The State of Packaging in Today’s Market (Interview 6)

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We switch gears now for Interview #6 going from designer to packaging publication editor Joe Pryweller of Packaging Strategies. The insights are a bit different as are the questions we posed to Joe. Joe's  experience with Packaging Strategies has run from Senior Reporter through Chief Editor and now as Editor/Conference Director. He's well-informed about the packaging industry and coordinates an array of conferences throughout the year bringing up to date information and trends about today's world in packaging. 1.    Will sustainability concerns in packaging level off or continue to rise? That’s a great question, and the answer depends how you view sustainability. I don’t think sustainability concerns will fall. There is strong evidence contrary to that on all fronts. It is integrated into the missions and strategies of every key brand owner and their suppliers at this point. The retail community is also demanding that products meet these concerns. There are several major standards bodies, including the Global Packaging Project and ISO, that are looking at harmonized worldwide standards and include an impressive list of key CPGS and converters. It is pervasive in all market segments and formats. Yet, there has also been discussion about what sustainability in packaging really means. The major question is whether packaging and sustainability should be a separate discussion from the product or whether sustainability is really a larger strategy folded into the product and that includes packaging as one of its poles but not the only one. In other words, packaging is part of a holistic look at the lifecycle of a product and all its elements, part of the discussion on reducing waste, on conserving energy, on reusing materials, on cutting carbon emissions, etc. The key question is not whether sustainability in packaging will rise or fall but whether it be considered separate from the product or merely part of an overall outlook. Sustainability will continue to be important in any event. 2.    With package manufacturing going overseas, do you see a decline in this activity? Certainly, we’ve seen tremendous growth in this area. Several major U.S.-based packaging converters take in more than half their sales from overseas sources, and the trend should continue in the BRIC countries and in other developing areas. And there is a great need for better packaging in many of these countries, where products need to be distributed more efficiently to reach a population desperate for food, water and other key supplies. While these emerging countries continue to develop, packaging will need to be stepped up to allow a populace in rural areas to achieve a better standard of living. China is also another hot button in this regard. In the paper industry and in PET, to name two areas, much of the growth of the world’s supply is coming from China. I don’t see this declining at all; there is too much need for packaging inside China and for plants to be based there instead of overseas. As much as we’d like to say domestic manufacturing should stay in America, economic realities are different from some political concepts. I don’t see the trend toward global growth declining at all, not in the short or the long-term. 3.    Do you see the package to product size relationship getting closer? There is certainly a strong push to reduce the amount of packaging, one that has been ongoing for the past five years. This trend does not seem to be declining at all. Just go to your neighborhood supermarket, and you’ll find much evidence of packaging that is shorter, smaller or arrayed in different shapes or sizes than in the past. Waste is a major global concern, and the push by retailers and CPGs to reduce packaging – and save some money on materials in the process – will not cease. In fact, the newer trends of using pouches and other flexible formats will continue to grow as a means to reduce size and weight. So will the continued reduction in carton sizes and in wraps and liners. And hybrid solutions that include a mix of materials will continue to be used to achieve a better package to product ratio. 4.    What one trend do you see rising in package manufacturing today? It’s no big surprise but the need for faster, automated, more efficient equipment is one that is pushing the OEM community and its customers. It is one thing to innovate and come up with new packaging that is more “sustainable” or offers wast and energy reduction or the use of alternative materials. It is quite another to be able to manufacture new packaging at the speeds and volumes required to serve a large market of consumers. In many areas of packaging, equipment has gotten faster and uses automation and a total systems approach to achieve the efficiencies demanded by a global market. But this will require manufacturers to continue to push themselves if they are going to succeed in a shifting global economy. 5.    Is recycling of packaging more successful today than 10 years ago and what do you see for the future of recycling? It certainly is more successful, if you look at the communities that offer municipal recycling programs, the automated sorters and other major equipment, and at the investments made by such companies as Coca-Cola, Sonoco and others in recycling programs. And package recycling has certainly become a key priority in every major material segment, even those that did not look toward that in the past. Witness such industry groups at the Carton Council for examples. Yet, recycling rates, at least in the United States, are still far from where they need to be, even with the flurry of recent activity. That is distressing to some and should lead to an even greater drive. I see the future focusing much more on the consumer side, attempting to incentivize consumers to recycle and providing them with greater motivation to use their recycling bins. Education and awareness campaigns are also needed, and many non-profit groups are stepping up activity. But this is still a major mountain to climb and is not easily changed overnight. Yet, we all can at least take some comfort in the fact that activity is ongoing and seems to be a priority in the industry. 