Rigid plastics are the most used packaging material globally, accounting for approximately one-third (31%) of all packaging materials used in 2019, and are expected to reach 1,459K million pack units from 2023 to 2026 growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.6%, according to GlobalData’s Packaging Market Analyser.

The global fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry is one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste as it is one of the primary users of packaging materials made of rigid plastics, such as bottles, containers, and caps. The material is widely used in various industries. In the food industry, rigid plastics are primarily used in the packaging of dairy products, meat, fish, and seafood. In the non-alcoholic beverage industry, they are commonly used for packaging soft drinks. The material is also used in cosmetics, toiletries, and oils and fats packaging.

Chris Strong, Managing Consultant and Packaging Analyst at GlobalData, comments: “Industry growth is being driven by the increasing demand for convenient, cost-effective, and portable food packaging. High global inflation has driven up input costs, pushing more manufacturers to rely on cheap materials such as rigid plastics. However, with incoming legislation such as the EU’s 'Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive', companies will have the challenge of minimizing the material's impact on the environment whilst maintaining the benefits it provides, such as the ability to offer durability in the supply chain.”

Despite the functional benefits offered by rigid plastics, when reviewing how influential environmentally friendly packaging is to consumers when thinking about a purchasing decision, there is considerable negative consumer sentiment against the use of these materials in FMCG products.

GlobalData’s Q4 2023 consumer survey revealed that 76% of global consumers say that environmentally friendly packaging is essential/nice to have when making a product purchase. For millennials, it’s 75%, and for Central & South American consumers, it’s 83%.

In response to this growing consumer concern and the pressure that governments are placing on the industry to reduce the use of plastics in the supply chain, many manufacturers and their trade associations have set ambitious plastic reduction objectives and have adopted the widespread use of plastic packaging made from recycled plastic waste.

PepsiCo aims to reduce its use of virgin plastic across its beverage portfolio by 35% by 2025, increase recycling rates, and strive to use 25% recycled content in its plastic packaging. 

Danone UK & Ireland’s goal for 2025 is to use only reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging materials.

Coca-Cola’s World Without Waste program aims to make the company’s packaging 100% recyclable globally by 2025 and collect or recycle a bottle or can for each one sold by 2030.

Strong continues: “Food and beverage companies' growth in 2024 will be driven by their technological and digital capabilities. Advancements in these capabilities should help FMCG brands meet consumer demands for a reduction in the use of plastics. Many recent innovations in packaging involve the substitution of virgin plastic materials rather than their reduction, with brands exploring multiple alternative materials to reduce plastic usage.” 

Switch to cardboard punnets

Sainsbury’s announced plans to transition its own-brand mushroom punnet packaging from plastic to a more sustainable cardboard alternative, having already moved many of their private label offerings away from plastic packaging. The move is set to save more than 775 tons of plastic annually.

World’s first plastic-free, recyclable tub for plant-based butters and spreads

Global plant-based food company Upfield has launched what it claims to be the world’s first plastic-free, recyclable tub for plant-based foods such as butter and spreads. The tubs are made from compressed wet paper fibers and are waterproof, oil-proof, and recyclable in local paper waste streams.

Reusable cup scheme introduced in the US and Canada

Starbucks' US and Canadian stores are now accepting customers' own personal cups to enjoy their drink in an effort to minimize cup waste sent to landfills. The initiative also supports the company’s commitment to reduce waste by 50% by 2030.

Label-less soft drinks bottles

Coca-Cola is initiating a trial of label-less packaging for its Sprite brand in the UK, aiming to simplify the recycling process and cut down the use of packaging materials. As part of the limited trial, Coca-Cola will replace Sprite labels with embossed logos on the front and laser-engraved product information on the back.

Plastic replaced with paper packaging

Tesco is replacing the flexible plastic packaging of its pocket tissues with Forest Stewardship Council certified paper packaging in an effort to cut plastic waste.

Packaging companies are also investing in the development of biodegradable plastics to improve packaging sustainability, with Novamont, P&G, Huhtamaki, Stora Enso, and Nestle leading assignees of biodegradable packaging material patents.

Strong adds: “The use of plastic as a packaging material is, realistically, not going away anytime soon. With this in mind, the industry needs to continue exploring innovations that make the material more environmentally friendly where it cannot be replaced with alternatives. Innovation in bioplastic products, increasing collection and recycling rates, and the use of recycled plastic materials and single polymers, which improve recyclate quality, are all key areas of focus moving forward.”