In 2022, the Coronavirus pandemic finally started to loosen its grip on consumer spending habits as mobility shot back up. However, this good news was offset by global supply issues as many industries failed to keep pace with rising consumer demand. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added to these stress factors and exacerbated inflationary pressures, which continue to eat into consumers’ disposable income.
So, heading into 2023, the packaging industry faces many of the same challenges as other sectors while also grappling with problems unique to packaging.
One poster child for supply issues is aluminum foil, the global scarcity and rising cost of which is impacting not only health and medical packaging but also food and beverage packaging.
Sustainability will continue to top the agenda for most brands and packaging companies in the coming year. However, there is a great deal of debate surrounding the best ways to achieve sustainability goals. And while the benefits of plant automation are many (reduced labor and repetitive tasks, improved speed and productivity), those seeking to boost automation face the hurdles of cost and securing adequate support services.
Packaging Strategies asked some of the packaging industry’s top executives their thoughts on what lies ahead in 2023. Here are their insights and perspectives.
What are the top trends in food, beverage, and/or healthcare packaging that will make an impact in 2023?
Alison Keane: The top trends in food and beverage packaging continue to be the development of high barrier mono-material and all polyethylene structures that are recyclable through store-drop off programs and readily recyclable with modern technologies. Post Consumer Recycled content is also high among flexible packaging converters’ priorities. When asked in a recent FPA survey what emerging materials and technologies were being incorporated, 88% of converter respondents stated they were using recycle ready materials and 63% said they were using PCR content. When asked about their importance over the next five years, both ranked a #4 on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest).
In the health and medical flexible packaging arena, packages that can be easily and safely dispensed through sterilized, tear-open packages engineered for dosing compliance continue to trend. Materials and technologies to replace aluminum as the main barrier component are trending as well, given the scarcity and cost of aluminum foil on the global market. The aluminum issue is one that impacts food and beverage flexible packaging as well.
Andrew Manly: Sustainability will continue to top the agenda for most Brands and packaging companies as the pressure from external forces, such as the countless pressure groups and raft of government policies, seem to have them in their thrall. But l see digitization as becoming a much stronger force as consumers care less about how green the pack is and more about the cost of the product inside. Shoppers want more information about their products, and connected packaging can deliver messages easily through their smartphones — even messages about how to recycle the packaging! Digitization not only allows connectivity, it also enables personalized promotions or variable campaigns, making Brands more agile in the way they meet changing market preferences. But the key must be better consumer engagement, whatever the message.
For food and beverage l also see more attention to active packaging technologies which can extend shelf life and improve product safety. As many retailers continue to drop Best Before or Use By dates on several lines, it would seem nonsensical to not use other technologies (which are actually more accurate) to inform consumers of the condition inside the pack. This will not only lead to a reduction in food waste but, if managed properly, a better margin as foods can be kept longer at their original price point, or the discount system can be phased more effectively.
For pharmaceuticals it has got to be about traceability as the full effects of FMD and DSCSA kick in. But there is also increasing awareness that non-compliance (so wasted drugs or misused drugs) have a huge impact on the sector and there will be more focus on care givers being able to monitor the patient remotely and ensure they are taking the drugs effectively as prescribed and also if they need replenishing. A ‘next step’ will be personalizing the drug regime for each patient; technology exists and its benefits are being more widely recognized.
As an overall point, Smart Packaging opens a new dimension to the collection and delivery of data which can then be used to enable New Product Development, Provenance, Authentication, Supply Chain Security and Consumer Engagement. Data flows two ways, outwards to suppliers, retailers and customers and internally to improve production, distribution and marketing. So being able to interpret this stream of data is vital. All stakeholders in the supply chain need to change their way of thinking about how to handle data, to ensure it is shared across all parts of the business.
Jorge Izquierdo: Packaging trends are reverting back to pre-pandemic tendencies, and some of these leanings, such as health and wellness, have been strengthened during the pandemic. To this end, food and beverage products focused on healthy attributes like good for the immune system, are taking center stage.
Consumers are back on the move and single serve formats for on-the-go consumption are back in a strong way while inflation pressures on the home budget are favoring family sizes and multipacks for at-home consumption, focusing more on value for the money.
Sustainability is a key trend shaping the materials and formats used in the food and beverage segment, with strong pressure on plastics in favor of compostable materials.
What are some of the new ways that automation and/or robotics are impacting packaging operations?
Andrew Manly: Well, both robotics and AI are already having profound impact on packaging lines. As someone told me many years ago, robots don’t need holidays or go off sick. So it’s been surprising that automation of simpler operations such as palletization has not gone faster.
I doubt there is a high speed line in the food sector which does not use some kind of pick and place technology. So l think robotics can only become more and more ubiquitous in packaging operations.
The ‘new kid on the block’ is AI, which is allowing a whole new generation of production machines from self-diagnostics through machine learning and producing analytics for analysis. I do not pretend to be anything of an expert on AI, but my long involvement in packaging leads me to believe its impact will be as profound as the stepper motor and electronic controls were 20 years ago.
