Packaging trends 2019: Part 1 – The search for sustainability

Packaging trends 2019: Part 1 – The search for sustainability

08 Jan 2019 --- Packaging trends in 2018 were dominated by sustainability action, largely fueled by rising anti-plastic sentiment. It was a year that saw widespread bans on single-use plastic items, the announcement of The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and the launch of the world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisles in Amsterdam and London. At the same time, the milestone merger of two plastic giants in Amcor and Bemis suggests that there are still major players ready to invest in the future of the material. In the first of a two part report on packaging trends, PackagingInsights speaks to several industry experts about what to anticipate in 2019, starting with the most hotly contested trend: sustainability.

“Much of what is done in the name of sustainability is based primarily on perception rather than fact,” says Dr. Susan Selke, Director of the Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability at Michigan State University. “I expect the anti-plastics efforts to continue in 2019 and companies to respond by increasingly moving to ‘non-plastic’ packaging where they can, but I expect that there will continue to be a lot of misinformation in this effort.”

“For example, I see biobased plastics portrayed as ‘not plastic’; I see recyclable plastic being portrayed as not ‘single-use plastic’ – which may or may not be accurate, depending on how you define ‘single-use’,” Selke tells PackagingInsights.

Click to EnlargeUK first: Fresh fruit and veg at Thornton’s Budgens' plastic-free zone in London. The role of plastics in packaging will continue to dominate the industry in 2019. In the eyes of sustainability expert and Director of Emagine Packaging, Richard Coles, plastic packaging can deliver important sustainability benefits in terms of saving food waste by extending shelf-life, being resource efficient and enhancing product functionality. Indeed, a recently published US study identified plastics as the most environmentally-friendly packaging material in terms of energy use, water consumption, solid waste, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, eutrophication and acidification.

“However, 2018 was a ‘tipping point’ for plastics packaging,” Coles explains. “Despite plastics impressive success in the packaging world, it has been poorly portrayed in the media for the damage it has caused to wildlife and human seafood supply chains, in addition to its poor global recycling record (6.9 billion tons of plastics waste – including packaging – has been produced since the 1950s of which an estimated nine percent was recycled).”

“Importantly, it should be noted that around 90 percent of plastics marine pollution arises from just 10 river basins in Africa and Asia with about 50 percent reportedly due to fishing nets. In addition, there is pollution due to microfiber plastics originating from rinse-water used to wash synthetic textiles and microbeads used in cosmetics, face scrubs, bodywash and toothpaste," Coles adds.

As Selke points out, FMCGs and packaging suppliers will continue to explore material alternatives to plastics in 2019. Within the caps and closures space, expert and Director of R.A. Gross Design, Rick Gross, supports this view, identifying issues related to the environmental scourge of plastics as the big driver for 2019 in NPD.

“Look for new closure developments which continue to address sustainability issues through design and materials in 2019,” Gross tells PackagingInsights. “In addition to the past developments of environmentally-friendly materials for use on standard CT closures, look for the expansion of these into dispensing closures such as hinged lid closures.”

Plastic out, paper in
What will be the “sustainable” material alternative to plastics in 2019? Based on the evidence of 2018, paper-based packaging is the most probable answer. Last year, this type of packaging experienced a notable resurgence, fueled by anti-plastic sentiment, with numerous new paper-based and plastic-paper hybrid packaging launches, such as JUST Water.

“More natural, renewable and recyclable paper-based formats with reduced carbon footprint appeal to environmentally conscious consumers,” explains Coles. “These formats resonate with retailers and brands who have set plastic-free or plastic-reduction packaging targets.”Click to EnlargeSonoco's 90 percent paper mymuesli cans look and feel "natural," resonating with the more eco-conscious consumer.

Coles highlights several key examples which highlight the momentum of paper-based substitutes, such as Aldi’s recent introduction of a 100 percent recyclable cardboard disc in place of polystyrene (PS) for all of its pizza products.

Similarly, Coveris is supplying UK supermarket Morrisons with new easy-peel open vacuum skinboard (VSB) format packs for its premium cooked meats. “VSB packs utilize FSC or PEFC cardboard bases so replacing hard-to-recycle black plastics tray usage and thereby removing more than 50 tons from waste streams annually – 80 percent of the pack is widely recyclable under OPRL guidelines,” Coles explains.

“Additionally, there exists a wide range of attractively designed hybrid paper-based packs utilizing either recyclable plastic inner linings or biodegradable/compostable bioplastic coatings or inner bags for a variety of products, for example, cartons of organic breakfast cereals, vegetarian and vegan products such as burgers,” he adds.

Significantly, paper-based packaging has the added value of appearing and feeling “natural” and provides an excellent printing substrate with potential for high-quality graphics to effectively communicate brand values (and sustainability credentials). As just one example, Sonoco has recently begun supplying rigid 90 percent paper containers as the new exclusive supplier of the German muesli manufacturer, mymuesli. The move comes after Sonoco conducted research which found that consumers are more likely to buy organic, premium brands if the packaging is “natural-looking.”

Click to EnlargeJUST Water’s Tetra Top carton bottle with 82 percent renewable materials content (up from 53 percent) that includes sugar cane-derived Bio-HDPE cap and top. Bio-based alternatives: Steady growth in 2019
In addition to paper-based packaging, bioplastics are also working a position to mount a more serious challenge to traditional plastics in 2019. In comparison to paper-based packaging, bioplastics have achieved relatively slow but consistent growth to date. Plastics Europe Market Research Group (PEMRG) estimates that bioplastics currently account for 6 percent of all plastics packaging. Meanwhile, European Bioplastics (EUBP), expects bioplastic global production to increase by 18.8 percent from 2017-2022.

