With customers demanding less material waste and manufacturing looking for ways to trim transportation costs, the trend toward sustainable packaging is gathering momentum.

The meaning of sustainability is coming into sharper focus, at least in terms of food and beverage packaging. With their written comments and answers to specific questions, respondents to this year’s Packaging Trends Study paint a portrait of manufacturers in tune with social, business and internal concerns regarding packaging waste.

Packaging is believed to account for half of the solid waste in US landfills. Reducing that waste can deliver enormous distribution savings for manufacturers and lower disposal costs for customers.  Additionally, key customers are pressuring their suppliers to lower their carbon footprints, and many workers would like to see their employers become part of the solution to environmental problems, rather than part of the problem. Add to these factors the higher costs associated with over-packaging and escalating energy prices, and a sustainability initiative attains real traction.

Asked to identify which of 26 packaging issues will have the greatest impact on business operations in the next two years, half of readers indicate sustainability concerns such as recycling, material recovery and source reduction would be extremely or very important. Functional considerations and material costs rate higher, as they traditionally have, but sustainability in general climbed to the ninth most critical issue, up five spots from a year ago.

Reduction of energy inputs is a focus at three-quarters of readers’ firms, climbing to the most specific sustainability action. Much of the savings is being realized by rethinking the use of secondary packaging. Reuse of secondary packaging and reduced use of those materials are the two strongest growth areas, with one in three manufacturers slashing secondary packaging materials and one in six finding reuse opportunities. Those efforts are reflected in the distribution efficiencies being realized, with half of respondents indicating transportation costs are coming down as a result of sustainability initiatives.

A level of frustration with current efforts and available solutions exists. “I have trouble with the availability of environmental packaging,” one reader wrote. Another professional thought greater reductions in source material are possible but not being pursued. “Our company talks sustainability and backs it up in many areas,” he wrote. “However, we fall far short when it comes to reducing the amount of packaging material used.”

The connection between sustainable practices and good business still isn’t being made by many food professionals, some of whom relegate cuts in package waste to outside pressures rather than as contributors to positive change in their companies’ cost structures. Retailer demands for reduced packaging rank in the lower echelon of key issues affecting operations in the next two years, and consumer demands for environmentally friendly products fare only slightly better. But the need to slash shipping costs is seen as the second most pressing issue, and compact and lightweight containers lower those costs.

Sustainability dovetails with many other issues confronting manufacturers. Restrictions on wooden crates for imported produce prodded one reader’s company to address environmental concerns. “We dropped the wooden/wire bound crates for non-waxed corrugated boxes, coupled with using new technology for shelf-life extension (with) plastic packaging,” he noted.

The ethics of gas

The use of carbon monoxide in modified atmosphere packaging for beef has been granted GRAS status to several petitioners by the FDA, including Tyson and Precept Foods, but critics have assailed its use, not because of safety concerns but because CO retains beef’s red color long after the meat has gone bad. Congressional committees have taken up the cause and are considering an overhaul of FDA’s GRAS process.

The issue is a bone of contention not only for consumer advocates but also, apparently, with industry insiders. Survey respondents were asked if they consider CO in MAP to be a deceptive practice. About half are undecided or have no opinion, and the rest are polarized. One in eight either strongly agree, agree or strongly disagree that it constitutes a deceptive practice, and one in six disagree with the deception charge (see chart on page 102).

Robotics is playing a larger role in manufacturing’s automation projects, and order picking, product feed and container transfer are among the functions readers cited. But the primary applications remain palletizing, case packing and carton forming. These post-primary packaging applications rank in the same order as a year ago, though considerably fewer respondents indicated their facilities are using them. In the case of palletizing, one third say their plants have a robotic system, compared to two-thirds a year ago.

The drop off is explained by a much larger sample this year and a difference in the respondent profile: Many more small and mid-sized firms answered this year’s survey, while large companies dominated last year’s respondent pool. The narrowest discrepancy is in depalletizing robotics. Because faster computer processors and more affordable vision systems are available, one in 10 readers say their companies have deployed robotic depalletizers.

Based on respondents’ open-ended comments on where their firm’s packaging lines are deficient, many more would like to incorporate robotics. “All packaging work is done manually,” one reader wrote. “Having robotics or automating packing will greatly improve production.” Robotics offers increased flexibility, as another respondent suggested with the observation, “too few robots in use, too many ‘specialized’ machines.”

