Opinion

Do we really need plastic packaging?

Assessing the true value of packaging and how the sustainability agenda will influence the market

As consumer awareness about plastic pollution and waste grows, do we really need packaging? At our recent conference, Living with Plastic Packaging 2018, we explored how the sustainability agenda will influence developments in the market but won’t detract from its overall growth. Read on to discover why we conclude that plastics and packaging are set to remain integral to the global economy.

Why do we need packaging?

Extremely versatile, packaging has developed over time as consumer needs have evolved – from simply protecting an item to communicating information about a product: including ingredients, weight, calorie count, use by/sell by and its price. The rise of the supermarket culture has influenced its evolution: packaging is now not only a way to deliver information but also a key marketing tool and a mechanism to differentiate one product from another. In future, technology will enable packaging to become even more sophisticated.

There are no quick fixes.

Paul Gaster, quoted in Plastics in Packaging magazine, January 2019

The global packaging industry

Packaging isn’t just about plastic

Plastic makes up less than half of the volume of the global packaging market, worth around $900 billion globally. As well as plastic, this includes paper and board, glass, metal and other materials. And plastic has a myriad of uses outside of packaging; of the 335 million tonnes produced every year, 66% is used in other applications. For example, plastics have a vital part to play in the automotive industry. Its light-weight properties have helped vehicles to improve fuel efficiency and meet industry regulations.

Emerging markets drive growth

The packaging industry is growing by 3% annually, mostly driven by emerging markets – particularly Asia-Pacific, which has the biggest share of global packaging volumes at 45%. With a mix of fast-growing economies including China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, alongside more developed markets such as Japan and Australia, the area is home to more than half of the world’s population and a rapidly expanding middle class.

Global population is on the rise, with Africa leading this trend. The continent’s population is set to double by 2050. Rapid urbanisation will mean more consumers who want to take advantage of modern convenience products.

Technological innovation in mature markets

More mature markets like Western Europe, with around 20% of packaging unit volumes, have limited scope for growth, but are using technology to introduce innovation. Similarly, consumer demands in North America for product convenience and natural ‘clean label’ foods will drive change.

  • US$900 billion

    The value of the global packaging market

  • 3% per year

    Growth rate of the global packaging industry

  • 45%

    Asia Pacific's share of global packaging volumes

  • 20%

    Western Europe's share of packaging unit volumes globally

Finding sustainable alternatives will be complex

How can technology help to improve packaging’s sustainability? We’ve already seen improvements in the shelf life of food thanks to the use of high barrier materials, modified atmosphere packaging and other techniques.

As consumers and legislators put pressure on the supply chain to reduce, reuse and recycle, solutions such as environmentally friendly compostable materials are being explored. But evaluating potential solutions takes time and should be weighed up against a variety of factors, including cost. Finding viable alternatives to plastic is complex, time-consuming and challenging – there are no quick fixes.

At the 2018 Living with Plastic Packaging Conference, we asked, how we can carry on living with plastic packaging? Get your copy of the presentation slides to learn more about what’s driving growth in the packaging market and opportunities for a sustainable future. Fill in the form on this page.