In the last of our packaging series we look ahead at the trends that will shape packaging in the coming years, and how the frozen industry can capitalise on upcoming innovations.
2020 was a complicated year for environmentally-friendly packaging as attention shifted to tackling COVID-19.
Prior to the pandemic, eco-conscious buyers had been putting pressure on many companies to adopt sustainable packaging that came with a smaller carbon footprint. Plastic bags at supermarkets were becoming an increasingly rare sight and plastic straws were replaced with paper.
But some of these positive steps were undone when the pandemic took hold. Many supermarkets reverted back to plastic carrier bags as single-use plastics have been considered a safer, more hygienic option.
But as we embark on 2021, earth-friendly packaging options will once again become a hot topic as environmentally-minded consumers push back against the re-implementation of single-use plastics.
Some of the new eco-friendly alternatives to watch in 2021 include bio-plastic alternatives such as biodegradable shrink films which are made from plant-based materials, some of which is food waste such as banana peels. Right now, there are a growing number of companies producing these bio-films and we’re seeing more enter the market.
As we’ve previously discussed, these materials are often more expensive than traditional plastic shrink films, and more difficult to process. But it’s a trend that will continue to grow, and in turn the infrastructure to process them will catch up and prices will eventually come down.
Currently all plastics present a sustainability problem; there is a lack of infrastructure to process some of them, and the rest can only complete a few cycles before material quality deteriorates significantly and it cannot be recycled again.
In tandem with the scaling up of plastic-free single-use packaging and of reuse and refill, in 2021 chemical recycling innovations will gain traction. Most technologies work my breaking polymers down into monomers, ready for purification and then making new materials and products.
Corporates approaching chemical plastics recycling as part of their materials approach include Nestle, Unilever, Tesco and Henkel.
The trend for reusable and refillable packaging will also gain pace. For evidence of this you only need to look to the 2020 success of Loop. Such was customer demand for the online refillable packaging service, it has now opened in 48 US states, up from nine when it launched in May the previous year.
Here in the UK, Loop has officially launched its UK pilot e-commerce programme with Tesco as its UK retail partner. Via Loop, UK consumers can now order a wide variety of products including juices, sauces, shampoo, soaps, moisturiser and washing detergent in customised, brand-specific and private label, durable refillable packaging.
Nestle demonstrated how the initiative can work in the frozen sector when it’s Hagen Dazs ice-cream became available on Loop in a reusable double-walled steel container that keeps the product at optimum temperature during transport and consumption.
Paul Jenkins, founder of The PackHub, is currently compiling its Global Packaging Trends Compendium. While it identifies sustainability as one trend, Paul notes that sustainability wins sometimes come at the expense of another important factor; convenience:
“The consumer wants products which are resealable, easy-to-use, easy-to-carry. But the more complicated the packaging, the more difficult it is to recycle. Convenience will play a huge part in packaging design in the coming year, but brands and retailers must balance these considerations with their sustainability goals.”
Away from sustainability-based trends, an interesting development to keep an eye on is interactive and gamified packaging; in other words, any packaging that engages the consumer through physical or digital interactions. There are two main applications for these types of packaging.
Digital technologies such as smartphone scanning and augmented reality capabilities can effectively engage customers with high end video content, while other forms of digital tech (such as QR coding) are used to track shipments and record data about the location, safety, and condition of the package.
Clearly the application of this type of packaging has its limitations for frozen, but it is expected to continue to rise in popularity, so now is the time to think about its potential in boosting the image of frozen.
Paul says this forms part of a wider trend to boost shelf appeal, which includes things like metallic finishes and digital printing. He also says the pandemic has prompted a sharp rise in demand for antimicrobial materials: “The technology has been around for a while but it will become more commonplace as hygiene habits become ingrained.”
Hygiene, sustainability and safety are going to shape the way frozen food is packaged for years to come. The brands which thrive will be those that recognise the changing needs and concerns of the consumer and respond with innovative solutions that can be produced at scale.