Virus crisis and food packaging

The real effects on the packaging industry from the present virus crisis is hard to comprehend. But regarding food packaging in the short to medium term we will see online grocery shopping grow, more focus on hygiene and price without losing the grip of sustainable solutions.

The virus has arrived and not very much is what it should be. Uncertainty and close to standstill are for many the situation and the long-term consequences are hard to fathom. Likely short-term results appear to be a severe downturn in the overall economy with double digit declines of GDP’s and a sharp increase of unemployment. Some of the hardest hit industries, so far, seem to be the hotel/restaurant industry, the travel/event industries and retail.

When it comes to retail this is not a general decline, the grocery retailing is in a much better position than other in that industry. Right now, people are obviously staying put, cooking and eating at home and are using the internet for socializing. Going out is rarely an option and food and beverages are bought from stores rather than restaurants. Also, pharmacies are open for business selling medicines as well as personal care products.

Where is this possibly going then?

On the consumer side the pandemic is speeding up adoption of trending behaviors like remote working but also online grocery shopping. And in the retail industry the situation is possibly increasing demand for retail technologies. The effects of this pandemic for the retail industry could include an increased e-commerce business and cashier free self-checkouts and more.

And for food packaging?

Demand for food packaging as such will be up as people are cooking and eating more at home. Now when many restaurants and food-service outlets are closed this is obvious, but as the crisis creates new behavior patterns some of them will stay, like cooking. Also after the euphoria when things get a bit more normal. There might also be increased interest for stockpiling of essentials. A new normal can very well be to have more than a few days of preserved food in the larder. This also goes for personal care and healthcare products.

Grocery e-commerce has so far been developing at very different paces in Europe. The UK is still in the lead according to an article in Forbes, followed by the Czech Rep. and Estonia. As a result of the virus pandemic the habit of ordering online and receiving, or picking up, your shopping is fast developing and will get a boost from the extreme situation we now are experiencing. This is a clear, and unpredicted, step in consumer acceptance and adoption of the channel. A habit that most likely will stay also when we are back to a more normal world. This needs to be supported by new and better packaging solutions. This is a field where there still is room but new and creative packaging solutions are developed and innovative delivery methods are introduced.

I don’t think that sustainability will go away because of the shifted focus. The consumer demand is too strong, and the concept of sustainable packaging solutions has gotten so ingrained in product and company positioning. Demand might temporary go down but if so, it will surely rapidly bounce back. It could however mean a changed view on initiatives such as not using one-way cups, introduced at certain coffee chains. People are also probably less interested in the packaging-free shops where you fill loose product in a bag of your own.

Sustainability is also related to the expected increase in general focus on health and demand for food hygiene. Packaging might even become appreciated by the consumers. It is visibly protecting and guaranteeing the freshness of the product. This could also be supporting the introduction of track and trace systems to a broader use. Blockchain technology is available, among other solutions, and is implemented as a useful tool in the distribution chain. This crisis could be a catalyst for increased use of technology for tracking and to verify product origin and what it has experienced before consumption. An increased cost for this service is hard to get around and can, in particular now, be a disadvantage.

It will take a while for the world to get back on track and increased unemployment and uncertain employments will make the average consumer more price sensitive than usual. As a result comes as a shift towards consumers demanding more value-products and private labels will have a field day if they play the cards right. Converters and others in the packaging industry will not be spared the general requirements for lower prices.

The future is right now not bright, but it is not a dark abyss either. We will have to adopt and be as agile as we can to survive and succeed also in the new tomorrow.

Fresh from the forest – biocomposite

Making biocomposite materials entirely from renewable sources is great. Using waste material in the process is fantastic.

Last week Finnish UPM introduced a new fibre based biocomposite material, all made from forestry and renewable resources and even including using waste from existing pulp production. The material is called EcoAce and meets the desired sustainability requirements and can be widely used, including uses in food contact, personal care and consumer goods, made by injection moulding or extrusion. This is great and will save tonnes of GHG and I really like concept of finding practical use of stuff that would otherwise be waste! Splendid!

StoraEnso is at present busy with a trial of lids made from DuraSense, another biocomposite, together with Finnish dairy Valio. The lids are reusable and will be used on dairy product cups to test the wood-based biocomposite in food packaging.
Valio sees it as a step not only towards a more sustainable packaging solution but also to less food-waste. With re-sealable packaging the content is protected, and an opened product lasts longer. Brilliant!

