Recycled paper
According to research done by UPM Specialty Papers and Smithers, fiber-based packaging will be perceived as a very sustainable packaging choice by most consumers in 2040.
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Study outlines food packaging forecast for 2040

UPM Specialty Papers and Smithers consider sustainability trends for food packaging.

Many consumers expect food packaging to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable, including food packaging today. According to a recent study from Helsinki-based UPM Specialty Papers and Akron, Ohio-based Smithers, this expectation of sustainable food packaging among consumers is expected to increase over the next 20 years.

UPM Specialty Papers and Smithers released a white paper titled, “Sustainable Food Packaging in 2040,” which provides a forecast for what sustainable food packaging might look like in 2040. The companies surveyed more than 200 senior packaging professionals across the globe and from throughout the packaging value chain to consider the likelihood and impact of key changes in food packaging.

The following are four key trends UPM Specialty Papers and Smithers highlight in the white paper.

By 2040, consumers will not tolerate a choice between sustainability and convenience—they will expect both.

Brands and retailers have experienced much disruption in the last two decades with an accelerating channel shift to e-commerce as well as the growing pressure to be more sustainable. As a result, brands will need packaging solutions that provide good end-of-life options without compromising convenience and performance.

“E-commerce is such a rapidly growing area that we as brand owners should consistently think about the ways to reduce the packaging waste for our consumers,” says Grace Kim, head of global packaging R&D at CJ CheilJedang in South Korea, adding that Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging is one example of how a company is providing a sustainable packaging solution as well as a better consumer experience.

By 2040, sustainability will be a government mandate.

Sustainability isn’t just a concern for consumers—governments and nongovernmental organizations have placed emphasis on achieving sustainability. Survey respondents reported that they expect to see an increase in regulatory control of packaging over the next two decades to improve environmental outcomes. Some expect to see more extended producer responsibility initiatives, recycling targets and packaging material bans.

Kim of CJ CheilJedang says Korea currently has mandated recycling fees for the use of plastic by brand owners. She says, “We are expecting that there will be many more regulations coming our way in next couple of years.”

By 2040, recycling, reuse and composting will increase, but about 21 percent of food packaging will still be sent to landfill.

Today, recycling rates vary from material to material and region to region, but members across the packaging value chain are working together to find ways to increase recycling rates for packaging materials.

However, respondents expressed concern about the lack of sufficient recycling infrastructure to improve recycling rates.

“Even if consumer behavior changes and we achieve a higher recycling rate, and even if the brand owners come up with the great technologies, if the recyclable packaging isn’t collected and sorted right, it won’t go back to the beginning of the life cycle,” Kim says.

Respondents also reported that they are concerned that there will not be sufficient investment to address the recycling gap.

Although survey respondents reported that they expect landfill and incineration to remain an end-of-life option for some packaging materials in 2040, there is optimism that recycling rates will improve, decreasing the rate of these materials going to the landfill. Recycling rates for fiber-based packaging are high. Also, trends related to increasing government mandates and wider acceptance of food-safe recovered fiber packaging will help boost recycling rates for food packaging.

By 2040, fiber-based packaging will be perceived as a very sustainable packaging choice.

In 2021, nearly half of all packaging materials are polymer-based, representing 40 percent of the global market by value. But as consumer sentiment against plastics increases and some brands are seeking to reduce their use of plastic packaging, survey respondents reported to UPM Specialty Papers and Smithers that they expect to see fiber-based packaging rise as a food packaging option.

In order for fiber-based packaging to increase as an option, progress must be made to packaging innovations, such as finding packaging solutions that enable fiber-based packaging to improve barrier performance without compromising recyclability as well as overall strength performance.

“The role of coatings in enabling the use of fiber-based packaging in different roles will be important, particularly to enhance salability and permeability. However, the coatings would have to be easily removed in recycling and/or compostable,” says Alistair Irvine, senior manager of food contact testing at Smithers, who is based in the United Kingdom.

Some technologies, such as blockchain and smart packaging, also will enable a more traceable and cohesive recycling system for fiber-based packaging.

The complete white paper is available to download online.