These machines can not only regulate themselves but also provide valuable data about the process, l believe.
Jorge Izquierdo: Industrial robots have come a long way since their initial introduction in the automotive industry. In the last few years, robots have become smaller, more affordable, and more widely available. Their capabilities have steadily expanded through improvements such as machine vision, end of arm tooling technology, artificial intelligence/machine learning, durability, and safety. Robots have also become simpler to both program and operate, reducing the level of technical skill needed for successful deployment. As these robot capabilities progress, robots are steadily expanding into new applications and even entirely new industries.
What are some of the new ways that sustainability is impacting packaging operations and materials?
Alison Keane: With many consumer product companies publicly stating packaging circularity goals for 2025 and beyond, converters are testing new technologies and emerging materials, striving for fully recyclable or compostable. While mono-material recycle ready, including metalized PE film instead of aluminum foil as the barrier in food and beverage packaging, and PCR content are the main targets, bio-based materials, reuse and refill systems and compostable packaging are also on the list of solutions. Policy is also driving this change, with laws being implemented over the next several years that will mandate reduction, recyclability and PCR content. All of these emerging technologies impact packaging operations, including machine capability. Switching to paper from plastic or incorporating PCR content in film, for example, the current machines may not be set up to handle those changes or at least not at optimum efficiency. New machines may be necessary for both converters as well as consumer brand owners to run their product fill lines.
Andrew Manly: Sustainability impacts on just about everything and not always for the best. Not only has the topic seemingly infatuated governments, NGOs like WRAP and worthy but misguided consortia such as the Ellen McArthur Foundation but the national and, sadly, the packaging media have been complicit in peddling a lot of misguided and often inaccurate information about, mostly, plastics (packaging is an easy victim for politicians.)
FACT: Plastics is an excellent and, pound for pound, highly sustainable packaging material. It’s what we do, or do NOT do, with it that is the problem. The industry has invested many 100s of millions of its R&D budgets in what are supposed to be recyclable or compostable materials. Not all of this is bad, but when LCAs are done on the whole of life of a CPG, quite often the environmental impact of the pack is tiny compared to the carbon footprint of food waste. Of course, we should make more mono-materials which are easy to recycle, and of course we need to explore how we can build re-use into the system where practical. But let’s get a sense of proportion and not, as one major UK supermarket chain did, change all its milk containers from HDPE to Cartons only to find the cartons are infinitely more difficult to recycle and weigh 30% more than the perfectly serviceable plastic container!
We have technologies available to make it easier to sort different plastics to facilitate recycling. But this digital watermark needs to be rolled out at scale to make it viable, and there needs to be sufficient recycling capacity to handle the materials in a cost effective (and environmentally impactful way).
Often the consumer wants to help in the sustainability stakes, but few Brands or retailers are trying to educate them how to do that effectively (There are notable exceptions such as Tetra Pak and Coca-Cola.). Connected packaging is a key enabler here as most people can connect through their smart devices and these messages can be delivered in an entertaining and impactful way (such as Augmented Reality – which also has a role in AI).
Finally, one of the major concerns l have is that the whole innovation programs/ budgets at countless Brand Owners and Packaging companies have been skewed towards the development of sustainable packaging or processes – not always successfully or effectively – and this has meant other important innovation ideas have been pushed down the agenda. I would like to see an ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’ mentality. But realistically the demands of the sustainable agenda seems to be getting louder. I just hope these demands are channeled into really purposeful action and not just the fulfilment of the ESG messages which companies find so necessary these days.
Jorge Izquierdo: Sustainability has become the headline agenda item for the CPG industry as it moves forward, and if it matters to CPGs, then it matters to OEMs and packaging material manufacturers as well.
The Holy Grail is fully sustainable packaging in a 100% circular recycle/reuse process, but it will come at a cost, to the industry and to the consumer. Bioplastics, for example, are more expensive than petroleum-based plastics (which are often used in multilayer flexible packaging that can’t be re-processed by traditional mechanical recycling methods). Sustainable packaging is not only pushing up prices of goods on the shelves, but it also has an impact on the actual shelf-life of these products. Many foodstuffs, if they aren’t film-packed in plastic boxes or packets, will not last as long.
This is a compromise the industry will need to adjust to if sustainability is going to be achieved. In the case of bioplastics, for example, they don’t have the same barrier functionality as traditional plastics, though we have seen recent innovation in the form of recyclable mono-material petroleum-based plastic film.
The way forward is collaboration between all stakeholders in the packaging industry to bring in new designs, new technologies and top-line growth, to increase efficiency and lower the cost. According to the 2022 Achieving Packaging Sustainability Report, “CPGs and their suppliers must all work together to develop packaging designs that can more readily be reused, composted or recycled, but also to build the infrastructure and try to get some consistency across the marketplace, so consumers aren’t as confused as they are today.”