Consumer-centric, solutions-oriented packaging an emerging trend, according to consultant, who notes that designers and converters should first identify target demographic consumer, spending and use habits, then direct innovation at specific needs

, June 18, 2014 () – Packaging not only performs the essential job of protecting goods during transportation and storage, it also plays a large role in consumers' purchasing decisions. Today's consumer is still attracted by "shelf appeal" but also looks for packaging that demonstrates a concern for sustainability--and is easy to use. Innovations in plastics packaging, therefore, are beginning to focus more on solutions to practical consumer needs while also further improving sustainability.

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Presumed "Green"

Sustainability is beginning to be an expected way of doing business in this industry. "Consumers are seeking out signs on packaging that manufacturers have a green conscience. Understanding how commitment to sustainability can be communicated in an engaging way through packaging is key to relating to and attracting consumers," comments Paul Pritchett, market development manager at packaging converter Printpack.

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Making a sustainable package goes beyond the consumer message. 'The key to sustainability is to make it an advantage, not a burden," says Edward Gustafson, executive vice-president of custom thermoformer Innovative Plastech. "In the past, a lot of people thought of sustainability as window dressing. Now you have people seriously thinking about reusability, post-consumer content, fillers, and bio-based resins as a way to either increase sales, reduce costs, or both, while also producing more sustainably."

Reducing material use

A perennial question in any plastics process is how to reduce material use. Reducing package size and using thinner walls are typically considered, but for those who have already downgauged as much as possible, the next step is to look at reducing production scrap.

"Converters around the world are looking to machinery suppliers to increase production efficiency and help them save material," notes Jerome Romkey, marketing manager at GN Thermoforming Equipment. For example, cut-in-place thermoforming can reduce material scrap rates, and common-edge tooling can reduce skeletal web scrap from approximately 30% to 18%, when compared to typical form-cut-stack machines, notes Romkey.

In thermoformed retail packaging, another challenge is to maintain a prominent shelf appearance with a reduced package size. 'Thermoformed packages are probably a quarter of the size overall (and with thinner side walls) compared to what they were ten years ago," notes Todd Shepherd, president of custom thermoformer Shepherd Thermoforming & Packaging. Because the package is smaller, with less space for marketing, brands are shifting towards printing or labeling over the product, thus breaking the traditional taboo on obstructing the consumer's view of the product.

Contour printing (i.e., distortion printing) is a method of printing graphics directly over all the intricate contours of a thermoformed package. It's finding success and is expected to become a preferred format, predicted Shepherd in a presentation at the recent ANTEC. Adjusting graphics to a package's distortion is challenging and, in the past, prevented widespread use of contour printing. Technological breakthroughs in the graphics world, however, can now more easily tie the two-dimensional world of graphics to the three-dimensional world of thermoformed packaging. "The flow to market is shorter than before, and contour printing is now competitive with other printing technologies," explains Shepherd. Contour printing has seen success so far in reducing the need for multiple labels and inserts in some packages.

Recyclability, and using recyclate

Stand-up pouches are a design that exemplifies reduced material use, and now is winning awards for recyclability. Dow's Polyethylene Stand-Up Pouch ("PE SUP") recently received a SPE Global Plastics Environmental Conference (GPEC) 2014 Environmental Stewardship award in "Design for Recyclability." The pouch is made completely from polyethylene for recyclability in existing PE recycle streams.

Dow, Printpack, and Tyson Foods also won a 2013-2014 WorldStar Award from the World Packaging Organization for the PE SUP for frozen chicken. In the same contest, Ampac won a WorldStar Award in the Household category for its No. 2 pouch film used in the Savvy Green Eco-Clean Laundry Detergent stand-up pouch. The film meets the No. 2 SPI ASTM classification Designation D7611/D7611M-10. And the No. 2 pouch can be recycled with plastic retail shopping bags at store collection sites under the US How2Recycle Label initiative, which helps consumers better understand how packaging can be recycled.

Designing packages for recyclability is becoming increasingly important. Government-backed, extended-producer responsibility (EPR) initiatives are driving this trend in some countries. But in the USA, this trend is driven by retailers' sustainability initiatives, such as those of Walmart, Target, and others, says Lou Tacito, president of Plastics Forming Enterprises (a company which provides consulting and testing services for plastics recyclability and was GPEC's 2014 award winner for "Enabling Technologies").

Because large purchasers, such as Walmart, are requiring that packages be designed for recyclability, brand owners have made recyclability their concern as well. "A lot of communication is needed between package designers and recyclers," notes Tacito. He compares today's design trend to the early days of PET bottles, which started out with multiple materials (e.g., a PE base cup, metal cap with PVC liner, glue, and paper labels) and moved towards an all-PET construction.

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One of the challenges in recycling clear, thermoformed packages, notes Tacito, is that they can be made of different material types (e.g., PET, PVC, PS, PL4) that are difficult to separate visually. In Canada, retailers solved this problem by proactively requesting that all thermoformed material be made of PET.