Power from the forest!
Swedish Ligna Energy came up with another use for wood from the forest. They have developed a fibre based battery for storing of energy made from forestry waste material. Ligna Energy plan to convert ordinary paper machines to manufacture batteries based on organic electronic polymers and biopolymers from the forest.
It wood be nice if this could make a difference for storing energy!

Turn on, tune in and listen to a Packaging Pod!

Some podcasts are for fun and other are for news and updates. And then there are “industry pods” aimed for people with very particular interests looking for inspiration and information. Like for instance, packaging pods.

I try to squeeze in a podcast whenever I have a minute to spare. There is plenty to choose from and I am sure that we all can find pods that cover our very special interest. This includes the packaging industry which is covered in the quite impressive and completely overwhelming flow of pods.

And here I mean pods, not webinars, that are reasonably regularly occurring broadcasts and here are a few to bookmark to the pod platform of your choice.

Below I have listed a few English speaking pods that are focused on the packaging industry and current packaging issues.  

Packaging Strategies, the American trade magazine, is running a pod under the name Packaging Perspectives. They are interviewing industry experts and are covering industry news to keep us “up-to-date, informed, and entertained.” Not very frequent but in total 6 episodes during 2019.  

Flexible Packaging is a related magazine who are offering the Flexible Packaging Podcast. The same concept as above but a bit less frequent, 3 shows during last year. And with a focus on flexible packaging.

People of Packaging Podcast is also an American podcast where people in the packaging industry are discussing current issues with Adam Peek and Ted Taitt and is a part of the Business and Bourbon network.

Shelf Impactors is about branding and packaging design. Blue Nectar Design, a British design agency is behind the show. It might have a slightly sporadic schedule but there are interesting things to dig out from archives.

FoodBev Media are behind the FoodBev podcast. Focus is more on news updates rather than interviews and is a weekly podcast, at least until November last year. It has been quiet since, but we hope for a soon return.

Packaging Europe, the magazine, is distributing a podcast every now and then. 7 shows were recorded last year and already two are available for this year. Various topics and interviews.

 Turn up the volume and enjoy. Or why not make a pod of your own!

Are you interested in more information about the Swedish packaging industry?

A unique and updated report about the Swedish packaging industry is now available.

Now there is a report entirely about this, the Swedish packaging industry. Until now there hasn’t been an updated compilation of the current status available. The packaging industry is often, when it comes to statistics, consolidated with other industries and therefore “invisible”.

The report explains the packaging industry and how it has developed during the recent 5 years from a revenue, profitability and employment perspective. There is also a description of some of the forces and trends that will shape the industry, both on short and long term.

For more information and order please click here.

What has packaging got to do with Food Waste?

Food waste is a major challenge involving the entire value chain. The main culprit is however and without doubt found at consumer level.
This is a complex problem but part of the solution lies in using better and more suitable packaging.

We simply can’t afford the current level of food wasted. Exactly how much is wasted is impossible to say, but a global estimate is more than 1 billion tons of food that is somehow lost or wasted on a yearly basis. That is about one staggering third of the global food production! Better adapted packaging is part of the solution.


The problem
This loss and wastage occur on all steps in the food supply chain but if we stay in the developed world a whole lot of food is wasted in the end of the road from the famous farm to the fork. The main culprit seems to be found at the final consumption stage, in our homes. But also, the other steps along the chain are involved in this.

A very recent report from Swedish Naturvårdsverket is mapping out the current Food Waste situation in the country. And it is not pretty. In 2018 about 1.3 million tons of food waste was generated in Sweden. This is an average of 133 kilos of food waste per person. As the graph clearly illustrates the main problem lies in the hands of the end-consumers in the households.

The problem isn’t easily pin pointed and solved as it involves all engaged in the consumption, production and distribution chain. But packaging is part of the problem and therefore also part of the solution.


The packaging link
This is a waste we can’t afford when we are going from 7 billion people to become 10 billion of us, not in Sweden but on the planet, in 2050. If we instead of increasing food production and cultivate vast new areas could save a third of what we today produce, we would in theory solve the problem to feed the growing world population.

The massive waste of food in the households has many reasons. Too little shopping planning and lack of pantry and fridge management to start with and perhaps food is too cheap and available. But as much as 20-25% of consumer food waste could be related to packaging.

The packaging is a part of the problem when ineffective packaging is used.

