Mushrooms, bioplastics and refills: exploring packaging innovations in the food and drinks industry

Mushrooms, bioplastics and refills: exploring packaging innovations in the food and drinks industry

By
Louise Burfitt
January 5, 2021

Whether it’s more plastic than can be efficiently recycled or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, packaging waste is taking over the globe. Food and drink packaging is one of the major contributors to plastic pollution worldwide, with around 40% of plastic packaging waste attributed to food. The use of single-use plastic or other non-biodegradable packaging has grown dramatically in recent decades, and as countries grow richer, demand for packaged convenience foods only accelerates.

An extraordinary 78 million tons of plastic packaging is produced worldwide each year, but just 14 percent of this is recycled. Much of the plastic once used for food packaging ends up in the ocean, where it damages wildlife, can kill marine mammals and takes several hundred years to degrade. Cardboard and paper packaging, while recyclable, bring a few of their own own sustainability challenges too. 

But the sector is big business: The global food packaging market was worth $304.98 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $463.65 billion by 2027, at a CAGR of 5.9%. Similarly, the global eco-friendly food packaging market will reach $249 billion by 2025. That’s why some food packaging companies and the brands they serve are seeking new, sustainable ways to pack the goods they sell – from cartons grown with mushrooms, to water-soluble edible films.

Trend drivers: consumer attitudes, regulation & chemical concerns

The consumer and cultural shift towards sustainability is driving drastic changes in consumer goods packaging, with many consumers alarmed by the shocking statistics on packaging’s effects on the environment. One study found that two-thirds of shoppers are keen to see a total ban on non-recyclable packaging, while 69% of those surveyed wanted to avoid single-use plastics.

Regulation has also been introduced in recent years in an attempt to stem the relentless tide of single-use packaging waste. Some of the largest organisations and nations have passed legislation to this effect - whether it’s the handful of US states that have brought in statewide laws related to packaging waste, or the EU’s introduction this January of a tax on non-recyclable plastic packaging waste (€0.80/kilogram). Legislation like this can act as a trigger that pushes companies to act. 

There is also increasing concern about the toxic chemicals contained in some packaging materials. As well as being catastrophic for the environment, plastics are thought to be associated with various health problems and may disrupt hormone production. Styrofoam is a known carcinogen (that also wreaks havoc on the planet) and Bisphenol A (BPA), which is often used to line aluminium tins and cans, has been linked to several ill-effects on the body.

Exploring the trend: compostable options, bioplastics & refill systems

In the drive for sustainability, compostable packaging is emerging as a growing trend. Italian company DalterFood Group is deploying a biodegradable alternative to plastic film, made from agricultural waste, for its one-use sachets of grated cheese. And Austrian packaging company VPZ has come up with a solution for citrus packaging that you can throw straight in your home compost bin or food waste, with a cellulose mesh made from the pulp of beech trees. 

Packaging produced from renewable resources is also a burgeoning trend. Using plant-based packaging in this vein - think cardboard alternatives made from mushrooms or biodegradable bioplastics made from bamboo or seaweed - is a carbon-neutral process, as the plants or fungi remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Mycelium packaging was first developed in 2007 as a biodegradable alternative to planet-polluting Styrofoam. By combining mycelium from growing mushrooms with crop waste, the mycelium grow around the residues to form the desired packaging shape - all without light, water or the need for pesticides or chemicals. Since its invention, the energy-efficient process has caught on, with various types of mycelium packaging now being used by brands including Seedlip and IKEA.

As the technology develops, an ever wider range of these renewable packaging alternatives is becoming available. Current options span packaging made from corn, vegetable oil, sugar cane and algae, with the bioplastics packaging sector expected to reach a value of $34.24 billion by 2024. Examples include Biome Bioplastic’s plant-based bioplastic takeaway cup lids and FKuR’s Bio-Flex Blends for home compostable films that are designed to degrade in garden compost even at fluctuating temperatures. Coca-Cola PlantBottles, fully recyclable and containing at least 30% plant-based material, disrupted the packaging scene when introduced back in 2009, but the company now plans to expand access to the innovative design to its competitors. 

