Next in our Finalist Interview series for the Sustainability Awards is Pragmatic Semiconductor with its flexible microchips for smart reusable packaging. We spoke to the company about this entry, which has been nominated in the commercialised Active and Intelligent category.
You’re a finalist in the Sustainability Awards 2023. Congratulations! To start off, could you summarise your entry, in less than 50 words?
Pragmatic’s flexible microchips (FlexICs) make smart reusable packaging a scalable reality. Low-cost FlexICs are embedded in NFC (Near Field Communication) or RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) labels, providing reusable packaging with a unique, item-level identifier – and valuable insights into packaging lifespan, washing efficiency and return rates.
Why do you think the judges were impressed with your entry? Tell us about what is innovative about your project and/or about its impact on packaging sustainability.
FlexICs are low-cost, so they allow the benefits of connected reusable packaging to be extended beyond high-value items, permitting widescale reuse of a broad range of materials.
Fully washable and tested against industrial wash protocols, their smart functionality makes it easy for consumers to ‘tap-and-drop’ at small, low-cost return points, minimising friction and removing the possibility of ‘double-dropping’.
As well as facilitating full-system traceability, FlexICs help to predict supply deficits and bottlenecks, allowing suppliers to keep packaging stock levels lean across the supply chain. They can also be used for streamlined return logistics, underpinning efficient scheduling of collections, product categorisation and location management.
Crucially, the environmental impact of the FlexICs is minimal. Each FlexIC is thinner than a human hair and weighs less than 0.2 mg. While they do use a polymer (plastic) substrate, a single drinking straw contains more plastic than 2,000 FlexICs. Adding intelligence to a 500ml carbonated drink in a PET bottle, for example, would typically increase its carbon footprint by less than 0.4 per cent.
How has your innovation/initiative been received?
With great enthusiasm from the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) sector! We’ve been in talks with multiple players in the sector and a live trial with a major UK supermarket will take place later this year.
You’re shortlisted for the commercialized Active & Intelligent category. What do you see as the key demands and challenges in relation to smart packaging?
Scalability and economic viability are key challenges. Price margins have long prohibited smart packaging for all but high-value items, but we believe that low-cost technologies like Pragmatic’s will finally make it possible to deploy smart packaging at scale.
This evolution will be critical to solving sustainability challenges such as reducing food waste and enabling widescale use of reusable packaging – something that has proved particularly challenging for the grocery sector. Complex supply chains, low product margins, and consumer behaviour have hampered the shift to reusable assets. Our technology will make scalability viable, while empowering brand owners to build engagement with consumers, incentivise right action and reward consistent participation.
What do you think are the main opportunities in this area or what future innovations do you predict in this area?
As packaging moves away from being disposable to being a valuable brand asset, achieving reuse at scale creates huge opportunity across all sectors, with global refillable and reusable packaging sales forecast to grow to $53.4 billion by 2027.
We anticipate increasing interest in smart solutions that leverage the automation and traceability critical to making reuse models viable across the supply chain. This technology will have application across the reuse system – providing key data on packaging, wash conditions and complete item history, as well as facilitating consumer engagement and participation. It can also enable new sorting capabilities, allowing segregation by use, rather than material type, which is something we’re already working on.
We anticipate that innovations in low-cost sensing will also have a huge impact on reducing food waste, enabling more accurate prediction of shelf-life, providing assurance around quality and provenance, and allowing item-level monitoring of in-pack and cold-chain conditions.
We’re currently working on an in-pack sensing solution as part of the SecQuAL (Secure Quality Assured Logistics for Digital Food Ecosystems) project, which aims to reduce the loss of perishable foodstuffs due to environmental fluctuations in the transition from farm to fork.
In short, we believe low-cost intelligence is a game-changer, with myriad applications that have the potential to transform the packaging industry. It’s really exciting. We’re on the cusp of seeing smart, sustainable packaging finally becoming a reality at scale.
The winners of the Sustainability Awards 2023 will be announced at the Sustainable Packaging Summit, which takes place in Amsterdam on 14-15 November. The Summit mobilizes leaders of the FMCG value chain, policymakers, NGOs, recyclers and investors to collaborate, remove barriers and identify opportunities on the road to sustainable transformation.
To learn more or register, visit https://www.packagingsummit.earth/amsterdam2023/.