KANSAS CITY - The packaged food industry is on a new trajectory, and food packaging manufacturers have had a front row seat to the many dramatic changes and challenges over the past year. With continued assimilation to the rapid changes and demand for packaged food at an all-time high, consumers are settling into new routines with higher expectations regarding what packaging can and should do.  

“The pandemic has reprioritized food safety as the No. 1 concern for consumers,” said Paul Frantz, president of Novolex Food & Delivery segment, Hartsville, S.C. “They want to protect their own health and the health of those around them and we see that reflected in the products that are flying off the shelves.”  

But that doesn’t mean any kind of packaging will do. Today’s consumer is in search of packaging offering sterility and security as well as sustainable options optimized for reuse and recycling. As consumers shift from a grab-and-go mindset to growing ecommerce reliance, expectations will reflect the need for food to reach home looking and tasting as great as it did instore. Creating these experiences makes packaging a critical element, said Kurt Richars, director of marketing, Anchor Packaging, St. Louis. 

“Beyond protecting food, packaging is a way to help reach customers wherever they shop, and it offers operators a way to protect their brand with a better customer experience and with greater flexibility to meet their customers’ needs,” Richars continued. “Retailers can use packaging to convey safety and cleanliness, create appealing presentations and maintain food quality longer – all benefits that are more important than ever to consumers.” 

Shopper driven 

An additional tool to help brands connect and engage with consumers could include the availability of smart and connected packaging. Working with Chicago-based Mintel, TC Transcontinental Packaging, Montreal, Canada, predicts evolutions in consumer attitudes and behaviors. 

“Consumers are very aware of the growing global concerns, such as the environment and the impact packaging have on our planet,” said Rebecca Casey, senior vice president, strategy and marketing, TC Transcontinental Packaging. “High product-to-package ratio will be important and product safety, tampering, freshness, nutrition and consumer health concerns will enhance and inform the movement for more smart packaging.” 

The supplier of flexible plastic products, coextruded films, shrink films and coatings has forecasted increasing need for durable packaging solutions with functionality around seal-ability and portion-ability, according to Casey. Also evolving are needs for larger packaging sizes and the bundling of packaged prepared items to accommodate changing societal dynamics of working and schooling from home. With consumer concerns elevated, packaging can offer confidence in product safety and hygiene and provide retailers with an opportunity to build rapport with consumers, Richars recommended. 

Differentiating factors 

As those consumers look to reshape the world in a more sustainable way, Euromonitor’s 2021 Consumer Trends Report predicts a movement to adapt operations to enhance customer demands. This can already be seen in the growing number of sustainable packaging options that are recyclable, compostable or made from recycled content with a range of convenience features.  

“Consumers wish to contribute to a better environment and it’s important you tell them how they are doing it with your product,” Casey said. “Clearly identifying the end-of-life scenario of the package with the correct labeling is another form of communication and way for brands to differentiate themselves on the shelf.”  

Many of Novolex’s packaging products use the How2Recycle label, a standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public. The company works with its customers on how to display the appropriate recycling designation and partners to design products with a variety of functional and end-of-life characteristics. 

While the value-add of reusable and recyclable packaging continues to grow for consumers, the logistics are often hampered by regulatory changes and difficulty in recycling. As a result, certain packaging types like fiber trays and containers are gaining popularity while foam and PFAS-coated fiber containers are less appealing.  

“While fiber packaging – plant-based not petroleum-based – is getting a lot of press, the industry will likely pendulum swing back to #1 PET because it can be used over and over again,” predicted Scott VanderWerf, vice-president of sales and marketing at Nextera Packaging, St. Paul, Minn. “Compostable products produce more carbon and use more energy while being manufactured and the single-use fiber products end up in a landfill because they aren’t recyclable and are rarely composted. Commercial composting infrastructure has a long way to go before it would be ready for the market to pivot to compostable packaging on a wide scale.” 

