Increasing demand in the healthcare industry and expansion into food beverages are expected to fuel a major boom in plastics packaging over the next five years. Barry Mansfield looks at the roles likely to be played by innovations, trends and new regulations, as well the urgent need to address environmental waste.
The plastics packaging industry is braced for an eventful few years. Lucrative new opportunities in healthcare and foods and beverages, as well as a rising consumer preference for light, durable and stylised products should combine to drive a rapid acceleration in the sector.
Having also factored in new opportunities for using nanotechnology film formation and printing, Transparency Market Research predicts that that the global plastics packaging market, which was valued at $259.65 billion in 2013, will be worth $370.25 billion by 2020.
Optimism must be offset against the likelihood of volatile crude oil prices, however, which may negatively affect the cost of downstream chemicals.
Barrier for success
Plastics’ chief advantages have traditionally been cost-effectiveness, longevity and durability. They are robust enough to cope with rough handling during distribution and transportation and have higher aesthetic value, as well as outstanding barrier properties against moisture and air, which enhances the products’ shelf lives.
Polyethylene is the cheapest and most widespread film used for food packaging. Other materials, such as polypropylene are gaining importance, though many countries have implemented legislation banning disposable plastic carrier bags. Some nations have levied extra taxes on these at the point of sale and the rising demand for bioplastics is expected to open more avenues for growth.
In 2013, the strongest demand for plastic was in the food and beverages sector, where it enjoyed a 65% share of the market. Plastics packaging is also set for raid expansion in the pharmaceuticals sector, where myriad regulations are being enforced to address hygiene standards, counterfeiting and drug efficacy.
Asia-Pacific showed the highest demand for plastics packaging in 2013, accounting for more than a third of the market, thanks to the region’s industries. The trend is expected to continue over the forecast period on account of rapid growth of industries such as food and beverages, personal care products and pharmaceuticals. Brazil is expected to see a significant increase in consumption of packaging, due to economic development.
Alison Ingle, group packaging manager at Nestlé UK & Ireland, says brand owners must adapt to current trends, such as aging populations, the increasing number of single households and urbanisation, all of which will affect on sizes and formats. She points out that over-nutrition is a big worry in western societies and that packaging will play its part to "inform consumers on portion guidance", with this approach being extended to portion control via adapted pack sizes, or reclosable options.
Recent developments have seen Nestlé UK’s consortium partner, Enval, create a method of recycling aluminium-plastics foils, such as pet food pouches and coffee packs. This technique separates the material into its constituent elements, resulting in clean aluminium that can be fed back into a secondary supply chain, as well as hydrocarbons that can be reused for fuel and chemical feedstock.
Nestlé UK and Ireland is also joining forces with Coca-Cola Enterprises, Tesco, SITA UK and LRS Consultancy, having secured financial backing from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to study the possibilities of collecting flexible laminate materials with aluminium content. The idea is that the plastics can be extracted and converted into fuel, and the aluminium recycled.
Other recent movements in plastics include Wendel snapping up CSP Technologies at an enterprise value of $360 million (the firm will invest $198 million for a full 98% ownership in CSP) and Sanner revealing in February its Brilliance Tube for effervescent tablets and solid pharmaceuticals with IML technology, in addition to two drop-in solutions for pharmaceutical packaging, as it aims to strengthen its position as market leader for desiccant packaging.
The Brilliance Tube’s photorealistic printing – with as many as eight colours, metallic effects and varying surface structures ¬- makes for premium, eye-catching products. The tubes’ distinctive geometry enables them to be packed smoothly into sales trays, while Sanner customers benefit from printed labels, decorated tubes and a range of proven desiccant closures.
Despite these advances, certain drawbacks with using plastics can damage brands’ images. According to a new report by As You Sow, the food industry isn’t doing enough to help consumers separate what is recyclable from what is compostable when disposing of household waste. The non-profit group, which promotes environmental and corporate responsibility, claims only half of consumer packaging ends up being recycled, with the rest ending up as litter, or in landfill.
The author of the study, Conrad MacKerron, acknowledges the industry’s move away from polystyrene since the 1980s, but points out that there has also been a shift from glass towards plastics. He warns about the implications for pollution in the oceans; litter from takeaway orders, such as plastics cups, straws and plates, frequently ends up in waterways, where its degradation harms precious and endangered marine life.
Plastics may well be the fastest growing form of packaging today, but a meagre 14% is recycled, according to MacKerron. The problem is that some recyclable materials, such as black Category 7 plastics, demand highly specialised equipment. As You Sow’s conclusion is that the influential beverage, fast food and packaged goods companies are "significantly short of where they should be when it comes to addressing the environmental aspects of packaging".
Brand leadership, MacKerron says, is sorely lacking: "These companies have not sufficiently prioritised compostablity, source reduction, recyclability, recycled content and related recycling policies." Your morning coffee is likely one of the biggest offenders in this area. Millions of households are equipped with one-cup coffee brewing machines. The top selling manufacturer, Keurig, produced 9.8 billion coffee pods, known as K-Cups, last year.
Kill the K-Cup
Mike Hachey, CEO of Egg Studios, is conducting a campaign that he has described as "kill the K-Cup", in a drive to halt the seemingly inexorable rise of the single-serve coffee machine. He admits that the renowned Keurig machines were his first choice for his office, but soon realised that the material was a problem. He had done away with the old Styrofoam containers, but the replacement wasn’t much better.
Ultimately, As You Sow’s survey of 47 fast food chains, beverage firms and grocery companies – including Domino’s Pizza, Coca Cola and Heineken – concluded that food packaging today wasn’t much better than it was 30 years ago. Nevertheless, in the fast food/QSR company category, Starbucks and McDonald’s were singled out for ‘better practices’ while New Belgium Brewing, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters NA, and PepsiCo were commended in the beverages category.
In the UK, the Plastics Recycling Expo (PRE) exhibition and conference, which takes place 16-17 June 2015 in Telford, will explore how the industry can boost plastics recycling. Speakers include sustainability experts from top brands such as Unilever, IKEA and Marks & Spencer. Innovations for every part of the supply chain will be studied, from recycling to management of public perceptions and recycling habits, development of end-markets, and sorting of highly contaminated materials.
Troublesome waste will be addressed by Bernard Chase, sector specialist, Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), who will discuss pots, tubs and trays, and Richard McKinlay, project engineer at Axion Recycling, who will outline the process of designing flexible packaging films that can be sorted for recycling. Logoplaste will show a case study on its award winning Ecover packaging project, which uses ocean-derived waste.
The industry’s great hope is that there can be an increase in plastics recycling levels, improvement in resource efficiency and widespread adoption of circular economy systems. According to Recoup’s CEO Stuart Foster, however, this vision is little more than wishful thinking unless a strong and consistent demand is maintained to use more reprocessed plastics materials across Europe. This year Recoup’s exhibition stands will be covered with recyclable plastics products; a new end-product database is now live on the Recoup website and will be expanded in the first half of the year.
Foster notes that European Best Recycled Plastics Product Award 2015 should "enable the industry to further demonstrate their commitment and work in the area of Corporate Social Responsibility, and help consumers to more fully understand the outcomes of their plastics recycling efforts". Last year’s award winner was a UK entry, the Ubin waste collector, which was constructed from plastics sourced from post-consumer polypropylene pots and trays.