The packaging industry is transforming on a global scale.

To understand the impact that the transformation is having on packaging applications Industrial Physics conducted an international survey of packaging professionals within consumer goods, food and beverage, and medical and pharmaceutical industries.

The research from the global packaging, product, and material test and inspection partner, revealed a strong, sector-wide appetite for packaging innovation (96%).

Sustainability is high on the agenda for all sectors including food and beverage, with recyclability (60%), waste reduction (58%) scoring highly, and biodegradable materials (47%) revealed to be a top focus for investment. However, new approaches to packaging manufacturing are not without their challenges.

60% of packaging professionals are choosing to reduce and replace plastic

Today, one of the biggest changes in the packaging industry is the replacement of plastics in favor of alternative materials. The research revealed that 60% of packaging professionals are choosing to reduce and replace plastic, with half of the survey respondents citing that this is to be more sustainable. Additionally, 42% of packaging professionals surveyed also shared that plastics are being reduced as this is more acceptable to consumers.

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By GlobalData

While environmentally-driven packaging innovations continue to enter the landscape, almost every material has broader considerations to evaluate. For example, the swap from plastic to paper is often perceived as an obvious, sustainable swap because of its recyclable quality. However, in applications such as food packaging the paper requires a coating to maintain the product’s quality and safety. The coatings eliminate the recyclability of paper packaging and can be harmful to the environment when their chemicals enter the water system.

Another common example is the suggested swap from plastic to glass bottles in the beverage industry, however, the increase in the weight of the packaging alone would significantly increase the fuel consumption, carbon emissions emitted during transport and overall logistics costs.

PET can be recycled up to ten times and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 79%

In the beverage industry, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) remains a popular alternative to virgin plastic. PET can be recycled up to ten times and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 79%, requiring less energy to produce when compared with virgin PET, yet professionals continue to face challenges with this choice.

The lack of uniformity across recycling processes and infrastructure globally means that there are still many countries whose PET recycling operations are releasing huge quantities of microplastics.

Recycled PET (rPET) is also emerging as a popular choice for manufacturers looking for greener alternatives despite its obstacles and finite recycling capabilities. Recycled polymers, such as rPET, are created with a combination of recycled materials and virgin materials, and the more you process materials, the less homogeneity in the polymer chain length and the individual molecules. This will cause variance in behaviour during the testing process, which must be fully understood to ensure that the safety and quality of the packaging is not compromised. A recycled polymer may perform differently in a standard test due to contamination, level of processing or the ratio of virgin to recycled material, to name just a few.

The results that are generated from testing these materials, and the level of variance recorded can also impact the data sheets and lead to the failure of whole batches. As a result, choosing rPET requires a higher level of testing which increases both the time and cost of manufacturing. This is in direct contrast with another innovation goal revealed in the research: reducing the cost of packaging (55%).

53% cited new materials developing more quickly than standard as their biggest quality standards challenge

Material choice continues to prove a focus for packaging manufacturers, however, the research highlighted that many are experiencing testing challenges as a result.

Testing new materials is complex. Despite the broad applicability of the tests that are already familiar to the industry, new materials may not perform as expected which makes it harder to guarantee quality and safety.

Packaging professionals cited new materials developing more quickly than standard as their biggest quality standards challenge (53%). However, result variance does not necessarily mean that there is an issue, it just means that more testing is required to collect a larger data set and understand what qualifies as a pass. New materials cannot start benefitting the industry and supporting a brand’s goals unless standards can be met to ensure its performance for a particular application.

To overcome this challenge, more testing must be conducted for material innovations. Whether in-house or outsourced, this will require significant investment of both time and money.

However, through industry collaboration and a growing data pool, manufacturers will be able to understand the testing behaviour of these materials in order to justify their performance and suitability for packaging applications. In time, this will also allow industry bodies to develop the appropriate standards.

Overall, the material innovations currently underway in the international packaging industry are positive and will benefit manufacturers, brands and consumers alike. However, as highlighted in this year’s research, these developments are not without their challenges and in every case, a full evaluation of the monetary and environmental costs is required to make an informed decision.

Plastic reduction and replacement are not expected to slow down, but it is important to remember that for many applications, plastic has been selected specifically because of its unique properties and despite developments, there is not yet any sort of plastic-like material that is really leading the charge as a viable alternative.