Packaging is an integral part of a product in today’s developed world. And yet, with today’s environmental concerns, reducing waste and energy usage while increasing overall product sustainability has been the priority.
A major challenge faced by packaging technology advancement relates to sustainable packaging. Innovation in sustainable packaging technologies can play a vital role in supporting the United Nations (UN) 2030 agenda, “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
However, sustainable packaging is no longer just recycling-focused.I It now has multiple dimensions to address, including serving consumer preferences and enabling business growth while promoting environmental protection. Other drivers are government regulation, public health and retailers.
Stringent measures adopted by governments, such as directive 94/62/EC by the European Union, the National Environment Agency (NEA) of Singapore’s mandatory requirements for sustainable packaging, are examples of government initiatives.
The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, BASF[3,4,5], and other companies are proactively developing initiatives or materials for sustainable packaging that also gives them a competitive advantage. Large retailers, such as Amazon, Wal-Mart and others, are developing supply chain processes to progressively meet their targets of sustainability. The sustainable packaging market is estimated to reach USD 303.60 billion by 2020, with a projected CAGR of 7.17 percent from 2015 to 2020.
What do these encouraging developments suggest?
Sustainable packaging is no longer a nice-to-have, but an essential part of doing business. In response to the vital needs of sustainable packaging, the industry has been focusing on innovation across these three key areas: design, materials and manufacturing techniques.
Sustainability goals focus on the following points:
- Reducing weight and volume of packaging
- Eliminating or minimizing toxic additives
- Reducing energy consumption
- Creating sustainable business models
Given that the scope of research for sustainable technologies is vast, the current study puts an emphasis only on the relevance of packaging materials in sustainable packaging development. Packaging materials play an important role in the packaging value chain, as it usually comprises of more than half of the total cost of packaging.
Where it all began…
Evolution of packaging began with natural sources, such as bark, leaves, and leather. Later, considering their strength and durability properties, glass, metal and ceramics gained popularity. In the early 20th century, milk was commonly transported in glass bottles. However, these materials had their own disadvantages with regard to fragility, flexibility, manufacturing cost, hygiene issues and ease of delivery. This was when thermoplastics came into the picture and replaced the earlier packaging materials. But their disadvantage is that they are not environmentally friendly. With the increased awareness of environmentally friendly packaging commencing in the late 80s, research on biodegradable materials began.
In order to assess how packaging raw materials can address the sustainability requirements, the following methodology was adopted to derive our insights.
STEP 1: CATEGORIZATION
As packaging materials spans across a wide spectrum, it was first necessary to group those into three broad categories based on their material characteristics as per Figure 1:
- Reusable materials - metal, glass and ceramic that are reusable
- Synthetic materials - plastics that are derived from fossil-based resources and are nonbiodegradable.
- Bio-derived materials - bioplastics that are made fully, or partly, from biomass, which are biodegradable. While some conventional bio-based plastics, such as polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), etc. that are nonbiodegradable also fall into this category.
STEP 2: PATENT RESEARCH
To understand evolving patterns in the three categories of packaging raw materials, patent research was conducted covering two decades each: before 2000 and after 2000.
STEP 3: PACKAGING PERFORMANCE METRICS
The three categories of packaging materials were benchmarked against a framework designed around packaging performance.
STEP 4: COMPARISON OF INNOVATION TRENDS
Key innovations during pre-2000 and post-2000 timeframes were studied for two prominent categories.
STEP 5: LATEST INNOVATION TECHNIQUES
Our research also considered most recent innovation methods that will define the future trends in research on sustainable packaging.
Here are our observations based on the patenting trends:
- Reusable materials did not draw as much attention pre-2000 due to dominance of plastic and papers in the packaging industry. However, post-2000 there is a significant interest (CAGR 8.1 percent) due to introduction of cans for beverages and pressurized aluminum containers for aerosols
- Consistent upward patenting patterns of synthetic materials indicate a preferred category. Even though, a brief decline in patenting pattern during 1992-1996 is correlated to several factors, including the 1990 oil price shock, that resulted in finding alternatives and increase in awareness of biodegradable materials
- Although a steady growth (CAGR 3.75 percent) in bio-derived materials is observed post-2000, they are trailing in comparison to synthetic materials. This fact can be attributed to the prolonged time required to develop novel bio-derived materials that would effectively address the key issues pertaining to packaging performance metrics.
It can be concluded from the above observations and Figure 2 that synthetic materials and bio-derived materials display parallel growth patterns. Therefore, our focus shifts to further understand the drivers that will impact choices in future for packaging materials.
