Editor's Note: This article is part of a series focused on innovation in the food industry. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
In today’s food industry, product packaging is caught between two contradictory consumer trends: sustainability and convenience.
Hectic schedules and a growing preference for snacking over traditional meals have driven strong demand for CPG products, but the plastic, cardboard and styrofoam that keeps these items shelf-stable come at an environmental cost — one that a growing number of consumers aren’t willing to pay. At the same time, shoppers are willing to shell out more for products they view as premium, environmentally-conscious and mission-based.
“Younger generations really expect this as part of their loyalty to a brand, and they expect to identify with not only the product they’re consuming, but what the brand actually stands for,” Russell Zack, senior vice president of products and solutions at HelloWorld, told Food Dive.
Sustainable packaging can be a lucrative way for brands to gain a health halo and refresh their image without having to reformulate their products. Eye-catching, eco-friendly packaging — when done right — also can be an opportunity for companies to develop distinct branding that sets them apart from their competitors on the shelf, as well as capture loyal consumers across demographics.
This allure is prompting major manufacturers and upstart brands to develop packaging that will shrink their environmental footprint, resulting in marketplace solutions that are revolutionizing packaged food and beverages purchased by consumers everyday.
Plants over plastic
Bottled water may be more popular with consumers than soda, but the beverage category puts a huge strain on the environment. Producing plastic bottles takes three times the water that’s actually contained inside of them, and only about 30% of plastic bottles are recycled.
To solve this problem, companies such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are developing biodegradable bottles made from ingredients like mushrooms and seaweed. But while this strategy keeps plastic out of oceans and landfills, it also diverts resources from food production, creating a different kind of environmental strain.
This is why DanoneWave and Nestle Waters, the world’s largest bottled-water manufacturers, partnered with California startup Origin Materials to create the NaturALL Bottle Alliance, an initiative working to produce packaging for the life-sustaining beverage made from discarded sustainable wood-based products like cardboard and sawdust. The companies hope to produce at least 75% bio-based PET bottles by 2020 before scaling up to 95% in 2022.
“Current technology on the market makes it possible to have 30% bio-PET,” John Bissell, CEO of Origin Materials, said in a press release. “Our breakthrough technology aims to reach 100% bio-based bottles at commercial scale. With the help of our alliance partners, Origin Materials will be able to scale up a technology which has already been proven at the pilot level.”
It will be interesting to see how water manufacturers respond once these wood-based bottles start rolling out. If Nestle and DanoneWave launch a successful marketing campaign highlighting the bottle’s environmental benefits, it could spur other major bottle manufacturers to develop bio-based packaging of their own, creating a momentum for a new industry standard.
Breaking the mold
In some cases, creating more sustainable packaging means doing away with iconic containers. This is a risky move as radically new packaging appearances could confuse and even alienate consumers, giving more traditional applications a leg up. Still, companies such as Boxed Water is Better is willing to take the gamble.
“We believe that packaged water should be healthy and pure, and that’s why Boxed Water is 100 percent BPA and phthalate free, free from impurities, or the things you don’t need,” CEO Daryn Kuipers told Food Dive. “Boxed Water offers a choice that aligns with consumers looking for a better option in packaged water — a more sustainable and more thoughtful option.”
Boxed Water is leveraging a strategy similar to Nestle Waters and DanoneWave, but it is taking it a step farther. The company's white containers, which are tall and narrow, are decorated only with black block letters that read “Boxed Water Is Better” with an image of a water droplet.
Rather than trying to innovate within the expected design of a water bottle, the company is instead attempting to differentiate itself from the competition with an entirely different appearance. The not-so-subtle branding also was a risk, though it seems to be taking off with millennials on social media who view the packaging as a mark of premium quality.
Still, going against the grain has been challenging for the company, and only time will tell if the average consumer will be compelled enough to swap the familiar convenience of plastic bottled water for something that resembles a milk carton.
Rethink Water is another beverage company that packages its water in cardboard, and founder and CEO of Rethink Brands, Matthew Swanson, said one of the company's biggest challenges is convincing consumers its products contain water.
“People are so trained to drink water out of a plastic bottle, when you put it in a different form they wonder if it’s coconut water or juice or milk. That’s why educating consumers is our top priority,” Swanson told Food Dive. “Our trail was low but repeat is high, so we know that if we can get the product into people’s hands, they will come back and buy it again. It will take time, but people are starting to understand more about what box water is.”
Let them eat packaging
Just because consumers want their product packaging to be more sustainable, doesn’t mean that it has to be boring. Novelty food items are interesting to mass market consumers, which is why companies are developing product packaging people can eat along with its contents.
Startup company and media darling Loliware, for example, has created a compostable and edible cup made from organic sweetener and seaweed that consumers can either discard in their yard or munch on once they’ve finished their beverage. A marriage of sensory indulgence and environmental responsibility, the young company’s product could cause a significant disruption in the packaging space if expanded to other food products.
Milk-based packaging is another innovation food scientists are developing to reduce packaging waste. This edible material, called casein, could eventually replace the plastic films that wrap refrigerated perishables like cheese and ground beef.
This thin, flexible plastic is more difficult to recycle than the thicker material found in egg containers, milk jugs and bottles of coffee creamer. The U.S. Agriculture Department also found that casein can be up to 500 times better at keeping oxygen away from food than plastic. In addition, it doesn’t contain harmful chemicals that some researchers claim traditional plastic adds to food.
Casein isn’t yet publicly available, but the material shows promise as a functionally superior and environmentally-friendly alternative to standard shrink plastics. If casein is formulated with flavors or vitamins, it could also help entice consumers who are more interested in novelty than environmental sustainability.
The future is label-free
Packaging has long been used as a way to elongate food’s shelf life and cut down on spoilage rates, but confusing sell by and best by product labels can still lead consumers to throw out food before it’s gone bad. One company, thermoplastic resin maker Barksem, aims to create packaging that clearly communicates food safety to the consumer.
The company has partnered with universities in the U.S. and Brazil to develop a fresh food packaging prototype that changes colors when food is no longer safe to consume. The material detects pH changes in the food it contains to gauge spoilage.
Barksem isn’t the first company to make strides in this field, either. Researchers at the University of Rhode Island developed heat-sensing UPC codes that change color when fresh products become too warm a few years ago. This innovation could have a major impact on the the food industry’s waste production, and could save consumers from throwing away their products too early or eating food that is no longer safe.
"A product's entire value chain can benefit from this technology," Marcia Pires, polymer science researcher at Braksem, told Food Food Navigator. "This gives consumers greater quality assurance on the products they take home, and allows companies to control product integrity after manufacture, either during transport or at the point of sale."