What’s driving innovation in food packaging

Packaging designers need to think more laterally, and in terms of systems, rather than discrete elements, says a report into food packaging by trend research group The Future Laboratory.

Its forthcoming Food Futures book, published on 21 April, claims packaging designers need to think about the challenges facing them – from preservation, cost-effectiveness and brand experience to sustainability and waste minimisation – in a more holistic way.

But while consumer concerns about materials and waste reduction have formed the basis for design thinking in packaging over the past decade, concepts such as downgauging, light-weighting, concentrating, and the use of biodegradable, recyclable and renewable materials need to move on, says the report.

Two of this year’s Starpack Awards finalists – Coca-Cola’s ultra-lightweight bottle and premium wine brand Artenius’ 75cl PET – exemplify mass reduction in materials and resources, while Easyfairs exhibitor Omni-Pac’s waste-paper moulded fibre, Sidaplex’s compostable PLA film, and Trak Rap’s low-carbon packaging offer fixes to immediate environmental challenges.

Other solutions currently raising interest include plastic additives that aid quicker biodegrading, such as Symphony’s D2W and Bio-Batch by Begg & Co. Both promise to break down plastics without producing carbon dioxide.

Plastic Logic’s flexible electronic grayscale display and Sony’s full-colour OLED display film prototype are also exciting designers, with light-weight, durable properties and possibilities for distinctive labelling and graphics.

Nanomaterials – materials with greatly reduced physical volume and proportions but with enhanced physical properties – are also playing a role in the reduction of packaging, offering usability, durability and branding properties applicable to packaging. Their forthcoming accreditation in July signals clear commercialisation in this field.

For most packaging designers, however, true innovations are rare, and a slow and painful process, because of the difficulty in changing manufacturing processes, machinery and infrastructures, says the report.

Packaging training and skills manager at the Institute of Mining and Materials Ian Morris explains, ‘Innovation has become a bit of a buzzword. Some [ideas] solve one problem, only to create a set of others. For instance, the trouble with degradable materials is, do you really want it to degrade? Packaging has an inherent value that can only be recovered by recovering the energy. It’s like throwing away ten pence for the packaging every time a consumer eats a packet of crisps.’

Steve Kelsey, partner at packaging research and development group PI3, and head of the materials knowledge-transfer network, points out that there are two trends within packaging.

One is towards the ‘obvious, logical, good stuff’ that addresses short-term issues, and the other, still emerging, is about reusability and closed-loop systems.

An example of such a system is Starpack 2008 finalist B&Q’s Worktop Carrierpac, shortlisted in the new development environmental category.

According to judges, the project was an example of ‘a more lateral long-term approach to sustainability leading to significant reduction in resources used’.

Brands that have already adopted such systems include Whole Foods Market in the US, Ecover, Procter & Gamble and Boots, currently working with Loughborough University on a Defra-funded project exploring refillable systems for its Botanics Range.

This type of lateral thinking and design, Kelsey says, produces more powerful savings in costs, materials and energy.

Spoilt for choice

Nanomaterials – standardised from July, offering possibilities for usability, durability and branding

Plastics – additives to ensure biodegradability

Flexible plastic electronic displays – possibilities for branding and material reduction

Sustainable materials – still focusing on recyclable renewables such as paper and cardboard

Product formats increasingly being changed before considering packaging – concentrates and compactables

For further details on the Food Futures book and packaging innovations report, see www.thefuturelaboratory.com

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