- Flexible plastic packaging makes up more than a quarter (28%) of all packaging, according to an analysis by The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI) that looked at beverages, home care products, animal food, packaged food and personal care items.
- PET bottles were the second most common packaging at more than 17% of the global share. PET bottles and flexible plastic are lightweight, easily customizable and cheap to manufacture, the association wrote in its "2019 Global Packaging Trends" report.
- Flexible plastic was most commonly used in snack food packaging while PET bottles were used for drinks. PMMI expects both packaging types to grow by tens of billions of units by 2023, the report notes.
Getting packaging right is an important part of a supply chain operation, especially in food where waste means lost sales. The right packaging can increase shelf life and protect the product.
Ideal packaging would limit food and packaging waste, but food waste is often given priority in this equation, according to a 2015 paper on food packaging by a group of Australian researchers.
"Product protection needs to be the primary goal for packaging sustainability, and sometimes, this requires trade-offs between the amount of packaging and the amount of food waste generated," the paper notes.
There are more sustainable alternatives to existing packaging types. Using plastic bags instead of PET bottles for milk uses less material. But more sustainable options often face barriers to adoption at the food producer and retail level where operations are setup to handle existing packaging, according to "Barriers to the adoption of waste-reducing eco-innovations in the packaged food sector," a paper published last year in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
Producers and retailers worry about the cost and risk associated with adopting newer technologies, according to the paper by lead author Christopher Simms, a business professor at the University of Portsmouth.
Producers and packaging suppliers won't provide environmental-friendly packaging if retailers don't think they'll sell. So retailers have a significant amount of power in this debate, Simms wrote.
"Retailer’s represent a key supply chain actor in stimulating eco-innovation," the paper reads. "Yet, our cases reveal little emphasis on sustainability within their decision-making. Interventions must therefore take account of each supply chain level, and how they will influence adoption behavior in the food industry."
Simms and his coauthors concluded government and NGOs could help industry adoption of sustainable packaging by providing better eduction to consumers, however, there are signs that consumers already want a move away for package-laden products.
A 2019 survey by Ipsos, a global market research and a consulting firm, found that 75% of consumers want to buy products with as little packaging as possible. Some took it even further with 71% believing single-use plastic should be banned as soon as possible. The U.S. has one of the lowest levels of approval for the question of banning single-use plastics, but it was still a majority (57%) of respondents.
This sentiment is growing at a time when plastic for packaging accounts for the largest segment of plastic production — 36% in 2015 according to one study.
But, just this year, Coca Cola's Head of Sustainability Bea Perez said the company doesn't plan to get rid of plastic bottles because customers like them and getting rid of them could hurt business. Convincing companies to make the switch might be more difficult than presenting alternatives.
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