastes in a unique dustbin. There is no longer reference to waste but to secondary materials.

From my point of view, the future belongs to active materials whose permeability will be perfectly mastered in relation to gas and steam and which will be able to regulate the atmosphere, thus preventing the development of micro-organisms inside the packaging, and extending the life duration of food products once the packaging is opened. Nano-particles have interesting physical properties in this context… but for the future… and provided that regulations allow it. However, it is certainly an avenue worth exploring to fight against waste.

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