According to BOBST, the packaging industry has made significant progress in a short period of time, while anticipating what trends are to follow next.

While the sustainability of packaging has been an important topic for brand owners for several years, the need to implement meaningful solutions has significantly gathered pace in the last year or two. Consumers are rapidly becoming more environmentally conscious, and packaging recyclability is now a major decision factor in their purchasing. Indeed, 48% of consumers in the US said they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment, while among Millennial consumers, the figure reaches 75% (1).

Many businesses have publicly declared very ambitious sustainability targets as a result, promising entirely recyclable materials in their packaging production and alternatives to plastic.

‘What we have seen in the last 18 months is very different to what was happening before,’ said Eric Pavone, business development director, BU Web Fed at BOBST. ‘Previously, sustainability was being used almost like a marketing approach, but in reality, not much progress was being made. The pressure has now grown to the extent that the industry has really shifted gears and now companies have dedicated huge R&D budgets to the sustainability, biodegradability and recyclability of their packaging. Many of the self-imposed deadlines are challenging, but there is a real focus on this area now that makes them more achievable.’

As a result, sustainability is now driving great innovation, and the potential rewards are significant. Innovative delivery models and changing use patterns are calculated to be worth approximately $9 billion to the plastics industry (2).

We need to recover 20 years of engineering

The key challenge for brand owners – particularly in the food industry – is producing new packaging materials without sacrificing the security, freshness, appeal and visibility of the product inside.

Most flexible packaging is a combination of several materials, or polymers (e.g. polyester, polypropylene, polyethylene). Multi polymer materials used in flexible packaging are sophisticated formulas, adept at protecting food (for example) from oxygen, water and so on. But mixing polymers makes the task of recycling much harder and, given there is no standard composition of multi-polymer packaging, there is no feasible standard method to unpick and recover these materials.

‘Recyclability really means mono polymer,’ said Pavone, ‘As soon as you mix, you have problems. But mono polymers traditionally don’t perform to the level of multi polymer materials. The big challenge we face is that today’s flexible packaging is a highly sophisticated engineered product, which is the result of two decades of innovation and development. We need to recover 20 years of engineering as soon as possible to find mono polymer materials that perform as well as today’s packaging, while also ensuring the same machine efficiency in the whole value chain of packaging. It’s a challenge, but one we are making good progress with.’

Balancing high sustainability with high quality 

A major focus for BOBST and its partners – now that they have produced a range of mono polymer materials – is to optimise their viability in the packaging production process and ensure the quality achieved today on multi-polymer is achieved.

‘These substrates react differently, the parameters are different, so we need to keep moving forward to ensure these materials perform as well in all aspects as the ones we currently use,’ said Pavone. ‘Yes, sustainability is the number one priority for brand owners now, but they do not want to make concessions on the visual appeal of their product packaging. So a challenge for us is to bring 100% recyclability without any compromise on appeal. We need material to be scratch-resistant for example, which is challenging with mono materials.’

Innovation on overdrive

So, what’s next? ‘A major focus for everyone in the industry is developing biodegradable plastics that meet sustainability criteria and can be widely used in packaging processes,’ said Pavone.

Pavone also highlights the potential of paper, which he says has high interest in the industry. Consumers already like paper and because it is a natural fibre, it is degradable and recyclable. But paper does not have the high barrier properties needed of plastic and similar materials, so a lot of current R&D focus is on finding ways to bring the high barrier properties to paper.

Ultimately, packaging must fulfil its primary purpose: to protect the product inside. But as environmental pressures increase, the need for packaging to be completely sustainable and recyclable reaches an equal priority. With the rate of current innovation, it may not be too long before we achieve it.

(1). Nielsen 2018.

(2). PACE