Innovative technology is also helping to improve the quality of foods for sale. Food packaging sensors like Innoscentia that indicate the shelf life of products in real time and notify customers of the presence of toxic chemicals are now in development. Imperial College London is working on a packaging tag that could be scanned by mobile devices, and eventually replace use-by dates on packaging, helping to reduce food waste and spoilage. 

And it’s not just the packaging itself – the whole idea of packaging as a concept is in flux. What if packaging wasn’t something to throw away, activists argue, but something to reuse over and over? This mindset has long been established in some European countries: think of Germany’s Pfand systems in supermarkets, where glass bottles can be returned in exchange for the return of an advance deposit included in the beverage’s sale price. With the sustainability benefits in mind, other countries are starting to catch up. In the US, private label store Trader Joe’s sells dry goods in bulk, allowing customers to bring their own containers to save on packaging. In 2019 UK premium supermarket Waitrose successfully trialled its own Unpacked refill stations at a limited number of stores, offering a range of dry goods for sale that customers could package and weigh in their own containers.

Case studies: Asda’s sustainability store & MonoSol’s edible films

In October 2020, UK supermarket Asda became the latest major brand to launch its own refill stations in a bid to reduce food packaging. The grocery chain opened its new ‘sustainability store’ on a trial basis in the city of Leeds. Aimed at helping shoppers to reuse and recycle effortlessly, Asda hopes the store will save 1 million pieces of plastic annually. What sets the offering apart from similar initiatives is its partnership with some of the UK’s most popular brands: five refill stations offer customers the chance to load up with over 30 household staples, including Kellogg’s cereals and PG Tips tea bags alongside Asda’s private-label dry goods like rice and pasta. The store trial will help the chain learn which features appeal to shoppers, which will then be rolled out at scale to further locations in 2021.

US company MonoSol, meanwhile, is perfecting its water-soluble alternative to traditional films and coatings used in food packaging (visualise the removable sheet of plastic film atop a microwaveable ready meal). The business, part of Japanese chemical company Kuraray, developed a range of transparent polymers that dissolve in water, which are most frequently used for dishwasher tablets and dissolving laundry detergent sachets. As of 2020, US regulators decreed its use safe for food, and free from any impact on a product’s smell, taste or texture. Already in use for protein powders, MonoSol hopes to include its films in food products cooked with water such as pasta and oats in future: the film dissolves when exposed to liquids, and is safe to be consumed alongside the food. Late last year, the company announced plans for a new production facility in Poland for manufacturing its water-soluble films driven by increased consumer demand.

Responding to change: what might the future hold?

Major changes to the way food and drinks are packaged - or, in the case of refill stations in grocery stores, doing away with packaging altogether - may be a boon for the planet, but raises some intriguing (and potentially challenging) questions for consumer packaged goods companies. How to attract shoppers without eye-grabbing designs? How to communicate value? And how will consumers tell the difference between two brands of cereal in refillable dispensers?

Asda’s trial partnership with big brands offers one potential way forward. And with the wealth of sustainable packaging options coming to market explored above, a zero-packaging future may not be something food and drinks companies need to contend with anyway. One thing’s for certain, though: change is afoot and to stay relevant, food and beverage companies will need to respond to consumer desires for more sustainable, health-conscious packaging options.

The 30-second pitch: Packaging innovations in the food industry

♻️ What

  • With food and beverage packaging a major contributor to plastic pollution and energy-gobbling to manufacture, many companies are responding to consumer demand for more sustainable options with a range of innovative packaging solutions that range from bioplastics, mushroom cardboard and refill stations


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • New regulation aimed at tackling the massive issue of packaging pollution has spurred companies and packaging producers to act, as has consumer demand for sustainability and the increasingly apparent ill-effects of plastic packaging on the planet.


🍄 How

  • Bioplastics (e.g. made from algae, corn or seaweed) 
  • Compostable and biodegradable packaging (e.g. mycelium packaging)
  • Innovative technology (e.g. food packaging sensors)
  • Refill stations and returnable packaging


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Biodegradable, compostable packaging cuts down on plastic pollution and removes the risk of food contamination by toxic chemicals contained in packaging. Using renewable resources such as mycelium also uses far less energy than traditional packaging manufacturing, is lightweight enough to transport easily, and even removes carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Companies are responding to changing consumer habits, and in some cases, even spearheading changes among shoppers by introducing features such as refill systems and returnable packaging ahead of the curve. The circular nature of refill stations and similar has great potential to reduce consumption of packaging and associated effects across the board. 
  • Innovative technology, such as food packaging sensors, provide real-time data about the shelf life of food, minimise spoilage and help to reduce food waste while also providing useful information to empower consumers.