Hasso von Pogrell, Managing Director of EUPB, tells PackagingInsights that bioplastics have not received “an equal platform to conventional plastics and biofuels, [which are] are greatly subsidized by the EU.” He also explains that bioplastic market growth has been hit by a regulatory failure to normalize the definitions of the many complex variations in bio-based materials, making bioplastics “a very difficult lobby.”

However, in October 2018, EUBP expressed its support for the European Commission’s review of the 2012 European Bioeconomy Strategy. The strategy is a step forward toward ensuring that fossil resources are replaced by sustainable natural alternatives for the production of bio-based products such as bio-based plastics and energy, according to EUBP.

Packaging expert Neil Farmer expects increased investment and experimentation in the bioplastics space in 2019. “More investment is coming on-stream in Asia, particularly China. There is also some investment in Europe, with two Italian companies, Novamont and Bio-On, doing great things. Bio-On has already joined forces with Unilever to use patented bio-technologies for natural, biodegradable microplastics production.”

Richard Coles also expects NPD in biodegradable and compostable packaging solutions in 2019, especially within niche applications such as sandwiches, nuts, snacks and confectionery. “These packaging solutions possess good barrier properties and are likely to gain more favor with the smaller ‘challenger brands,’ such as Two Farmers’ compostable pack for potato crisps, in 2019,” says Coles.

Coles and Farmer both highlight that the major obstacle to bio-based growth is cost-effectiveness, with greater investment and government support needed for the European bioplastics industry. “Only then will we see volume production, economies of scale and greater profitability to the enable the market to grow more rapidly,” says Farmer.

Stronger together: Recycling collaborations
The significant on-cost of bio-based alternatives to plastics remains a barrier to adoption by large brands which are heavily invested in plastics packaging and keen to promote recycling as a sustainable option, Coles reiterates. He highlights PepsiCo UK Walkers’ crisps packet recycling scheme in partnership with TerraCycle as an example of what is to be expected in 2019.

Susan Selke agrees that it will be increasingly important for FMCGs and suppliers to work with recycling organizations in 2019 in order to establish functional circular economies which minimize waste. “Research funding and the development of collection and sorting infrastructure to improve both the ‘recyclability’ and more importantly the actual recycling rates for packaging materials is needed,” says Selke. “This also includes an obligation to greatly expand the use of recycled materials, especially plastics, in packaging systems.”Click to EnlargeEUBP expects bioplastic global production to increase by 18.8 percent from 2017-2022.

In the UK, Farmer believes a more “uniform approach” is needed for home waste disposal, while greater investment is required in recycling infrastructure, especially equipment which is able to separate plastics. He also highlights the need for improved consumer education on recycling.

With pressures mounting for greater sustainability, suppliers and FMCGs will likely continue to collaborate with specialist recycling companies such as TerraCycle and Veolia. For example, in November, Tetra Pak secured a significant sustainability boost by partnering with recycling specialists Veolia to ensure that all material components of its cartons have end-use recycling value.

Similarly, Kellogg’s announced In October that it had entered an agreement with recycling company TerraCycle, enabling consumers to recycle Pringles cans using Freepost labels. However, this particular scheme has received criticism in some quarters, with UK Recycling Association Chief Executive, Simon Ellin, claiming that “Pringles cans are still a nightmare to recycle.” Ellin believes that Pringles cans should undergo a redesign so that they are readily recyclable in existing streams.

Designed-in recyclability
Designed-in recyclability is a sustainability trend which will certainly dominate NPD in 2019. Notable examples of this trend, according to Richard Coles, include London-based Food-to-Go chain Chop’d’s switch to 100 percent rPET “Twisty Bowls” for its salads. The bowls, which are supplied by Tri-Star Packaging, are manufactured by Faerch using renewable energy. Another recent innovation comes from RPC bpi protec which has launched its ultra-low carbon footprint X-EnviroShrink, a new 100 percent recyclable shrink film containing 30 percent post-consumer recyclate (PCR), which Coles believes sets a new standard in shrink film technology.

Click to EnlargeThe Veolia collaboration ensures all material components of Tetra Pak's cartons have end-use recycling value.The packaging industry will continue to be dominated by the sustainability debate in 2019. Regulatory and consumer demand for eco-friendly packaging, driven by the desire to combat the scourge of plastic pollution, shows no signs of slowing. Yet the question remains as to what the most sustainable route for a more “sustainable future” is exactly? Trends in paper-based packaging, bio-based materials, recycling collaborations and circular, designed-in recyclability in NPD will try to find the answer to this in 2019.

As Selke concludes, “there are some exciting developments that truly expand sustainability of package and product systems, and that deliver more value to the consumer, but what is done in the name of sustainability must be based on fact rather than perception.”

In Part 2, PackagingInsights explores other key trends for 2019, notably the rise of e-commerce and connective packaging technologies. Stay with PackagingInsights for key packaging trend themes throughout the year. 

By Joshua Poole

To contact our editorial team please email us at

Related Articles



18 Mar 2019 --- Artificial intelligence (AI) was once considered the future but has now become a part of daily life. Automation has made processes easier, more agile and faster.... Read More



18 Mar 2019 --- A reverse vending machine designed to accept plastic bottles and aluminum cans has been unveiled at King’s Cross in central London by UK recycling group... Read More



15 Mar 2019 --- British supermarket Asda has reportedly removed 6,500 tons of plastic from its own brand packaging since February 2018. The pressure to reduce the amount of plastic... Read More



15 Mar 2019 --- In this week’s packaging news, Carlton & United Breweries scrapped plastic six-pack rings on its beer cans. The Australian company expects to prevent more... Read More



14 Mar 2019 --- Coca-Cola produces three million tons of plastic packaging a year – based on 2017 numbers – which translates to 200,000 bottles a minute. These figures,... Read More