  • This could be about size, too big or a multi-pack, simply too much product and more than you can or want to consume.
  • It could be the lack of possibilities to re-seal the opened packaging and the content gets exposed and destroyed.
  • It could be packaging that can’t be shut tight enough and oxygen, light or something spoils the product.
  • Not clear enough instructions about storage, with the result that a product is kept too warm too cold, is part of the story.
  • Packaging that is hard to empty or confusion around the date labelling of a product.

Or it could be too ambitious light weighting that can lead to packaging that simply isn’t good enough to withstand a bumpy ride to the destination.
To mention a few. Much of the above comes to structural design of packaging but a lot of food is wasted because of the confusion about “best before” and” use by” date labels. One day we will have dynamic best before dates with built in sensors showing the actual best before date rather than a fixed one. But we are not quite there yet.


The solution
Apart from consumers improving their fridge management and doing more organized shopping the packaging industry can offer better packaging solutions. And food producers can use it…!

So, what is more effective packaging then? What I mean is packaging that is

  • Re-sealable. That is a screw cap, a zip-lock or something that enables the consumer to save product for later.
  • Easy emptying. Think of how to make it easier to empty the pack. It can be instructions on how to or a packaging feature like a collapsible container.
  • Modified or Controlled Atmosphere (MAP/CAP) these are technologies used to keep fresh food fresh for longer and adds real value by extending shelf-life.
  • Barrier materials. Use packaging with good enough barriers to oxygen, light or whatever is breaking down the content. The result is again extended shelf-life and less food waste.
  • Portion packages. This is a low hanging but effective fruit. By using smaller portion packs, the small household gets a better control of usage.
  • Smart packaging solutions of various kinds are helpful. Smart labels indicating time or temperature, ripeness for fruit, freshness for meat, fish, etc.

Technology is developing enabling new and better packaging solutions. Sensors are coming down in price and new creative concepts are brought forward by entrepreneurs.
But it hasn’t all have to be hi-tech, a cucumber has a “best before” life of 3 days and by wrapping it in plastic it increases by almost 5 times, to 14 days. Portion packs may require more packaging material but will probably save food from being wasted.

And the greenhouse gas emissions or GHGE related to food packaging is typically small, typically around 5%, relative to the emissions associated with producing and processing the food itself.

Can we learn a marketing lesson from craft brewers? Marketing by packaging.

The craft brewing scene is booming also in Sweden with a big number of small brewers and glass bottles are the dominating pack type. Glass bottles represents tradition and premium, two of the impressions that you as a craft brewer work really hard to convey to your consumers.
When you are selling a product at a price three times above your industrial brewing competitors, you have to work hard on your image. But something is happening…

What is it with craft beer and cans? I have noticed an increased interest in beverage cans from the local craft brewers, or microbeweries, here in Sweden.
One after the other launch new products in beer cans, not in glass bottles. Glass bottles used to be the standard for this premium beer segment.

The craft brewing scene is booming also in Sweden with a big number of small brewers and glass bottles are the dominating pack type. Glass bottles represents tradition and premium, two of the impressions that you as a craft brewer work really hard to convey to your consumers.
When you are selling a product at a price three times above your industrial brewing competitors, you have to work hard on your image. But something is happening…

The power of glass
The beverage can is in many consumer’s eyes a packaging used for mass production that does not necessary contain very sophisticated brews.
The craft brewers have mostly been true to glass bottles for their precious drops, and that for a few sound reasons.

  1. A craft brewer with self-respect have a large number of creative varieties of beer available and need flexibility in production. To use only one container and vary the label is efficient in a low volume production of several product varieties.
  2. It is also cost effective as you can get away with rather basic equipment when filling bottles on a small scale. And it is often also simply impossible for a small brewer to purchase the amounts of decorated cans needed to reach the lowest order level.
  3. Last but not least, the positioning of the product. Glass stands for quality, premium and tradition. These are images you very much want to reflect on your craft brew.

Incredible growth
Most of the above is still valid but the trend is clearly towards using more cans for the most premium products and for very small product batches.
The numbers speak for themselves, in 2019 the volume craft beer in cans increased by 2.5 times, for the second year in a row!
An increase from 8% of the craft beer volume to 17% in three years. In 2017, 12 brewers made 35 beer products available in cans. In 2019 70 brewers offered more than 400 products in cans. That’s an improvement!

Why is this?
The trend is clear and seems unstoppable. The movement is founded on a few obvious facts and some a bit more hazy.

