By Paul Foulkes-Arellano, head of retail solutions at A Plastic Planet and precipice design head of client programmes. 

Packaging is changing. With consumers becoming more and more aware of the impact of plastic pollution, manufacturers are lining up to offer a raft of alternatives to petrochemical plastics. Industry is increasingly moving towards both compostable plastic packaging and zero-plastic packs, ensuring firms that demonstrate real innovation are set to reap huge rewards in the years ahead. 

Currently there are four tried-and-tested alternatives to conventional plastic packaging: aluminium, steel, glass, and paper. Non-compostable bioplastics also purport to be a viable alternative, yet there is a danger of them ending up in landfill or at the bottom of the ocean eventually. Non-compostable plastics remain in the environment for hundreds of years. They cannot be recycled ad-infinitum. 

Hearteningly there are multiple zero-plastic food packaging solutions. Some, like the tin can, have been around for a couple of centuries. Others, like GrassPaper trays from Scheufelen, are just starting to emerge. 

The Packaging Innovations Show at Olympia earlier this month provided an excellent opportunity for manufacturers to showcase alternatives to conventional plastic, giving a strong indication as to the new solutions that will be brought to market in 2018. As well as Scheufelen, paper and pulp companies Huhtamaki, BillerudKorsnäs, James Cropper 3D and Stora Enso were all present at Olympia. These companies have proven products on the market that are ready to replace conventional plastic food packaging. Unsurprisingly they are all playing the environmental card, and none more impressively than BillerudKorsnäs with its Challenge Conventional website and campaign.

Smaller firms also flocked to Olympia in a bid to showcase the pack solutions they have developed for brands and own-label alike. Futamura is currently pioneering renewable and compostable packaging films and cellulose casings.  The Japanese manufacturer has an impressive array of mainstream brands already working with them.  Their compostable coffee capsules for Dualit and Percol shine a very strong light on the path forward, with a whole host of pack solutions in the pipeline. 

The next step is the evolution of mouldable, compostable bioplastics – the speed at which this happens could dictate the speed at which petrochemicals disappear from food shelves in UK retail.  If mouldable compostable bioplastics become the norm, then petrochemical packaging could disappear before 2030.   Of particular interest is BiomeHT, a fibre-reinforced bioresin from Biome Bioplastics, which is suitable for injection moulding and thermoforming.

According to GMI Research, the global bioplastics and biopolymers market was estimated at $3.6 billion in 2016 and is projected to reach $7.6 billion by the end of 2021, with a projected CAGR of 16% during this forecast period.  These are very conservative figures given the support for and impetus behind zero-plastic packaging.

According to Zion Research, petrochemical plastic packaging was valued at $270 billion in 2014, and is expected to reach $375 billion in 2020, growing at a CAGR of 4.8% between 2015 and 2020. In terms of volume, the global plastics packaging market stood at 81,750 kilo tons in 2014.    Fast forward to 2050, and this will be four times the size.  Taking inflation into account, the plastics packaging market would be worth $3.3 trillion.  That is an enormous amount of revenue and indeed tonnage.  One can understand why the plastics industry led by the British Plastics Federation is lobbying so hard to retain the status quo.  

But with retailers and consumers in the UK and beyond crying out for alternatives to conventional packaging, manufacturers that develop the right offer are likely to reap huge rewards. There are a wealth of viable solutions already on the shelf, but it’s clear that the development of mouldable compostable bioplastics would change the face of the packaging industry forever. 

"Earlier this year I joined forces with environmental activist group A Plastic Planet in a bid to find solutions to the challenges posed by endemic plastic pollution. The group is working with the packaging industry to find innovative new ways of reducing the burden of plastic waste on people and the planet. We are going all out to forge a future beyond conventional plastic," Paul Foulkes-Arellano concludes.