Figure 3: Packaging performance metrics
- BARRIER PROPERTIES: Resistance to light, moisture, water vapour and gas
- RAW MATERIAL AVAILABILITY: Abundant and high quality material
- PROCESS ABILITY: Ease of fabrication with available equipment and machinery
- USER FRIENDLINESS: Nontoxic and easily recoverable raw materials
- MATERIAL IMPROVISATION: Ability to innovate new materials or optimize properties of materials
The packaging performance metrics were used to rate the three categories of packaging materials between values 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). From Figure 4, it is observed that the top two categories of materials (synthetic materials and bio-derived materials) substantiate the patenting trends.
Figure 4: Ratings for packaging performance metrics
Hence, the remaining part of the study is concentrated on only synthetic material and bio-derived materials.
COMPARISON OF INNOVATION TRENDS
The study of key improvements in technologies during pre-2000 and post-2000 period for both synthetic and bio-derived materials is presented as below:
LATEST INNOVATION TECHNIQUES
Findings on current innovation trends in sustainable packaging indicate promising progress and novel techniques that will have a great impact on offering sustainable packaging solutions.
The major focus of companies on synthetic materials has been towards process improvements enabling reduced density and usage of raw material and improved recovery and reuse of materials. The following are some examples:
- The MuCell® Technology reduces density of the bottle and the amount of plastic required (Unilever, ALPLA and MuCell Extrusion)
- Microfoaming technology reduces density in coextruded films (The Dow Chemical Company)
- Industrial injection compression system reduces 20 percent weight due to reduced wall thickness (Coveris, Unilever and Plastisud)
- The “EPS-Fish” project to recycle expanded polystyrene waste from fresh-fish packages to achieve a high-quality, non-odor recycled material (Spain’s plastics technology center, Aimplas and Acteco Productos y Servicios).
Companies doing research and development in this area are working towards leveraging inherent properties of bioplastics and enhancing barrier properties, durability, process ability and material improvisation. The following are some examples:
- A biodegradable material for cheese and fresh pasta developed by employing wax coating derived from olive leaves to provide water vapor resistance (AIMPLAS)
- A new technology for producing compounds that can be processed into flexible packaging films with low thickness, as low as 8 micron, while retaining high puncture resistance (FKuR) 
- A new bio-based and fully compostable flexible packaging solution that biologically decomposes in just 180 days and becomes a fertilizer for soil (TIPA) 
Although, much research on bio-derived plastics is focused in material improvisation, there is scope for introducing process innovation as well. Many conventional manufacturers have equipment and processes for synthetic plastics and hence, are hesitant to make separate investments for new equipment favorable for bioplastics.
A unique model that leverages equipment for both synthetic and bio-derived materials is that of Bosch VFFS. Bosch Packaging Technology developed a vertical form fill and seal machine (VFFS) with ZAP-Module, which allows coating with the sealing agent on a minimal surface area, preserving the paper’s mono-material character.
Most of the current packaging solutions fall within a linear economy model — “take, make, waste." The foundation of sustainable packaging lies in making a big leap towards a circular economy model:“take, make, restore/recover and remake." The following inferences are drawn based on our research:
- It is clearly evident that synthetic materials are most preferred across various industrial applications because they are economical, attractive to consumers, and available in abundance
- However, fluctuation in prices of synthetic materials and serious initiatives to reduce adverse environmental impact are forcing manufacturers to improvise processing abilities to reduce their usage and accelerate usage of bio-derived materials
- Although, post-2000 there is a steady growth towards utilization of bio-derived materials, the pace is slower pace in comparison to synthetic materials; the reasons being extended time required for development of novel materials, inferior barrier and mechanical properties
- Overall, there exists a healthy competition between synthetic materials and bio-derived materials to collectively develop sustainable packaging solutions
FUTURE PROSPECTS FOR RESEARCH
- Synthetic materials require support of process improvements to reduce density and usage of raw materials
- The future of bio-derived materials lies in enhancing inherent properties of bio-plastics and inventing novel materials
- Design and development of cross compatible equipment for processing / fabricating synthetic and bio-derived materials for optimized manufacturing
Dr. J. V. Sivaprasad Rao, Mr. Vikramaditya Thakur, Mr. Sishir Peyyeti, Mr. G. Pavan Kumar, Mr. T. Vishnu Vardhan, Ms. Harita S. Achanta
The views expressed in this document are based on collective analysis of independent research, information retrieved from various sources and tools used for compilation. This document is for general information purposes only, and was compiled with reasonable attention. However, no liability is accepted by SciTech Patent Art Services Pvt. Ltd for any inaccuracies or from using or relying upon the information in this document.
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