Using recycled material has long been a preferred method for improving a package's sustainability image, and, in many cases, there is an expectation from customers that a package will contain recyclate. The push for increasing amounts of recycled content in packages will motivate the industry to ensure that quality recyclate is available, comments Tacito.

Using recyclate has become easier because of the increasing availability of high-quality recycled plastic, particularly recycled PET. Over the past twenty years, companies throughout the supply chain have improved the recovery of PET and learned how to use it. Ice River Springs Water Co., for example, processes curbside-collected, green and clear PET bottles; molds its caps and bottles; and fills bottles with its spring and other water products, all in-house. The company's 15-liter, green-colored water-cooler bottle was produced from 100% recycled PET--an application which recently won a silver award for Responsible Packaging in the 2014 DuPont Awards for Packaging Innovation.

Recycled PET is beginning to come from other sources besides the bottle stream. In many parts of Canada, for example, where an extensive recycling infrastructure is in place, consumers recycle nearly 100% of their thermoformed plastic packaging, according to Canadian thermoforming-industry members. "We see continued growth of recycled PET in thermoformed food packaging in both North America and globally," comments Romkey.

Reusability

Designing packages for reusability is often an overlooked area, says Gustafson of Innovative Plastech. The company developed the Sell Stack thermoformed pallet tray as a reusable alternative to cardboard boxes at club and discount stores. The clear trays enhance product visibility, stack snugly, and can be reused up to five times. The trays also contain 50% post-consumer PET and can be recycled.

Using bio-based materials

Traditional bio-based materials, most commonly based on polylactic acid (PLA), have grown significantly in the past decade, and their initial processing and transportation problems (e.g., low heat deflection temperatures causing warping) have been addressed.

In a presentation at ANTEC, NatureWorks LLC (the producer of Ingeo[TM] polylactide polymer) said that the bioplastics market is maturing and that the focus has shifted to cost and performance rather than just environmental attributes. For example, Ingeo replaced high-impact polystyrene in form-fill-seal dairy packaging because of a stronger package and cost-neutrality, as well as a lower carbon footprint, says Steve Davies, director of corporate communications and public affairs at NatureWorks.

Some companies are working on PLA projects and expect the material's increasing use in packaging, while others see PLA remaining in niche applications. Cost, compared to traditional materials, can still be a limiting factor, and plant-based materials can be limited in barrier properties, say industry sources.

The concern of PLA contaminating the PET recycling stream has become a moot point; NatureWorks no longer sells Ingeo for injection stretch blow molding for beverage applications in North America, so it isn't in the bottles stream, which has been long harmonized on PET, notes Davies. "We focus on selling Ingeo grades into consumer products where the potential for recycle stream contamination is minimal. Ingeo can be found in the mixed rigid stream, where it's essentially a 'level playing field' with visually indistinguishable clear packaging made from polymers such as PS, PP, PET, and PVC. Here, the plastics industry is working together on the collective challenge of how to best extract each of these materials from the stream," he explains.

NatureWorks is working with the recycling community to characterize PLA's presence in post-consumer streams and map out a variety of strategies for collecting it. The company is also working with customers to develop end-markets for recycled PLA.

An alternative for bottles that fits right in with the PET recycling stream is bio-based PET, which has been made somewhat famous as the material in Coca-Cola's PlantBottle[R]. This technology uses plant-based materials (e.g., sugarcane) to produce bio-glycol, one of the raw materials used to make PET.

Bio-based conventional polymers use bio-based raw materials to make polymers that are identical to their petroleum-based counterparts. These drop-in replacements are growing at a faster rate than traditional bio-based polymers such as PLA, as Plastics Engineering reported in March 2014 (see "Bio Beware," p. 4). Braskem's Green Polyethylene, for example, is used in packaging and other applications. Braskem has produced bio-based HDPE and LLDPE since 2010, and introduced bio-based LDPE in 2013.

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Reducing food waste

Using less material, incorporating recyclate or bio-based materials, and designing for various end-of-life options can all improve sustainability of packaging, but perhaps the largest effect of packaging on sustainability is reduction of food waste. Products being packaged are growing globally at 13% annually due to population growth, and to the need to transport food to the increasingly urban populations in emerging geographies, notes Scott Collick, R&D director at the Dow Chemical Company.

However, approximately one-third of the food the world produces--about 1.3 billion tonnes--is lost or wasted, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).1 According to the FAO, if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it could feed 870 million people. So FAO and Messe Dusseldorf are leading a global "Save Food" initiative to help address this problem.

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"We believe that, through collaboration, the global food-packaging industry is well-positioned to enable packaging to prevent food losses and waste," adds Yasmin Siddiqi, global marketing director for DuPont Packaging. One new use of DuPont's Surlyn sealant-layer material in reducing food waste, for example, is the Hibassk high-barrier film made by Dutch company A. van den Broek BV.