6.    Are we better off trying to recycle packaging or design it for repurposing? I hate to sound wishy-washy but it really depends on the package and the use for it. In many cases, greater recycling of packaging is easy and should be done for those materials that can easily go through the recycling stream, including PET plastics, paperboard and corrugated, aluminum and steel, and glass. But for others, such as laminated structures, other multi-material formats or those materials not easily recycled, different approaches are needed. There must continue to be a push on the design end to use these packages for other purposes or to increase its shelf life or usefulness so that it benefits society. So the answer really depends. One type of solution does not fit all in packaging. 7.    Is sustainable packaging financially affordable or not? It depends on your definition of sustainability. Are you just looking at the cost of the alternative material, of production, of shipping and transport, of disposal, or of energy and greenhouse gas emissions? Or are you looking at sustainability from a more holistic, lifecycle approach that takes into account all aspects of the packaging from start to finish and even to start again, in the case of reuse? The lifecycle approach, and the use of appropriate data and metrics to consider in the equation, are the only ways to really tell whether a package is affordable or not. Some packaging that is marketed as “sustainable” can be proven to be financially viable and even less costly than traditional alternatives. Others fall apart when looking at an aspect of sustainability, whether it be transport or production or disposal. But it is certainly a fallacy, and a wrongly held sweeping statement, that sustainable packaging is not affordable. That is been a false myth held for too long.  Putting it another way, all packaging is sustainable is some sense. And some packaging is more affordable from a cost standpoint than others. You can’t make a sweeping statement that sustainable packaging is or is not affordable. It must be taken on a case by case basis. 8.    How much involvement should government have in regards to packaging? That is quite a controversial topic. It goes partly into the call for Extended Producer Responsibility, or whether CPGs and their suppliers should pay to dispose of packaging or whether it is best left to government. And it also penetrates into such areas as the BPA debate, FTC marketing standards, EPA guidance, and congressional initiatives aimed at curbing excessive or inappropriate uses for packaging. I’d say this: some government intervention is necessary to provide oversight and structure to packaging. There needs to be a general, objective body of some sort overseeing packaging and ensuring that it benefits society. However, there are times when that goes too far or when legislation is misguided or inappropriate. To prevent that,  the packaging industry needs to govern itself in many cases and fend off the need for regulation. By aggressively collaborating and coming up with solutions before the government sees a need to interfere can only benefit the industry. That is where trade groups such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Ameripen, the many recycling-based trade groups and others play a role. But it is not always easy to stop government from wanting to step in, rightly or wrongly. 9.    If you could see one thing disappear today from packaging, what would it be? The confluence of too many certificates and labels on a package, many of them contradictory or meaningless. There are hundreds of certifications out there at the moment, and many consumers have no idea what they mean. They are merely confusing.  The same can be said at times for the recycling labels on packages and the numbering system now used to classify a type of plastic material. On both ends, I think there is work to make certifications more meaningful and to harmonize the use of sustainability labels so that they make better sense and fit a variety of packages. At the same time, several groups are working on updating consumer recycling guidance on packaging and making recycling labels more visual, help a consumer understand if their municipality accepts the package in its recycling stream, and serve to educate the consumer on what can and can’t be recycled. That will be a huge improvement over what is out there today. 10.  And if you could see one new thing today in packaging, what would it be? For the industry to continue to collaborate; for competitors to come together to work on joint solutions; for brand owners to reach out to suppliers all along the chain for help in the development process; for the innovation process to include all parties and voices. Collaboration has been talked about for years in package development but it is just starting to bear fruit on projects. I think more CPGs see its benefits and will take the time to include suppliers in the development discussion. That is a major overall benefit to innovation and package development.

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