👎 The bad

  • If major changes to packaging or the removal of packaging altogether come to pass on a large scale, CPG brands will need to find new ways of communicating with shoppers and drawing in new customers.
  • Despite the growth in the bioplastics sector in recent years, there is currently still a much smaller range of bioplastics compared to traditional plastics - and it will take some time to catch up.


💡 The bottom line

  • There’s little doubt that the packaging sector is undergoing a shift, with some companies quicker to adapt than others. The scale of plastic packaging pollution is such that it’s not going away anytime soon, but innovative new solutions that have other added benefits for food companies are revealing what the future of packaging might look like.
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Whether it’s more plastic than can be efficiently recycled or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, packaging waste is taking over the globe. Food and drink packaging is one of the major contributors to plastic pollution worldwide, with around 40% of plastic packaging waste attributed to food. The use of single-use plastic or other non-biodegradable packaging has grown dramatically in recent decades, and as countries grow richer, demand for packaged convenience foods only accelerates.

An extraordinary 78 million tons of plastic packaging is produced worldwide each year, but just 14 percent of this is recycled. Much of the plastic once used for food packaging ends up in the ocean, where it damages wildlife, can kill marine mammals and takes several hundred years to degrade. Cardboard and paper packaging, while recyclable, bring a few of their own own sustainability challenges too. 

But the sector is big business: The global food packaging market was worth $304.98 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $463.65 billion by 2027, at a CAGR of 5.9%. Similarly, the global eco-friendly food packaging market will reach $249 billion by 2025. That’s why some food packaging companies and the brands they serve are seeking new, sustainable ways to pack the goods they sell – from cartons grown with mushrooms, to water-soluble edible films.

Trend drivers: consumer attitudes, regulation & chemical concerns

The consumer and cultural shift towards sustainability is driving drastic changes in consumer goods packaging, with many consumers alarmed by the shocking statistics on packaging’s effects on the environment. One study found that two-thirds of shoppers are keen to see a total ban on non-recyclable packaging, while 69% of those surveyed wanted to avoid single-use plastics.

Regulation has also been introduced in recent years in an attempt to stem the relentless tide of single-use packaging waste. Some of the largest organisations and nations have passed legislation to this effect - whether it’s the handful of US states that have brought in statewide laws related to packaging waste, or the EU’s introduction this January of a tax on non-recyclable plastic packaging waste (€0.80/kilogram). Legislation like this can act as a trigger that pushes companies to act. 

There is also increasing concern about the toxic chemicals contained in some packaging materials. As well as being catastrophic for the environment, plastics are thought to be associated with various health problems and may disrupt hormone production. Styrofoam is a known carcinogen (that also wreaks havoc on the planet) and Bisphenol A (BPA), which is often used to line aluminium tins and cans, has been linked to several ill-effects on the body.

Exploring the trend: compostable options, bioplastics & refill systems

In the drive for sustainability, compostable packaging is emerging as a growing trend. Italian company DalterFood Group is deploying a biodegradable alternative to plastic film, made from agricultural waste, for its one-use sachets of grated cheese. And Austrian packaging company VPZ has come up with a solution for citrus packaging that you can throw straight in your home compost bin or food waste, with a cellulose mesh made from the pulp of beech trees. 

Packaging produced from renewable resources is also a burgeoning trend. Using plant-based packaging in this vein - think cardboard alternatives made from mushrooms or biodegradable bioplastics made from bamboo or seaweed - is a carbon-neutral process, as the plants or fungi remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Mycelium packaging was first developed in 2007 as a biodegradable alternative to planet-polluting Styrofoam. By combining mycelium from growing mushrooms with crop waste, the mycelium grow around the residues to form the desired packaging shape - all without light, water or the need for pesticides or chemicals. Since its invention, the energy-efficient process has caught on, with various types of mycelium packaging now being used by brands including Seedlip and IKEA.

