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The Future of Packaging

According to research from the University of California, Santa Barbara in the years leading to 2015, we generated 6,300 million metric tons (MMT) of plastic waste. Plastics packaging constitutes 42% of this total, and of that portion food and beverage packaging is 55%.

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor


In 2017, conservationist Sir David Attenborough used his Blue Planet II television series to demonstrate the damage plastic waste is causing to marine life.  It was a clarion call that tapped into a growing Zeitgeist to reduce the amount of plastic waste produced by society that saw retailers such as Asda urge their peers in the industry to stop using plastic packaging.  

Blue Planet II provoked a guttural reaction to the impact plastic was having on the planet, with Attenborough revealing that his team found discarded plastic packaging in all corners of the oceans, including places as far flung as South Georgia, a remote island just north of Antarctica.

According to research from the University of California, Santa Barbara in the years leading to 2015, we generated 6,300 million metric tons (MMT) of plastic waste. Plastics packaging constitutes 42% of this total, and of that portion food and beverage packaging is 55%.

The aftermath of Blue Planet saw a huge rise in activity as people took to their computers to learn more about plastic recycling, with web traffic to charities such as the World Wide Fund (WWF) and Plastic Oceans Foundation (POF) rising considerably.  

This movement has rapidly gathered support, with China announcing plans to ban the import of foreign recyclable material, and the European Union launching a plastics strategy that they hope will fundamentally change the way plastic is used in Europe, with approximately €350 million funneled into research into modern methods of plastic production and collection.

A new wave of packaging

For much of the last few years, the climate emergency has driven much of the agenda in the packaging industry, but covid-19 is likely to have just as big an impact, with significant shifts in consumer channels, a heightened concern among consumers about safety and hygiene, volatile raw material markets, and the disruption of markets by lockdown orders.

As with so much, it’s highly likely that the pandemic will exacerbate many of the trends already impacting the sector.  The sustainability trend that began a few years ago is certainly not going to go away, and in many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has only heightened our awareness of what damage truly global crises can do to society.  So whilst sustainability has been pushed onto the back seat by the pandemic, and especially by concerns around hygiene and food safety, it’s almost certain that sustainability will remain hugely important.

As such, packaging companies are likely to have to marry hygiene, cost, convenience, and performance requirements with sustainability goals in order to remain competitive, all at a time when raw-material markets are likely to be volatile, and recycling services disrupted.

Online demands

The pandemic has also driven a huge surge in e-commerce, as people have migrated away from physical stores to their online variants.  Given the length of time this shift has unfolded over, it’s likely that this transition will stick post-pandemic, with China proving illustrative in this regard.  If the online market does endure then it will have significant implications for the packaging industry, as packaging to date is still not really optimized for e-commerce.  To do so will require packaging to feature more technology to allow both speed and productivity of filing, packaging and delivery, and will need to be designed to work effectively with the robotic devices that are a growing presence in fulfilment centers.

The pandemic has also facilitated a clear shift in consumer preferences.  As a comparison, the financial recession of 2008 saw consumers cut back on non-essential items, traded down to less expensive products, and shifted channels online.  These trends endured beyond the recession itself, and similar patterns are emerging in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

As before, there has been a considerable fall in discretionary spending, with established brands securing a larger share of spending.  We have also moved more of our spending online to both continue shopping and also to respect social distancing regulations.  Given the likely economic fallout from the pandemic will be long lasting, price sensitivity is surely going to endure, alongside a prioritization for health and hygiene.  This cost pressure is likely to result in packaging budgets being squeezed at the same time that more is asked from our packaging.

Couple this with a remodelling and digitization of the supply chain, and it’s clear that the packaging world is in the midst of significant and lasting change.  This month will see the exploration of some of these trends, including the ways in which packaging needs to change after covid, the future of the circular economy, and the waste challenges presented by the pandemic.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!
Strategic Media Partner