Why is blockchain important to the packaging industry?

From volatile crypto currency to a solid system adding value for the supply chain. Blockchain technology can be the key to value chain transparency and a solution to the ever-growing problem with counterfeits.

What is it?

A Blockchain is a database of records, here called blocks. What makes the database special is that these records are interlinked, or chained, using a hidden code. This is useful in a supply chain involving transport and transactions that can be recorded as blocks. Each block contains a cryptographic link to the previous block plus information on when a transaction occurred, who was involved and much more.

This may sound slightly abstract, but it makes the Blockchain concept decentralised and transparent. A key element is that the process is spread out across multiple computers with the consequence that no one has ownership of the information on the “ledger”. A non-corruptible database!

Using a Blockchain you bypass the concept of a centralised organisation by giving everyone involved a complete and unalterable copy of the register of all transactions.

Why is it important for packaging?

Blockchain technology relates to packaging as it can be used to:

  • Provide consumers information regarding a product’s authenticity and origin. The identity of a product can be verified as the packaging is read and recorded to the “ledger” when handled along the transport, all the way to the destination. As the records can’t be altered retroactively, it means that all information on the ledger is by default authenticated, but without the paperwork of today.
  • Track and trace products along the value chain. When the value chain (packaging converters, printers, raw material producers, fillers, brand owners, retailers, etc.) join up in a Blockchain and makes the process transparent they will all share the same picture of origin and handling of products. If a batch is contaminated it can then easily be traced. Traceability is a key aspect and an opportunity, in particular for the food and pharma industries.
  • Ensure brand protection and serve as anti-counterfeit technology. Consumers will be able to tell a fake product simply pointing their phone at the packaging and read the QR code. Blockchain will prove to be a useful tool for building brand trust as a neutral and immutable system.

The demand for transparency and traceability is increasing, driven by counterfeits troubling the pharma industry and recent food scandals that shook the industry. Using Blockchain technology the consumer with a smartphone can simply scan a QR code on the packaging to follow the product journey, from farm to plate.

Who are using it already today?

It might not be mainstream, yet, but the technology is already in use for mundane items such as milk and coffee. In the lead we find major food suppliers like Arla who are running a pilot project in Finland using Blockchain to provide transparency for milk products. Nestlé recently started up their pilot but in a larger, or even global scale involving milk and oil. Barilla is using the technology in Italy to certify fresh basil.

Also the retailers are also into this. Carrefour is leading in Europe using the technology on a number of categories like poultry, eggs, cheese, milk, oranges, etc. On the other side of the pond Walmart is demanding Blockchain traceability for selected vegetables.

Where is this going?

This is only the beginning. Driven by the main advantages’ security, decentralisation and transparency Blockchain as a tool will gain momentum and develop fast.

The technology might seem complicated to use, but the tools are available and new entrepreneurs are coming in with easy to use solutions. With a straightforward access we can expect to see a rapid adoption rate, with a variety of applications. The packaging industry needs to be ready to handle their part of the chain of blocks. Printing and packaging are keys for success.

We’ll meet again – return to reusable packaging?

The mantra in the packaging industry has for some time been Recycle, Reduce, Reuse. Recycling material is great when there is a demand for the recovered material and reduced use of material is good for both the environment and the budget. Reusable packaging is more complicated in many ways, in particular for food products.

The reuse concept has developed since the olden days of refillable glass bottles and today has an appeal also as an alternative to Single Use Plastics items for the foodservice industry and has a potential to improve environmental footprints for the e-commerce industry. It can also be a great marketing tool for food and beverage brand owners and a way to reach specific consumer groups.
Below a few examples of reusable packaging spotted along the way.

Food service

Hot drink cups with a deposit are now available in several cafés and restaurant, although in a small scale, where you pay up an extra dollar, pound or euro for your coffee, which then is returned when the container is returned at the bar.

Australian Returnr is taking the concept one step further when offering a series of foodservice containers. Not only cups but a whole range of reusable cups, bowls and lids that are designed for multiple use and also for takeaway. The aim is to support cafes and restaurants to eliminate single-use takeaway packaging. Returnr cups and bowls are, in Australia, free to borrow from cafes and restaurants with a $6 deposit. The deposit can then be claimed back from any restaurant who are working with Returnr. Something that attracts not only local cafés and restaurants but also Deliveroo who are offering Returnrs containers to their customers.

E-commerce

E-commerce as such is developing very fast but is from a packaging point of view there is plenty of room for new ideas.

RePack is an example of this. RePack is a packaging solution made specifically for e-commerce. It is a resealable and durable plastic bag in varying sizes that close with a zipper. It is unique though as it is made for reuse and linked to a deposit system. The reusable packaging itself is made from recycled materials and is space efficient in that it is flexible and adjustable to minimise air, saving money and resources. When the consumer receives the delivery, they return the now empty bag that is designed to fold back into letter size which simply is dropped in the nearest mailbox. The consumer incentive lies in the refund that comes as a discount on the next purchase. Back at RePack’s logistics hub the bag is cleaned and sent out to be used again.

Food and bev brand owners

Online grocery shopping is also growing very fast albeit from a small base and has some catching up to do compared to other segments. One significant example of new thinking is from Loop who promote reusable packaging for grocery and personal care products.

Loop is an interesting grocery e-commerce concept including a deposit-based refillable packaging scheme. It starts when a consumer order a home delivery where the Loop products arrive in a bespoke crate. With the following doorstep delivery of Loop products the empties are then picked up and returned for reuse. The packaging used is bespoke and made to be returned, cleaned and refilled. Materials used are metal, glass and plastic. Leading FMCG producers like Unilever, P&G and Nestlé have joint forces with TerraCycle an American recycling company to organise the Loop model. It’s in use in North America and in Europe the system is, at present, used by Tesco in the UK and by Carrefour in France.

Reusing containers is intuitively a good thing to do but the entire operation has to be considered, from start to landing. More transportation is usually needed, washing and rinsing using detergents and more material is normally used. When it comes to packaging it is never going to be simple but packaging reuse is definitely a path to explore. Looking forward to following the developments.