Packaging is an integral part of a product in today’s developed world. And yet, with today’s environmental concerns, reducing waste and energy usage while increasing overall product sustainability has been the priority. A major challenge faced by packaging technology advancement relates to sustainable packaging. Innovation in sustainable packaging technologies can play a vital role in supporting the United Nations (UN) 2030 agenda - “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. However, sustainable packaging is no longer just recycling-focused; rather, it now has multiple dimensions to qualify - serving consumer preferences and enabling business growth while promoting environmental protection. Other drivers are government regulation, public health and retailers. Stringent measures adopted by governments, such as directive 94/62/EC  by the European Union, the National Environment Agency (NEA) of Singapore’s  mandatory requirements for sustainable packaging are examples of government initiatives. Companies such as The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, BASF [3,4,5], and others are proactively developing initiatives or materials for sustainable packaging which also give them a competitive advantage. Large retailers such as Amazon, Walmart  and others are developing supply chain processes to progressively meet their targets of sustainability. The sustainable packaging market is estimated to reach USD 303.60 Billion by 2020, with a projected CAGR of 7.17 % from 2015 to 2020 .
Sustainable packaging is no longer a nice-to-have, but an essential part of doing business. In response to the vital needs of sustainable packaging, the industry has been focusing on innovation across three key areas – design, materials and manufacturing techniques.
Sustainability goals focus on the following points:
Evolution of packaging began with natural sources such as bark, leaves, leather, etc. Later, considering their strength and durability properties, glass, metal and ceramics gained popularity. In the early 20th century, milk was commonly transported in glass bottles. However, these materials had their own disadvantages with regard to fragility, flexibility, manufacturing cost, hygiene issues and ease of delivery. This was when thermoplastics came into the picture and replaced the earlier packaging materials. But their disadvantage is that they are not found to be environmentally friendly. With the awareness of environmental friendly packaging commencing in the late 80’s, research on biodegradable materials began. In order to assess how packaging raw materials can address the sustainability requirements, the following methodology was adopted to derive our insights.
As packaging materials spans across a wide spectrum, it was first necessary to group those into three broad categories based on their material characteristics as per Figure 1:
To understand evolving patterns in the three categories of packaging raw materials, patent research was conducted covering two decades each during Pre-2000 and Post-2000.
The three categories of packaging materials were benchmarked against a framework designed around packaging performance
Key innovations during Pre-2000 and Post-2000 timeframes were studied for two prominent categories.
Our research also considered most recent innovation methods that will define the future trends in research on sustainable packaging.
Our observations from the patenting trends are listed below:
Hence, the remaining part of the study is concentrated on only synthetic and bio-derived materials.
The study of key improvements in technologies during Pre-2000 and Post-2000 period for both synthetic and bio-derived materials is presented as below:
Findings on current innovation trends in sustainable packaging indicate promising progress and novel techniques that will have great impact on offering sustainable packaging solutions.
The major focus of companies on synthetic materialshas been towards process improvements enablingreduced density and usage of raw material; andimproved recovery and reuse of materials. The following are some examples:1. The MuCell® Technology reduces density ofthe bottle and the amount of plastic required(Unilever, ALPLA and MuCell Extrusion)2. Micro foaming technology reduces density incoextruded films (The Dow Chemical Company)3. Industrial injection compression systemreduces 20% weight due to reduced wallthickness (Coveris, Unilever and Plastisud)4. The “EPS-Fish” projectto recycle expanded polystyrene waste from fresh fish packages toachieve a high quality, non-odor recycled material (Spain’s plastics technology center, Aimplas and Acteco Productos y Servicios)
Companies doing research & development in this area are working towards leveraging inherent properties of bioplastics and enhancing barrier properties, durability, process ability and material improvisation. The following are some examples:
Though, a lot of research on bio-derived plastics is focused in material improvisation, there is scope for process innovation as well. Many conventional manufacturers have equipment/processes for synthetic plastics and hence, are hesitant to make separate investments for new equipment favorable for bioplastics.
A unique model that leverages equipment for both synthetic and bio-derived materials is that of Bosch VFFS - Bosch Packaging Technology developed a vertical form, fill and seal machine (VFFS) with ZAPModule, which allows coating with the sealing agent on a minimal surface area, preserving the paper’s mono-material character.
Most of the current packaging solutions fall within linear economy model which is “take, make, waste". The foundation of sustainable packaging lies in making a big leap towards a circular economy model which is the “take, make, restore/recover and remake". The following inferences are drawn based on our research:
Acknowledgements: Dr. J. V. Sivaprasad Rao, Mr. Vikramaditya Thakur, Mr. Sishir Peyyeti, Mr. G. Pavan Kumar, Mr. T. Vishnu Vardhan, Ms. Harita S. Achanta
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