Smithers Interview

An exclusive interview with packaging expert and thought leader Tom Hallam, Project Director - Packaging Consultancy at Smithers.

What are some of the most interesting and innovative solutions that are currently influencing packaging industry?

Thankfully, there are many. The innovations we have seen being launched recently are quite diverse as they span several market segments, with applications that have quite different functional requirements.

In foodservice we are seeing an increase in the use of renewable bio-based coatings. One great example is in food delivery where Just Eat meals are sent out in boxes coated with Notpla’s renewable, seaweed-based barrier coating. In liquid cartons we see innovation with fibre-based closures (Blue Ocean Closures) and trials of aseptic cartons that contain no aluminium. Pulpac are changing the face of the moulded fibre market with their ‘dry molded’ technology which has several potential applications including sachets, blister packs, coffee cup lids and food trays. That’s before you consider the giant strides that are being made in packaging that uses ‘alternative fibres’ including hemp, bagasse and even agri-waste. Competition in Paper bottles is also hotting up as barrier development improves.

In consumer goods there are a multitude of innovations to choose from. In the confectionery market we are seeing huge scale machinery investments being made to allow paper-based flow wrap to be used by Nestle (Smarties & Kit Kat) and Mars, replacing traditional plastic variants. Pepsico have also launched a paper outer bag for multi-pack crisps under the Walkers brand. In the drinks market there are very few brands who still use plastic rings on cans, with most multi-packs now using carton wrap or corrugated/folding carton can toppers.

There are many more. 

What are consumers looking for in packaging? What are the consumer trends for sustainable packaging?

European consumers’ environmental awareness, and interest in packaging, has never been higher and this is having a significant impact on the product choices they are making.

There are several trends that are consistent across European markets. Consumers are prioritising products that minimise the amount of packaging materials they use, packaging that is both technically “recyclable” but also widely recycled, and packaging that they know is collected at a domestic level. The savviest of consumers are now also well trained in spotting greenwash claims being made by retailers and brands. Consumers are no fools!

In terms of “sustainability” that is a very broad term, but in general there is a consumer preference for fibre-based packaging, which is linked to the point above and the fact that the recycling rate for paper and board in Europe currently stands at 71.4%. 

What are the challenges brands have to overcome in the next few years?

Regulation, in particular the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (“PPWR”), will be the greatest influence on the packaging market over the next 5 years and brand owners must align themselves with the requirements if they are to remain competitive in the market-place and to avoid losing their existing customers.

One of the biggest challenges, for brand owners who have high exposure to plastic packaging, will be how to secure continuity of supply for high quality recycled plastic polymer. For example, in the latest proposal of the PPWR there is a stipulation that brand owners selling products in PET containers (primarily drinks bottles and food packaging) will be required to use minimum 30% recycled content from 2030. 

What do you think the future holds for packaging?

This is an exciting time for anyone involved in the packaging industry. There are so many challenges ahead but those challenges will create huge opportunity for those who are forward looking, innovation driven, and agile enough to make changes to the way they operate.

Technology developments will play a major role at most stages of the packaging supply chain. Technology can be used to improve transparency in raw material sourcing, electric vehicles will reduce carbon emissions in logistics, investment in renewable energy will lower the impacts in production, apps and digital watermarking will help increase the efficiency in waste management and recycling as well as driving the move towards reusable and returnable packaging.

Finally, it is clear that the future is bio-based and with that we don’t just mean wood based. Bio-plastics will have their place, particularly where there is a supporting infrastructure to deal with them at end of life (i.e. Industrial composting for packaging from sporting and music events etc). The current draft of the PPWR suggests that all coffee capsules and tea bags will have to be compostable by 2030. And that’s before we talk about bio-based coatings replacing fossil PE coatings.

Join us at Sustainability in Packaging Europe on 16-18 October in Barcelona to get even more insights into this ever-evolving industry.

► Tom will be presenting on 'What are the overall changes we see in different areas: reuse, design for recycling, design for recycling, recycled plastics, paper and biopolymers and how things are picking up in Europe' as part of the market trends and future outlook session. 

► Borealis will be running an in-depth workshop on bio-based plastics from renewable feedstock on Monday 16 October ahead of the main event. 

► Experts from Novamont, BASF, Futamura and NatureWorks will lead an interactive workshop on compostable packaging in a circular economy on Monday 16 October. 

► This year's agenda features a session dedicated to PPWR with insights from Amcor, Mondelez International and Constantia Flexibles.