Take back the shelves – the plastic packaging market

30 September 2016

In its various forms, plastic makes up a large portion of the packaging materials we rely on every day. Packaging & Converting Intelligence sorts through the latest data on the current performance of the market, with industry insight from Lucozade Ribena Suntory, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé Waters and Walmart.

Plastic packaging falls into two main categories: rigid plastics, which are largely used for containers and bottles in the beverage and personal care markets, and flexible plastics, which appear most often as labels, films and pouches throughout consumer goods markets.

According to the latest research from Canadean, rigid plastics will account for 923 billion packaging units in 2016, while flexible plastics will account for approximately 645 billion. These numbers are staggering, but alone, they aren’t necessarily useful for trying to understand the performance or direction of the market.

In its various guises, plastic is forecast to account for approximately 35% of the global packaging market in 2016 – most visibly, in bottles for the beverage, beauty and home care markets, and in films used in pouches and food. With such a large market share, plastic is a dominant force in the support of key trends and innovation driving the market.

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.”

Responsible plastic

No matter how it is defined or what it covers, sustainability – or responsible packaging – is a key driver of plastic’s presence and growth in the packaging market. Lightweighting has seen numerous wins for brand-owners and retailers, removing as much as 40% of the weight of raw material, and even more in terms of the cost of manufacture and transport.

The advances in plastic recycling and reuse are also staggering: while the EU claimed about 20% recycling rates for plastic just five to ten years ago, the figure is fast approaching 45% today, and will hopefully be up alongside other materials before the end of the decade – perhaps even surpassing them further down the road.

“Plastic is certainly considered to be one of the most versatile tools in the packaging portfolio,” says Chet Rutledge, director of packaging private brands at Walmart, “and it certainly forms a core part of our sustainability drive. We take a systems approach to primary, secondary and tertiary packaging, all of which is needed to ensure the smooth transition of the product from manufacture to the shelf and into a customer’s home.

“It’s all about using the right material for the right purpose, engineered to the highest specifications, so it can perform to the highest standards of packaging possible. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to packaging, it would be a lot harder to achieve our packaging goals and targets without plastic.”

Straight from the Pack Track: Canadean special insight

Volume Reveal mascara (Bourjois Paris)

The packaging for this mascara by Bourjois Paris, a division of Coty, is considered a major improvement in cosmetics packaging and consists of an injection-moulded clear plastic, triangular tube, with rounded sides and a flat front face,
plus a recessed area where a magnifying mirror is glued in. The cap contains a wand applicator and is the same profile and shape as the tube, meaning it fits seamlessly; direct-printed decoration to the top indicates the product shade. There is a protective, peelable clear film label over the mirror, with a small pull-tab to aid removal and an antitheft security label, plus a clear-film shrink sleeve over the pack.

While the triangular shape is not new, having been launched by the same company for its nail varnish last year, the magnifying mirror attached to the side is unique. The use of clear plastic for a mascara bottle is also unusual.

Pack Track comments that the integral mirror covers most of the side of the bottle and is the right size for consumers to be able to see the whole eye area. The magnifying effect further aids application. The triangular shape of the bottle and closure offers a good grip for opening and handling, while the inclusion of the mirror facilitates application on the go, such as during a commute. The package’s glossy finish complements the mirror and clear plastic well, and might also allow consumers to see the diminishing product levels inside the bottle.

Kobe Steak Acchicchi Bento (Awajiya)

A self-heating lunchbox – or bento – is changing the face of convenience on-the-go food in Japan. Containing Kobe beef steak, vegetables and rice, the Kobe Steak Acchicchi bento – sold at Awajiya bento shop in Kobe – comprises a thermoformed polystyrene tray and friction-fit lid with a preprinted woodgrain pattern. The lid fits tightly and there is no membrane seal below.

A separate opaque, white-plastic thermoformed inner tray sits snugly inside the outer tray and contains the food, which is covered by a sheet of paper that prevents the food sticking to the lid and absorbs condensation or grease. The bottom of the food tray has a grooved pattern to ensure the even heating of the food. Its side walls have a heavily contoured shape, forming ten semicircular gaps between the sides of the outer tray to allow the even distribution of heat.

Sitting on top of the board insert is the heating unit, in the form of a thermoformed white-plastic tray sealed by a textured film-foil-plastic laminate lidding membrane. A pull-string is attached to the heating unit and passes through a hole in the outside of the tray. Inside the heating element are tiny limestone rocks and water, sealed in a separate cavity within the lidding membrane. A self-adhesive label advises the consumer to pull the string until it can’t be pulled any farther, which tears open the sealing membranes within the heating unit, allowing water to permeate the limestone and causing a chemical reaction that generates heat. A foil layer within the rocks helps to distribute heat.

Served as a chilled product, the heating unit contains information about how to use the pack as well as advice on reusing the limestone rocks as fertiliser. The heating process will keep the food hot for up to 30 minutes.

The simple one-step heating via pull-string is elegant and easy to understand, and a warm lunchbox is an attractive offer for consumers. Self-heating is convenient and fun, and enhances the on-the-go experience. During the heating process, crackling, hissing and fizzing can be heard as the water generates steam and heat, and steam can be seen escaping from the pack.

Recycling can reduce reliance on virgin plastics while supporting corporate sustainability targets.
Plastic is one of the most versatile tools in the packaging portfolio.
Heinz used consumer research to develop its popular plastic Ketchup bottles.

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