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The versatile choice

Plastic is a fundamental material on which the modern packaging market relies. It forms the linings and closures of most caps and overcaps, it labels our products and, as film, it keeps our food fresh. Although it has suffered a bad reputation for being unrecyclable or environmentally unfriendly, strides are being made to reduce its weight, which will bolster its eco-friendly qualifications. The content of plastics used in packaging is also slowly moving from finite oil to alternative or renewable resources. As such, plastics have performed a strategic pivot to see their continued use in multiple applications while addressing the hesitations that consumers or brand developers might have.


Historically, convenience was a small consideration in packaging formats that had limited interaction with shoppers, and it was largely concerned with the ease with which a product could be used. Good examples included sports water bottles with pull-out and locking caps, microwave pouches with punch holes, and Tupperware.


With the move away from a mass market to a more individual and customised packaging approach, however, consumers increasingly define convenience as what makes the product easy to open, close, reuse and dispose of in any given situation, without loss of function or quality. There are many possibilities for how a product can be used and its packaging has to be convenient in every situation. With this in mind, companies are always looking out for the latest ways to make packaging easier for consumers to interact with.


Consumer research

“Consumer research will always turn up a new method or direction that we would not have thought of in isolation,” says Satvinder Dhillon, head of packaging development at Lucozade Ribena Suntory. “For example, there are customers who will leave a bottle floating in the water while swimming laps in the pool, or those who need to be able to open it one-handed while driving. Convenience has a different meaning for everyone, but it does often share common ground. In these cases, the bottle should be easy to open and close one-handed, spill-proof, and easy to hold on the move.”


These kinds of insights lead to developments such as the ubiquitous sports closure of the Lucozade brand, and plastic is key to enabling such innovations: metal is too expensive, glass is too heavy and cumbersome, and paper does not hold its shape well enough.


Consumer research allows companies to essentially follow consumers into their homes and see them use a product in everyday situations, and this has led to a raft of innovation in plastic. Perhaps the most famous was when Heinz moved its ketchup from glass bottles into upside-down plastic bottles. Heinz noticed that consumers were turning the glass bottle upside down between uses, almost instinctively, to make sure the full contents came out, and it used this to drive a more secure product that could stand up independently and minimise product waste. Consumers reacted positively and sales accelerated.


“Turning the bottle upside down was a real lightbulb moment,” notes Aaron Bennett, director of research and development, breakthrough innovation, at Kraft Heinz. “And, with the growing ability to lightweight plastic, we can turn a functional innovation into one that is good for the environment too. Consumers can open and use the product conveniently, and dispose of it sustainably.”


The all-rounder

Klaus Hartwig, head of research and development at the Product Technology Centre for Nestlé Waters, is clear on the benefits and applications of plastic as a material, particularly as a beverage container.


“There are many reasons to use PET to package water,” he says. “It is a safe, efficient, light, transparent and recyclable material, and it allows us to protect the purity and taste of water efficiently. As packaging is one of the ‘ambassadors’ of a brand, PET represents – in terms of size, shape, convenience and aesthetic – what that brand stands for. That means it offers credibility and respect to a company. PET is fully recyclable and recycling streams today are well-established in many countries. In fact, global demand for recycled PET material largely exceeds collection volumes.”


Another proponent of plastics in beverage is Uncle Matt, whose new, lightweight plastic packaging for its 12oz organic juice line demonstrates the enduring appeal of plastics. CEO and founder Matt McLean says: “The new packaging is an evolution in Uncle Matt’s line that aims to target a broader audience. The firm wanted packaging that would appeal to millennials and smaller households alike, and research suggested that these sizes and materials were the best fit.”

For companies looking for ways to apply recycled content to food packaging, Unifi has recently won FDA approval to produce recycled bottle flake for food-grade packaging.

The company will be able to provide products such as clamshells, trays and baskets for fresh fruit, as well as vegetables and eggs. From its newly opened processing centre, Unifi will also be able to sort and clean recycled bottles. It will remove labels, debris and caps from the receptacle and chop them up into flake, which can also be used in a variety of consumer applications, including thermoformed food-grade packaging.