About two-thirds rate the performance of robotics in packaging as good or excellent, and more than half give similar grades to robotics’ reliability and dependability. But maintaining the systems sometimes requires expertise that simply doesn’t exist in-house, and one in four rate packaging robotics poorly by this measurement. Maintenance also remains an issue, and even more people this year than last rate robotics maintenance as poor.

Sanitary design is a major concern for processing equipment, and many packaging professionals would like to see cleanability addressed in their department, as well. Tooling that facilitates faster changeovers is another design consideration respondents feel gets short shrift. “Changeover time is poor, and product proliferation is increasing,” one lamented.

Greater flexibility is the most pressing need, the comments suggest, and that need is most glaring when it comes to changeovers. “Changeover time equals downtime,” one reader pointedly observed, and the proliferation of container shapes and sizes is aggravating the problem.

The wish list of some professionals includes closer integration between suppliers of packaging machines and materials. “Dovetail packaging supplier with equipment manufacturer to assure seamless solutions,” one respondent wrote.

Packaging professionals were asked to rate the importance of 10 factors when developing new packaging, with a score of one indicating little effect and five a high effect. As in previous years, food safety is the top consideration, with cost, product protection and preservation also ranking highly (see chart on page 104). The biggest change from previous years is point-of-sale appearance, which slipped from the fourth most important factor to No. 6. Functionality trumps aesthetics in this year’s evaluations.

The price tag on packaging machines is a bigger consideration with this year’s sample, with cost ranking as the fourth most important of 20 equipment purchase considerations. A year ago, cost ranked tenth. This year’s group also places more importance on machine accuracy and less importance on compliance with government regulations, which slid from third to eighth in importance. Allergen/contamination issues also were downgraded, plummeting to the 15th ranked factor from No. 4.

Retooling a packaging line to handle a new product can be a lengthy process, which makes modifying existing equipment the top priority for packaging professionals in improving time-to-market for new products. More automated functions, the addition of a new line and the use of manual processes are other favored strategies for getting products into the market more quickly.

The use of a contract packager is a practice at one in five of respondents’ companies, down from 32% of last year’s sample. Twenty percent plan to outsource projects to copackers this year, the same ratio as last year, and 17% expect to create strategic alliances, higher than last year’s one in eight.  

Who answered the survey

A larger base of respondents and a broader mix of food and beverage manufacturers distinguish the 23rd annual Packaging Trends Study from last year’s survey. The number of usable questionnaires more than doubled to 225 this year, and the views and opinions of small and mid-sized manufacturers of food and beverage products are better represented. A little more than half (53%) of responses came from professionals at companies that will spend less than $1 million on packaging materials this year (see chart on this page). Last year’s respondents skewed toward larger manufacturers, with 55% working at firms spending $2 million or more on materials and only 28% at companies spending less than $1 million.

The study’s statistical margin of error is plus or minus 5.5%; the confidence level is 90%, i.e., if the study were repeated 10 times, the same results would occur nine times.

Operations/production managers constitute 27% of the sample, with engineers accounting for 25%. Nearly one-quarter (23%) work at plants with 500 or more employees, while 29% are at sites with fewer than 50. Another quarter are at facilities with 100-249 workers. One in five work for companies producing meat, poultry or seafood products, with beverage bottlers and bakeries the next most frequently mentioned categories. In all, 41 product categories are represented.

More about the survey

This article is a snapshot of an annual study examining trends in materials, equipment and container usage, capital spending and other issues affecting business operations in the packaging industry. 

The conclusions are based on the opinions and behaviors of industry insiders who agreed to participate in the survey. This survey was conducted and the findings were compiled by Clear Seas Research.

A total of 225 individuals actively involved in recommending or authorizing packaging machinery or materials purchases for their companies participated in the study, which was conducted in April of 2008. 

This in-depth research study provides up-to-date information on current packaging activities and expenditures, along with information on the key factors impacting/driving current packaging operations and purchases. 

The comprehensive report is available from Clear Seas Research. For information about ordering the report or to find out more about Clear Seas Research services, contact Sarah Corp at corps@clearseasresearch.com.