The sustainable packaging bandwagon is gathering momentum, and most food and beverage companies are on board.


Sustainability may be a frustratingly vague and hard to define term, but it’s getting harder to find anyone in corporate America who is against it.Not only is sustainability joining mom and apple pie on our favorite-things list, formal plans of action are being put into place by packaging engineers and other food company professionals. Three-fifths of Food Engineering readers polled in this year’s Packaging Trends Survey indicated a formal sustainability plan was in place at their companies. Driven partly by the sustainable packaging initiative launched last year by Wal-Mart, 59% indicated they had adopted a plan. Efforts to reduce waste streams and energy usage were the most frequently cited actions taken, followed by efforts to reduce transportation costs and cut back on both primary and secondary packaging.Reuse of secondary packaging was the sixth most-common sustainable practice, though only 13% of companies were reusing materials, far less than those using other tactics. Use of more sustainable packaging materials, in-store stocking and other actions also were mentioned.


Food professionals are on the lookout for materials, technologies and techniques that can aid the sustainability cause. In an open-ended question regarding noteworthy changes implemented by their firms in the last year, respondents cited the use of more recyclable packaging and palm fiber trays that are fully compostable and biodegradable.

On the other hand, there is room for considerable improvement, as packaging professionals point out. Asked where their company’s packaging programs fall short, one reader noted, “Waste reduction on film/plastics.” Another wrote, “Environmental impact-make it a consideration on future projects.” A third criticized his company by simply writing, “reduce waste.”

The sustainability bandwagon may be crowded, but it remains a back-burner priority. Asked to rate the importance of 10 factors when developing new packaging, respondents ranked source reduction dead last. Food safety and cost topped the list, with 86% and 76% of readers, respectively, rating them very important. By contrast, only 19% indicated source reduction was very important, less than half the proportion that rated the ninth ranked factor, product differentiation, as very important. One in 10 said source reduction is not important, double the ratio of any other factor.

Sustainability steps-specifically recycling, material recovery and source reduction-didn’t fare much better in another question. Asked to rate 24 packaging issues and their impact on business operations in the next two years, food professionals ranked sustainability 14th, just behind club-store demands. Though a mediocre rating, it’s consistent: Five years ago, environmental concerns such as recycling, material recovery and source reduction ranked 13th out of 17 factors in the 2002 Packaging Trends Survey. 

The case for 'bots'

Packaging sustainability efforts may not be generating much enthusiasm, but the same can’t be said of robotics. Robotic machines were the most frequently mentioned development in an open-ended question regarding noteworthy packaging technology. Robots also cropped up in responses to packaging-line wish lists, with some commenting on the technology’s potential to lower operating costs.Palletizing continues to be the most frequent packaging function for articulated arm robots, with two-thirds of respondents saying their companies make use of robotic palletizers, up from 64% last year. Case packing and carton forming are other strong applications.Robotic depalletizing is being done at 17% of readers’ plants, triple the rate from a year ago. Vision systems and advanced controls that can deal with the variability of incoming pallets of raw materials and supplies are aiding this rapid growth. The technology also is demonstrating its diversity. Only 5% of 2006’s respondents said they were using robots in applications outside of the four listed; this year, 12% cited other applications, including in-line pallet wrapping, filling, pallet storage and retrieval, product placement on cooling conveyors and unit packing.Performance and dependability ratings of robotics remain very strong, with 82% rating performance excellent or very good and 68% giving dependability similar scores. Maintenance remains an issue, with 48% giving robotics a fair rating on this metric and 8% suggesting the technology is poor. As with any new technology, the skills needed to keep robots up and running may be lacking in-house. If maintenance personnel are unable to troubleshoot and repair a system, many packaging professionals will defer robotic installations, rather than jeopardize line operations.


RFID, on the other hand, is a technology mired in indifference. It slipped to 20th on a list of 24 issues that will have an impact on business operations in the next two years, down two notches from a year ago and approximately the same as RFID’s rating in 2003, before the Wal-Mart RFID mandate surfaced. A quarter of respondents predicted RFID would have little or no impact.Product shelf life and consumer convenience, on the other hand, are growing in business-impact importance, with readers ranking them behind only product safety and cost of materials. Faster packaging line speeds slipped to No. 8, immediately behind tracking and tracing requirements.The need for greater flexibility and line automation is the focus of several reader comments. “Line equipment is 20 years old. We need to upgrade equipment to improve throughput,” one reader gripes. “Need to invest in new packaging equipment,” another writes. Overall, 45% plan to install new packaging lines this year, virtually the same as last year. Corporate financing is getting harder to find, however, with only 37% reporting an increase in capital expenditures, down from 50% in 2006. Capital cutbacks are being felt by 36%, the same as last year.Outsourcing is on the rise, with one in five saying projects will go to copackers this year. Time-to-market focus is driving much of the packaging outsourcing: 32% say their firms are using contract packagers to decrease time-to-market for new products. Only 16% deployed that strategy four years ago.


Modification of existing equipment remains the most popular speed-to-market tactic, with almost two thirds of companies using this approach. Automation of operations is almost as popular, and its growth is notable: Three in five are automating, up from two in five in 2003.Inflation has had an impact on total expenditures for automation, new lines and sophisticated equipment, but food companies also are more committed to investing in packaging improvement. More than a third-34%-of respondents indicated their companies will spend $1 million or more this year on packaging equipment, compared to 19% in that spending bracket five years ago. A greater proportion fell into every equipment budget range above $100,000 than in years past, while the small-ticket brackets are shrinking.Food safety and machine safety rate as the most important of 20 factors when selecting new machinery, but sticker price is declining in importance, slipping from the third consideration in 2003 to tenth. Raw speed doesn’t mean what it used to, either: It ranked 12th among packaging professional’s criteria, down four notches in five years.Compliance with government regulations, on the other hand, rose from fifth to the third most important criterion. It is followed by allergen/contamination issues, reflecting the greater importance of sanitary design in the industry.

About the survey

Food professionals from a wide variety of production facilities participated in the 22nd annual Food Packaging Trends Survey. Questionnaires were mailed in April to a sample of Food Engineering readers involved in buying or specifying packaging machinery and materials. Usable surveys were returned by 110 readers.

Engineers and operations/production managers are the largest respondent groups, each accounting for 29%. General administrators/managers are 15% of the sample, with purchasing professionals composing 11%. Other job functions include quality control, R&D, maintenance and packaging. A majority are involved in dairy production or meat, poultry and seafood processing (28% each). Beverages, bakery products, cereals and other grain-based products, coffee/tea/spices, confectionery products, frozen foods and canned foods are other major product categories. Facility staffing is almost identical to last year’s survey, with 59% working at plants with 250 or more employees and 29% at plants with 100-249 workers. The remaining 12% are at locations with fewer than 100 employees.