Film stars

While post-consumer content recycling is crucial to raising plastics’ responsibility rating, biodegradable plastics remain potentially game-changing materials. US-based Danimer Scientific recently agreed to develop biodegradable film resins to help PepsiCo’s global food and beverage business meet sustainable flexible packaging requirements. The focus will be on film resins for the PepsiCo’s existing range and will include Danimer’s Nodax polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) bioplastic.


Danimer earlier developed bio-based compostable packaging for PepsiCo’s snack brands. CEO Stephen Croskrey says: “The partnership with PepsiCo marks a significant milestone as the company continues to expand its biopolymer technology to provide innovative bioplastic solutions to a wider range of applications and products.”


PepsiCo vice-chairman and chief scientific officer Mehmood Khan says: “From the start, PepsiCo has taken a holistic approach to our sustainability work. The first objective is achieving long-term profitability and that requires sustainable solutions to grow the business while minimising environmental impact. The plan to scale Danimer Scientifics’ technology is a step toward achieving greenhouse gas emission reduction, and recoverable and recyclable packaging goals.”


Another member of the New Plastics Economy group is Procter and Gamble who have been taking huge strides in reducing their reliance on virgin plastic and simultaneously looking to reduce marine litter of plastics, which emerged as one of the larger consumer complaints of 2017. Principal Scientist for Sustainable Packaging R&D, Gian De Belder recently spoke with Packaging Today about some of the key developments in plastics, and improvements in recycling through tracer or watermark sorting .

“Sorting technologies have the potential to create what we refer to as a “barcode for recycling”. By baking in tracers or watermarks into packaging, the product isn’t altered in the eyes of the consumer but will add value at sorting and recycling plants equipped with the requisite technologies. Impacted supply chain members such as waste manufactures (sorting plants, recyclers, etc) will need to retro-fit machinery (requiring an investment). This needs to be done across all member states and beyond: harmonisation addresses the key need to achieve increased recycling rates necessary to achieve Circular Economies. The goal of project Holy Grail (ran as a Pioneer Project within the New Plastics Economy NPEC – members can be found in attachment 1) is to bring together the value chain and align on what a value tracer/watermark could bring to the industry, to consider the scenarios where such technology should be implemented first and finally which technology (if any) is readily available to meet the needs. Out of the 25 identified scenarios that were presented during the workshop, 5 have been selected by the workshop participants as top needs. “

In response to key trends in packaging development affecting plastics De Belder responded

“The increased collaboration in the industry in working towards environmental goals is a major trend. Working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the New Plastics Economy we are seeing that we are not alone in the acknowledgement that to improve the planet, we need to work with one another as a community, rather than as separate entities. Partnerships towards ambitious goals are essential – no single manufacturer can achieve such goals by themselves.  There are many other collaborations being set-up (e.g. Petcore Europe and Ceflex) . In addition, Eco-design and high quality/quantity post-consumer recycled materials (PCR): this is a big focus of all value-chain members whereby they need to develop packs for circular design, whilst still meeting the primary objectives of a pack – for containment. There is a need for an objective assessment of recyclability and today’s Recyclass tool (developed by PRE Plastic Recyclers Europe) combines best of all existing EU guidelines. There is also a need for more high quality recycled materials at the right cost and quantity/quality. P&G’s strategy is to double the PCR usage by 2020, therefore we are continuously looking for partners in this field.”

He concluded with some of his favourite examples of plastics innovation in 2017, “ For me the leading innovation recently has started with the work on Lenor in the  UK with their sleeved PET bottles, and there are two other major initiatives in our haircare division. Last summer Head & Shoulders partnered with TerraCycle and SUEZ to create the world’s first recyclable shampoo bottle made with up to 25% PCR derived from beach plastic, a first for the industry. The bottles will be available in Carrefour outlets in France. Secondly, we announced that in Europe more than half a billion bottles per year will include up to 25% PCR plastic by the end of 2018. This represents more than 90% of all the hair care bottles sold in Europe across P&G’s hair care portfolio of flagship brands like Pantene and Head & Shoulders.