The emergence of e-commerce, innovation and sustainability trends greatly impacts the packaging industry as consumers increasingly use their voices to provoke change. The future of the packaging industry will be determined by the responses to these developments.

Collaborations and initiatives along the supply chain are already underway as demand for action builds. Flexible packaging presents a unique opportunity for members of the dairy food industry, who face similar challenges and sustainability expectations.

Food waste reduction, shelf-Life extension

Food waste is an immense global issue from a consumer and retailer standpoint. In fact, it is estimated that about 21% of waste that goes to landfills and incinerators is food; dairy foods make up about 17% of that. As a result, discarded food is a large contributor to methane and global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to global food insecurity.

Over a billion tons of food are thrown out annually, yet there are 42 million Americans that live in food-insecure households. We need to keep food in our communities and out of landfills to address this issue, both nationally and globally.

Shelf life extension is one tangible method to reduce food waste. If retailers can keep food on shelves or consumers can store food for a longer period of time, they will dispose of less food and reduce the negative environmental impacts. Flexible packaging technologies such as modified atmosphere packaging, vacuum packaging and active packaging enable extended shelf lives. For instance, cheese kept in flexible packaging can last for 280 days as opposed to 190 days without.

Higher packaging recovery goals

While the shelf life benefits of flexible packaging are apparent, some brands hesitate to switch packaging formats due to increased media attention of recovery challenges. Single-use plastics and extra packaging, in particular, have been frequently highlighted by the media. However, the industry’s initiatives and future goals have not been given an equal platform.

The packaging industry as a whole adapts to higher packaging recovery goals set by brands and advocates for enhanced waste management. While there are already 18,000 drop-off locations in the United States that accept polyethylene films, increased consumer education is needed to communicate proper disposal methods in their own communities.

Even with increased consumer education, infrastructure must change as a whole to make a lasting, global impact. Additional advances in collection and sortation are needed to warrant significant changes, which require advocacy for legislation across industries at the federal, state and sometimes local level.  

Integration with smart technology

As technology advances, packaging innovations begin to emerge. For example, printed electronics can be used to communicate with end users about related product information such as expiration dates. Color indicators on labels could change based on periods of safe consumption and alert consumers. Additionally, smart packaging could address recycling and end-of-life packaging options and notify consumers where the package can be taken in their communities to be disposed of properly.

Optimization for e-commerce

With the emergence of meal kits and at-home grocery deliveries, consumers expect food to be available via e-commerce options without a loss in quality. This poses a challenge to preserve food throughout the shipping process, as the number of touchpoints is exponentially greater than when a consumer purchases groceries in stores.

Flexible packaging barrier layers can provide added protection and insulation tailored to each product’s requirements. Layers provide specific properties such as spillage and cross-contamination prevention. Flexible packaging also reduces shipping costs through lightweighting and the ability to pack more shipments per truck. Overall, flexible packaging can be a key component in delivery with a reduced environmental footprint.

Securing a bright future for flexible packaging is a complex goal that will depend on accommodating the needs of consumers and key players along the supply chain. While we can’t predict the future, we can say with great confidence that the trends outlined above will continue to impact the dairy industry. To learn more about how flexible packaging can help to innovate our industry, download and read FPA’s Future of Flexible Packaging infographic.