Unboxing 3 key trends in packaging innovation

By Katerina Mansour - 21 July 2020

We’ve become used to seeing key areas of our daily lives be revamped and transformed through digital breakthroughs: AI personal assistants, contactless phone payments, robot-powered stores, personalised and cross-channel shopping experiences the examples are countless.

Packaging is among the omnipresent elements of our lives, that we may not pay much attention to, but is also being transformed and repurposed through new technologies. In this article, three key trends are outlined to better understand where corporates, startups and governments are currently investing their time and money.

Sustainable packaging

Easily one of the biggest trends in packaging across all industries, sustainable packaging has become a priority for a plethora of corporates worldwide. The global green packaging market is expected to be worth $238 billion by 2024. Numerous startups are pioneering the development and use of alternatives to single-use plastics. Beyond its environmental effects, plastic packaging waste has been estimated to represent an $80-120 billion loss to the global economy every year. Within this trend, several clusters have emerged such as edible packaging, reusable containers, wood-based materials, cane-based materials and waste-based repurposed materials.

Reusing and repurposing packaging helps businesses’ bottom line while also reducing the amount of waste polluting the Earth, whether it be in our oceans or landfills. Because of this, large corporates like Kellogg have announced aims to transition towards 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by end of 2025. Investments have also reflected strong corporate and VC interest in sustainable alternatives. Crunchbase recently reported that eco-packing startups have raised record numbers: Sulapac (biodegradable plastic alternative) has raised a total of $21m, TemperPack (Styrofoam-free insulation for packaging) has raised a total of $33m and Genomatica (biological manufacturing to produce chemicals from feedstocks) has raised a total of $220m. Governments have also shown their support: in 2018, the UK invested £60m through UK Research and Innovate, to fund technological solutions to reducing plastic waste, including efforts linked to packaging.

Among the many rated startups bringing innovative materials and proprietary solutions to the table, Notpla is revolutionising packaging for numerous industries. The startup’s product, called Ooho, is made from seaweed and plants. It is edible and if not ingested it biodegrades within 4-6 weeks. These small pouches can be used in the food and beverage industry but also other sectors such as beauty and cosmetics. While some might wonder if these types of sustainable solutions transfer to luxury use cases, Pernod Ricard-owned brand The Glenlivet launched a limited edition Whisky cocktail in Notpla’s Ooho capsules in 2019 that went viral.

Photo: Notpla

Other examples of innovative sustainable packaging include companies using alternative materials. Lactips, produces a polymer made from milk protein. The water-soluble plastic alternative is both biodegradable and edible. The startup began by using its solution for dishwasher and laundry detergent packets. Lyspackaging, another startup rated by Early Metrics, develops a plastic-like material from a sugar cane by-product for use in both packaging and bottles. The startup transforms bagasse, the dried fibrous residue left after extracting the juice from sugar cane, into pellets through a proprietary process to obtain a material with similar manufacturing and usage properties to plastic, that is entirely plant-based, biodegradable and compostable.

Smart packaging

Smart packaging has emerged as a trend with many use cases. Its goal is to multiply the different purposes and functions packaging can have. These applications can range from monitoring the temperature of foodstuffs being shipped to engaging with customers through content consumed on packages via QR codes.

Inuru, a startup placed in the top 5% of over 3000 companies rated by Early Metrics, stands out as a unique smart packaging offer with a focus on marketing purposes. The startup’s ink technology prints organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) onto packaging and marketing materials. The technology was used by Coca-Cola Singapore for a Star Wars campaign: when a consumer picked up a bottle, the character’s lightsabre would light up. This helped the bottles stand out and created a memorable customer experience.

Photo: Inuru / Coca-Cola Singapore

Arilyn, which placed in the top 10% of rated startups, provides companies with the ability to incorporate augmented reality (AR) content into their packaging. The startup previously worked with Tere, an Estonian milk company, to boost sales by highlighting Eurovision contestants on each bottle. Users could scan a barcode and see holographic renders of contestants perform for them. Arilyn has also signed a partnership with Canadian CCL Label to use its technology for AR and VR immersive connected packaging.

Smart packaging has also increasingly been used for health and fitness purposes. Smart bottles, such as those developed by Water.io, help consumers track the amount of water they consume and receive reminders through an app to stay hydrated. The company has also applied its technology to vitamin bottles, providing reminders and one-click in-app repurchasing.

Antimicrobial packaging

Covid-19 is undoubtedly having a significant impact on packaging across industries, from the pharmaceutical sector to cosmetics. Beyond finding the right solutions to disinfect their stores and workplaces, companies manufacturing and/or selling consumer products could stand to benefit from the development of touch-free products or the use of antimicrobial technologies for their packaging.

Materials with antimicrobial and antiviral properties can help placate consumers’ concerns about the ability of the virus to survive on surfaces and spread to them. Beauty packaging is especially concerning to consumers since ones’ daily beauty routine can involve touching multiple different products right before touching ones’ face. The food industry is similarly affected, as consumers worry about exposure to the virus as they prepare their meals or unload their groceries, touching various packages and containers.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted many to say sustainability is being thrown out the window as disposable packaging feels more hygienic. Indeed, surges in household waste have been noted in some countries and many companies, especially in the food sector, have shifted back to single-use packaging to avoid spreading the virus (no reusable cups allowed in Starbucks, for example). This can arguably be seen as yet another reason antimicrobial innovations could save the day, as they would make it safer to reuse packaging and therefore ensure sustainability efforts are not abandoned.

Muse Wearables has been developing several Covid-19 related solutions, including an antiviral agent that can be coated onto fabrics to inactivate it. The coating could be applied to masks, food packaging bags and personal protective equipment. Symphony Environmental Technologies recently received FDA approval for its antimicrobial technology to be used on plastic food packaging, namely for bread. Corporate interest in these kinds of solutions is illustrated by PepsiCo’s recent agreement with Parx Materials, a startup developing polymers with antimicrobial properties, to work on a solution for microbiological reduction in high-performance plastics.

Overall, it will be interesting to see how these three trends continue to evolve and possibly interact with each other. We’re left to wonder how significant Covid-19’s impact will be on the growth and continued use of sustainable packaging, whether smart packaging could be incorporated into efforts related to Covid-19, and whether antimicrobial materials or products will continue to see growth in its adoption rate throughout sectors.

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