Hibassk film is used in vacuum food packaging, which is a fast-growing trend in Europe. The Surlyn sealant in the package layer helps ensure that the red color of vacuum skin-packed meat will be preserved for a longer time. It also eliminates the typical odor associated with conventional nylon-polyethylene film packaging to extend the storage life of fresh meat and reduce waste, explains Siddiqi.

"In the long run, more--but better--packaging, rather than less packaging, can help reduce food waste," Siddiqi adds. 'The challenges lie in finding solutions that are sustainable and cost effective. Sometimes you can do it all--protect food longer, improve the environmental impact, and manage end-of-life for the packaging. That is the goal, and we have to reach for it affordably."

Customer-Driven Innovation

An emerging trend is "consumer-centric, solutions-oriented packaging that works hard to address a consumer need," says packaging strategist and consultant David Luttenberger, global packaging director, Mintel. "Functional, hard-working packaging, particularly with components that are intuitive to use, is the packaging trump card."

Packaging that ensures 100% dispensability, is easy to open, or reseals are examples of innovations that meet functional consumer needs. Rather than innovating in the traditional "concept-to-consumer" process, package designers and converters should use a "consumer-to-concept" process, which first identifies a target demographic consumer, spending and use habits, and even specific channels, and then directs innovation at specific needs, explains Luttenberger.

Some brand owners are already actively involved in requesting feedback from consumers. And consumers, indeed, want to be involved. "Our research shows that consumers are definitely taking a more active role with brands, and they are not afraid to speak about changes they want to see in a brand packaging or performance," comments Peter Prusak, head of marketing for Clariant Masterbatches North America. "Brand specialists refer to these active consumers who are trying to drive change as 'pre-sumers' and 'cust-owners.' They want to be the first to try a product and also help with designs and changes. They will take their ideas directly to the OEM/brand owner or make use of social media to influence change."

Social media is elevating the quality requirements for packaging. "In the past, if one in a million packages failed, that would be acceptable; but today, there is a risk of that one failure 'going viral' if a consumer complains about it on Twitter or Facebook," says Dow's Scott Collick.

Another aspect of involvement is that a wide range of consumers are becoming more engaged with the products they are purchasing, and there is a growing public desire to understand what is healthy. "Consumers expect packaging and branding to display the health credentials of the product both quickly and concisely to allow them to make informed choices," explains Printpack's Pritchett. Consumers are also demanding more transparency from manufacturers, says Pritchett, "Origins of products need to be traceable back to their source to maintain trust throughout the supply chain. Communication of this traceability creates credibility and authenticity for consumers."

Transparency in packaging can also be taken quite literally, such as the increasing use of clear films, windows, and structures (e.g., in orange-juice containers). These clear displays of the product are tied to consumer empowerment, says Luttenberger. "It's about giving consumers the ability to make purchasing decisions based on what they perceive to be true rather than what brands try to convince them is true." A related, emerging trend is that, in the future, the majority of purchasing decisions will not be made at the point of purchase, but prior to this, during "pre-shopping" on mobile devices, notes Luttenberger.

These knowledgeable, demanding consumers also have busy lifestyles, and they expect packaging to provide convenience and ease of use without too much extra cost. In emerging regions, customer needs also include accessibility and affordability. In these areas, the challenge for packaging is ensuring that essential goods and services, such as food and medical supplies, reach remote areas; the question for suppliers is managing the price/value equation for this packaging, says Siddiqi.

Suppliers to the plastics packaging industry are responding by dedicating teams of experts to consumer-centric innovation. Dow, for example, launched Pack Studios in September 2013 as an open-innovation concept that brings the whole packaging chain together to discuss finding solutions. Dow currently has four Pack Studios (in Freeport, Texas; Horgen, Switzerland; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Shanghai, China) that provide laboratories, fabrication and testing equipment, and facilities for collaborating. "We have two [or] three customers coming in each week to collaborate, discuss designs and prototypes, and determine how to meet a need, such as making a package to keep a food item fresh for longer," says Collick. "With videoconferencing, we bring in material and equipment experts from around the world to help find solutions."

Clariant Masterbatches opened its first "Project House" in November 2013 with the objective of pursuing break-through color and additive masterbatch solutions for functional packaging. The Project House in Italy will bring together cross-functional teams of scientists, technologists, marketers, academics, and suppliers to explore emerging technologies. Areas for innovation could include barrier technologies, active packaging, intelligent packaging, and surface effects (e.g., zero-residue packaging materials to allow the complete emptying of a package).

A focus on innovation is not limited to the largest companies. "A couple years ago we made a choice to devote time and effort to looking at opportunities in the marketplace and ways we could fill these needs," explains Innovative Plastech's Gustafson. This focus has resulted in several innovations, such as the reusable pallet tray (discussed earlier in the article).

A walk down your local store aisle will reveal even more new and innovative packaging that meets consumer needs--or perhaps will become an inspiration for future designs.

Reference

(1.) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "Save Food: Global Initiative on Food Losses and Waste Reduction," mvw.fao.org/save-food/key-findings/en/, accessed April 4, 2014.

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