Placon, Madison, Wis., has practiced closed loop recycling using recycled bales of PET curbside-collected materials for more than a decade. The vertical integration allows the company to control the quality of the flake, the sheet and the end product to ensure clarity and product packaging performance meet criteria and quality standards for its packaging products. Placon’s use of post-consumer recycled PET in all of its PET food packaging includes a baseline of 50% or higher with the majority of its PET products using 75% post-consumer recycled PET.  

The company continues to see increased demand for tamper-evident and takeout or convenience packaging and offers solutions that provide retailers with designated label areas and customer print options to enhance product and brand recognition on containers or packaging instore.  

“We want to ensure our packaging will create an enhanced experience for the retailer and the consumer as they convey their brand and products on-shelf in retail settings,” said Derek Skogen, senior product manager, Placon. “The clarity, functionality and consumer friendliness of the package are traits we take seriously when designing a new package or creating a design.” 

Grabbing attention 

Beyond the provision of clear nutritional information, consumers are looking to see the physical product before purchase, allowing them to determine the freshness of the product on their own, Casey said. Packaging transparency can also help deliver on the expectation that food is safe and secure, Frantz said. 

To grab attention, brands, retailers and grocers can use their packaging graphic design to engage and educate consumers about the safety and sustainability attributes that differentiate their package. According to Nextera Packaging, custom packaging is the No. 1 way to help a brand stand out. Custom designs or colors uniquely fit to a product and its branding can have a significant advantage in grabbing the attention of the end consumer, according to VanderWerf. 

“If a brand does not have the quantity to justify a customer packaging product, it’s also helpful to change packaging and refresh the look at retail about every 24 months,” he continued. “Design trends are clearly toward smooth wall, straight-angle containers as well as ‘rounded squares’ and tamper evidence.” 

These designs are a departure from previous trends for upscale packaging that often included containers with a black base and clear lid. Because black colorants absorb light used by optical sorting sensors at recycling facilities, the sensors cannot “see” the plastic and determine recyclability. As several municipalities declare black plastics no longer recyclable, brands are pivoting to colors of white, tan and clear, VanderWerf said. 

Although sustainability and its impacts are undeniably feel-good, eco-friendly packaging including its production, use and disposal is much more complicated than many of the consumers who demand it realize. This is evidenced by the many places in the U.S. that still lack the necessary infrastructure to recapture the full value of sustainable packaging and advance a circular economy. 

Consider the factors 

Such hurdles can prompt some to blaze their own path. J. Skinner Bakery, Omaha, Neb., is working with its plastics partner to brainstorm creative ways to reduce the amount of plastics used in the packaging of its Danish strips and rings, strudels and sweet rolls.  

“Unique looking packaging is definitely a selling point, but at the end of the day it’s what consumers don’t see that will have a heavier influence on their opinion of your brand,” said David Skinner, marketing manager, J. Skinner Bakery. “If a brand has packaging components that are sustainability conscious, the marketer really needs to push that benefit.” 

By looking closer at its sustainability, the company reduced costs on some of its components, finding a simple reduction on the package size can produce a snugger fit and lowering the gauge could save on shipping and packaging costs. As the company develops its next line of products, they have moved away from larger formats and have reduced packaging counts. 

Next steps 

Notwithstanding the many unknowns, consumers and producers alike can anticipate a global shift to eliminate non-recycled plastics and encourage the use of plastics that allow better recycling rates and eliminate or change complex combinations of packaging materials, according to PMMI’s Packaging Sustainability: A Changing Landscape 2020 report.  

Additionally, Casey predicted science will also help debunk myths and fears consumers have related to plastic packaging and that more brands will commit to consumer education related to the value of plastic and all packaging, helping consumers play a responsible role in recycling. Richars suggested successful operators view packaging less as a supply expense and more of an investment in customer satisfaction and future demand.  

“Successful retailers will use packaging to protect taste and their customers’ experience as a way to grow revenue,” Richars concluded. “Shifting package planning from cost-based discussion to finding solutions that deliver on higher customer expectations will drive this success. By creating appealing displays and shifting to eco-friendly options, consumers can reuse and easily recycle, helping retailers and brands to exceed customer expectations and win.”