As global demand for rigid plastic packaging is rising, environmental awareness is increasing. In response, many manufacturers and retailers are moving towards greater sustainability, targeting both effectiveness and environmentalism with their rigid plastic packaging.
Pira International, the UK-based consultants and researchers, says packaging production for food and drink in Europe is expected to achieve above average growth in volume terms between 2010 and 2015. Forecast compound annual growth of 3.7% for plastic bottles, trays, pots and tubs is almost double the 1.9% predicted for European food and drink packaging overall.
Shatterproof and lighter in weight as they are, rigid plastics are increasingly replacing traditional packaging such as glass, metal and paperboard cartons, Pira notes. Manufacturers are also leaning towards recyclability, as PET has overtaken polyethylene as the leading polymer for rigid packaging and now accounts for a third of world rigid plastic packaging consumption.
Pira reports that suppliers across all packaging sectors are looking to add value through innovation by integrating lightweighting, recycling, biodegradability and sustainability.
UK based RPC Group currently has many rigid plastic packaging innovations focused around lightweighting, post-consumer recycled (PCR) material, and glass replacement. Its Jugit system, a milk bag refill in a reusable container, uses 75% less packaging than a traditional plastic milk bottle. Another container - the 300ml PET bottle for Marks & Spencer's Essential Extracts personal care range - incorporates 30% PCR material, the optimal amount that can be incorporated while ensuring that the M&S products continue to deliver high quality performance.
US company Ecologic Brands has created the eco.bottle, offering a quite different alternative to plastic bottles. This is a hybrid fibre-plastic product that is made using up to 70% less plastic than a traditional plastic bottle as it has a recyclable plastic inner pouch inside a moulded fibre shell. The shell is 100% recyclable and compostable.
Bryan Glasper, RPC's sustainability manager, says customer demand for eco-friendly packaging has been increasing, leading to the use of recycled polymers for lightweighting packs for both food and non-food products. "This has extended to consideration of glass and metal replacement," Glasper says, adding that RPC is also exploring the use of plant-based polymers in rigid plastic packaging.
"Bio-degradation is sometimes of dubious efficiency, [and] compostability is also questionable," he said. "[But] in any case, recycling is considered better environmentally as long as otherwise 'long' carbon is converted into 'short' carbon, thus adding to the environmental burden."
A key part of the challenge for producers has been to develop greener packaging that is as good as that made entirely with traditional plastics.
UK-based Petainer recently developed a PET refillable bottle, manufactured using more than 25% PCR PET. The company cites the same performance characteristics as for a refillable bottle made entirely from virgin material.
German packaging manufacturer Krones has managed to maintain performance in sustainable rigid plastic packaging. It claims to have reduced the PET bottle weight of supermarket chain Lidl's own-brand drinks Freeway and Saskia by almost 30% over the last few years, while retaining or improving their functionality and handling qualities. Krones also says its NitroHotfill 15.5 (a 15.5g bottle for 500 ml) is the world's lightest hotfill container, suitable for filling temperatures of up to 87ûC.
Australia-based Amcor's strategic focus is largely on lightweighting its rigid plastic containers. In its last fiscal year, its lighter weight PET containers reduced resin consumption by 10 million pounds.
Innovative product design has seen Amcor produce several sustainable alternatives. Big Mouth, a PET jar for hot filled foods, is 86% lighter than glass and 34% lighter than traditional heat-set PET. Amcor's new Active Hinge technology reduces container weight as much as 20% in 8, 10, 12 and 16-ounce bottles.
The company is also making significant strides into using PCR material in rigid packaging. It consumes between 30 and 40 million pounds of food grade PCR material annually, and plans to double that soon.
Amcor is also focused on making the entire production process more sustainable. Its rigid plastic business aims to reduce facility greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2030, and site-specific water management plans have been implemented to ensure responsible and efficient use of resources.
Nestlé Waters is progressively reducing the weight of its rigid plastic bottles. It cut plastic use by 24% per litre of finished product between 2004 and 2009. Eco-Shape - its lightest, 0.5 litre bottle - weighed 9.2g when it was launched in the US in late 2009, 25% lighter than it had been in 2007.
Philippe Roulet, Nestlé's head of global packaging materials and training, says the company is constantly looking into new bio-based materials to identify potential applications within its product portfolio.
"Source optimisation - weight saving - is a continuous day-to-day approach that [Nestlé] started many years ago. For example, between 1991 and the end of 2011, we achieved savings of 557 million kg of packaging materials."
Kl"ckner Pentaplast, the German manufacturer of rigid, plastic packaging films, has seen steady growth in the number of customers asking for innovative options to meet retailer demand for rigid packaging that is recyclable and/or renewable.
One of its newest developments is TerraPET, a rigid film with 30% renewable polymer content.
"It's a great option for customers seeking the performance qualities of traditional APET materials with a film made partially from renewable materials," says spokesman Thomas Hünseler.
Conventional polymers made with plant-based content are the new trend in packaging because they offer all the benefits of conventional petroleum-based polymers with the added ones of renewable content and compatibility with existing recycling infrastructure, he says.
Cost is an issue but not for all customers, says Hünseler: "For many, the higher cost makes the shift to a new material a non-starter, particularly in a sluggish economy. [But] we are seeing a growing number of progressive companies willing to forge ahead to make progress on their sustainability commitments."
Some routes to sustainability are actually more cost-effective, according to Joanna Stephenson, VP of marketing and innovation at UK plastic packaging company Linpac.
"The reality of recession has meant that lightweighting to minimise material usage is clearly a front runner in the sustainability argument benefiting the entire supply chain...this has been a key focus for Linpac Packaging," she says.
Linpac recently launched an addition to its range of sustainable trays for meat and fish products in the form of RfreshMB. These are PET trays which contain up to 95% food grade post-consumer recyclate but do not compromise on tray performance. They offer excellent barrier performance and rigidity, and provide "the same high quality performance our customers see with trays made from virgin material", Stephenson said.
Many new market entrants such as plant-based polymer solutions will remain expensive and scarce due to capacity constraints, high overheads and the small niche market positions they often have, she suggested.
"[But] investment in new technologies, such as biopolymer assets, will nonetheless continue to grow for companies seeking something different and looking for ways to mitigate the volatility of oil based materials. It's just a matter of time and volume market adoption."