The Future of Packaging

Stuart Elmes


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing larger every day, and people are finally starting to understand the environmental damage caused by our careless overuse of plastics. Meanwhile, robotics, smart packaging, experiments with natural fibers, and packages with sensors which can authenticate goods and track temperature and moisture levels offer the promise of sustainability, safety, and increased efficiency. Let’s take a look at the trends which will shape FMCG/CPG packaging in the months and years to come.

The Plastic Problem

The plastic straw was ubiquitous for most of our lives. Whether in the juice boxes we drank in elementary school, or the stylish cocktails we ordered after graduating from college, they were an omnipresent, seldom noticed part of our lives. Then we suddenly took notice. Whether it was because of the aforementioned garbage patch, the 400,000 straws gathered annually by beach cleaning volunteers, or the realization that only 9% of plastic actually ends up being recycled, plastic straws and those who use them are quickly acquiring a severe social stigma. Major US cities like Seattle and San Francisco have banned the drinking tubes, Starbucks and McDonald’s have vowed to stop using them, and PM Theresa May has discussed a nationwide ban in the UK. And yet, straws make up just 0.025% of plastic waste dumped into the ocean annually.

As the public turns on a material that is used in the overwhelming majority of packaging, we can assume that brands will feel irresistible pressure to turn away from plastic. What will take its place? An article in The Raconteur tells us about one possibility:

“Manufacturers are exploring alternatives such as plant-based fibres. An example is microfibrillated cellulose (MFC) where plant fibre is broken down to micro levels and reconstituted as packaging material. This process can create materials that are stronger and lighter than those made of glass or carbon fibres, and MFC can be added to other packaging materials to strengthen them. However, researchers have yet to find ways of producing thousands of tonnes of this wrapping material, rather than the few grams that have been created in the laboratory. An additional challenge for any fibre-based packaging material is the ability to act as a barrier to elements that will degrade the contents, such as light, oxygen, and moisture. Laminates on packaging provide protection, but are resistant to recycling, so the industry is developing water-based coatings to act as a barrier.”

Another possibility is to abandon packaging altogether. While it seems far-fetched, the speed at which we have moved away from single-use plastic shopping bags and straws makes one wonder if consumers and governments will pressure brands and retailers to abandon packaging for most of the FMCG products we buy.


Packaging Joins the Internet of Things

As sensor chips get smaller and cheaper, it is now possible to make almost any package “smart.” Experts in the industry are hoping to get the cost of readable sensor chips, similar to those in swipe and pay bank cards, down to a penny per unit. This would allow, for example, your smart fridge to read the level of milk in your carton and order a new one from your grocer as it reached dangerously low levels. Shoppable packaging trends that would allow you to aim your phone’s camera at your bottle of washing-up liquid and have Amazon instantly send you a new one are about to make a big splash. London-based marketing firm Zappar has collaborated with brands to create augmented reality packaging that could spring to life, deliver information, or become part of a game (think Pokemon Go) when viewed on a smartphone.

“We’re moving towards a world where everything is smart, internet-connected, trackable and linked to everything else,” claims Zappar chief executive Caspar Thykier. “In the packaging industry, smart tech will make products more engaging for customers and more valuable for manufacturing firms. It also gives packaging firms a new revenue stream, letting them provide extra value to their partners with additional insight into consumer behaviour.”

As The Raconteur notes, packaging firms like STI Group are developing technologies including “concealed RFID (radio-frequency identification) codes, which are printed either directly on to packaging or integrated into it. RFID technology sends identifying signals to a reading device, which could be a regular smartphone, enabling automatic, contactless communication with the package so retailers can determine the current status of their goods in a matter of seconds.” This technology could eliminate theft, fraud, and counterfeiting. It could also enhance the safety of food and medicine, by monitoring temperatures, moisture levels, and the presence of foreign substances.


Co-Botics and 3D Printers

Companies like Universal Robots have developed robot arms and other machines that can streamline the work of packaging and take over costly and “ergonomically unfavourable” tasks from humans. Many companies are already using robots to take over a variety of packing tasks while being overseen by humans, a field which is now called “co-botics.” As drone delivery becomes more common, it’s also possible that less packaging will be needed, as a product delivered from manufacturer to consumer won’t sit on shelves and therefore doesn’t need protection from tampering or the elements. 3D printing has made the production of robot arms faster and cheaper and could do the same for delivery drones. Meanwhile, companies like Smart Cups have used 3D printing to devise a system where the package is the product. They provide a range of energy drinks where the ingredients are embedded in the cup itself. All the consumer needs to do is add water and drink.


Smaller and Smarter

We would bet the farm on the future of packaging being less packaging that does more. At Adimo we are especially interested in the future of shoppable packaging, a technology that makes life easier for the consumer, and allows brands and customers to communicate directly.

We will also try our hardest to stay away from plastic straws.