* Some of the craft brewers have simply expanded their markets and volumes and are ready to invest in cans and a can filling line.
* Others have managed to get one single and specific product on a national distribution and can take the leap with that one product.
* Some who not yet have those volumes use blank cans and attach a unique label to maintain the flexibility.

Then it helps that the suppliers of cans have spotted the opportunity in craft beer and are lowering the bar for the smallest order.
Finally, but not least, consumers appreciate the product.

Environment and quality
All brewers I have heard comment on this argue the environmental benefits and the improved quality of the product. A sealed can is an airtight space and it is completely dark inside which maintains the quality. A can is easily recycled in this country with an efficient deposit scheme in place. As a matter of fact, 85% of the distributed cans are returned and recycled.

Marketing by packaging
They just do it! And they do it within the very narrow space that is left due to the current and very strict regulations around all alcohol promotion.
They build their brand using the means that are available, except from the product itself what is left is basically, the website, the shop and the bar.
At the point of sales there is nothing else you can use than the packaging itself. This is a clean case of marketing by packaging. The pack type, size, design and decoration are key to positioning and sales of a beer product in this market.

They utilize the packaging very well with brilliant graphic design, creative fonts and inspirational product names. And of course, a great product with a high and stable quality is very helpful when you want to convince consumers. 

An inspiring industry
This is a small scale industry with very limited resources that is constrained by square and rigid laws. They have still managed to turn the opinion and make something considered as a very basic packaging into a premium container. And successfully claiming a price three times the “normal”.
This is quite an achievement and well worth to celebrate. Why not with an unfiltered, hoppy and hazy beer? From a can, plenty to choose from…

We want less plastic! And more of… what?

Yes, what do we want instead? We can’t always replace plastic with a renewable material. Then what about recycled plastic, more sustainable plastic that is efficiently recovered and that comes from an organised collection system? Does that sound a bit better?

Coca-Cola is in the news with their new line of bottles entirely made from recycled PET. Fantastic! Coca-Cola Sweden is during 2020 switching to only use PET bottles with 100% recycled material for their leading brands, Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite and Bonaqua, 40 SKUs.

This is not a small thing as using recycled material in food contact is a complex mission surrounded by of rules and regulations. The Swedish deposit system really helps here as it makes the recycling stream of PET bottles relatively pure.
Beverage bottles, and cans, are here collected and recycled separately and can in theory be turned back into new cans and bottles. Today around 85% of the distributed bottles are returned and recycled. Normally recycled PET tends to be cloudy due to unintended mixes and potentially tainted by other random plastic in the recycle process. This is avoided in a controlled stream like this.

In a recent report from McKinsey, “The drive toward sustainability in packaging—beyond the quick wins”, this is discussed, among other things. The report concludes that to successfully address the recyclability and waste challenges more collaboration is needed along the value chain. To manage increased recycling new infrastructure needs to be built and more closed system must be employed.

A closed and dedicated deposit system clearly makes recycling more efficient as it is separate and, closed. The Swedish deposit system is managed by Returpack, an organisation owned jointly by retailers and fillers together. When the deposit system was created also packaging converters were involved which makes it a good example of an efficient recycling structure.

Another brand owner who is blazing new trails in this field is Nestlé. The company is seriously investing in the development of new packaging concepts in their effort to have 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. The newly inaugurated Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences is unique and aims to support the process. The Institute is going to do its bit of development of functional and environmentally friendly packaging solutions and to address plastic packaging waste.

Nestlé is now investing a staggering €2 billion to explore the possibilities to widen the market for food-grade recycled plastics. The Institute will be involved but the main investment will be in driving the market for food-grade recycled plastics by boosting demand and by being ready to pay a premium.
They are now demanding 2 million tons over a period of time and are willing to pay for it, to create a market. Brilliant!

Plastic is at present needed, especially in the food industry to minimise food waste, and it is possible to create a circular economy also for plastics. To get there a system for collecting and recycling plastic must be in place. But there needs to be a corresponding demand as well. Today it is more expensive to use recycled materials than virgin. But with a higher demand and larger volumes the price should go down and thereby generate more demand.
Hopefully a process that creates a virtuous cycle spinning us towards a circular and healthy economy.

These are great examples of steps in the right direction to increase demand for recycled plastic materials. This will also drive the development of efficient systems for processing.
But, in the end, the consumers are going to do a big part of the job. We must not forget to inform and motivate to sort and return the empty packaging through this efficient system.