As the technology develops, an ever wider range of these renewable packaging alternatives is becoming available. Current options span packaging made from corn, vegetable oil, sugar cane and algae, with the bioplastics packaging sector expected to reach a value of $34.24 billion by 2024. Examples include Biome Bioplastic’s plant-based bioplastic takeaway cup lids and FKuR’s Bio-Flex Blends for home compostable films that are designed to degrade in garden compost even at fluctuating temperatures. Coca-Cola PlantBottles, fully recyclable and containing at least 30% plant-based material, disrupted the packaging scene when introduced back in 2009, but the company now plans to expand access to the innovative design to its competitors. 

Innovative technology is also helping to improve the quality of foods for sale. Food packaging sensors like Innoscentia that indicate the shelf life of products in real time and notify customers of the presence of toxic chemicals are now in development. Imperial College London is working on a packaging tag that could be scanned by mobile devices, and eventually replace use-by dates on packaging, helping to reduce food waste and spoilage. 

And it’s not just the packaging itself – the whole idea of packaging as a concept is in flux. What if packaging wasn’t something to throw away, activists argue, but something to reuse over and over? This mindset has long been established in some European countries: think of Germany’s Pfand systems in supermarkets, where glass bottles can be returned in exchange for the return of an advance deposit included in the beverage’s sale price. With the sustainability benefits in mind, other countries are starting to catch up. In the US, private label store Trader Joe’s sells dry goods in bulk, allowing customers to bring their own containers to save on packaging. In 2019 UK premium supermarket Waitrose successfully trialled its own Unpacked refill stations at a limited number of stores, offering a range of dry goods for sale that customers could package and weigh in their own containers.

Case studies: Asda’s sustainability store & MonoSol’s edible films

In October 2020, UK supermarket Asda became the latest major brand to launch its own refill stations in a bid to reduce food packaging. The grocery chain opened its new ‘sustainability store’ on a trial basis in the city of Leeds. Aimed at helping shoppers to reuse and recycle effortlessly, Asda hopes the store will save 1 million pieces of plastic annually. What sets the offering apart from similar initiatives is its partnership with some of the UK’s most popular brands: five refill stations offer customers the chance to load up with over 30 household staples, including Kellogg’s cereals and PG Tips tea bags alongside Asda’s private-label dry goods like rice and pasta. The store trial will help the chain learn which features appeal to shoppers, which will then be rolled out at scale to further locations in 2021.

US company MonoSol, meanwhile, is perfecting its water-soluble alternative to traditional films and coatings used in food packaging (visualise the removable sheet of plastic film atop a microwaveable ready meal). The business, part of Japanese chemical company Kuraray, developed a range of transparent polymers that dissolve in water, which are most frequently used for dishwasher tablets and dissolving laundry detergent sachets. As of 2020, US regulators decreed its use safe for food, and free from any impact on a product’s smell, taste or texture. Already in use for protein powders, MonoSol hopes to include its films in food products cooked with water such as pasta and oats in future: the film dissolves when exposed to liquids, and is safe to be consumed alongside the food. Late last year, the company announced plans for a new production facility in Poland for manufacturing its water-soluble films driven by increased consumer demand.

Responding to change: what might the future hold?

Major changes to the way food and drinks are packaged - or, in the case of refill stations in grocery stores, doing away with packaging altogether - may be a boon for the planet, but raises some intriguing (and potentially challenging) questions for consumer packaged goods companies. How to attract shoppers without eye-grabbing designs? How to communicate value? And how will consumers tell the difference between two brands of cereal in refillable dispensers?

Asda’s trial partnership with big brands offers one potential way forward. And with the wealth of sustainable packaging options coming to market explored above, a zero-packaging future may not be something food and drinks companies need to contend with anyway. One thing’s for certain, though: change is afoot and to stay relevant, food and beverage companies will need to respond to consumer desires for more sustainable, health-conscious packaging options.

The 30-second pitch: Packaging innovations in the food industry

♻️ What

  • With food and beverage packaging a major contributor to plastic pollution and energy-gobbling to manufacture, many companies are responding to consumer demand for more sustainable options with a range of innovative packaging solutions that range from bioplastics, mushroom cardboard and refill stations


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • New regulation aimed at tackling the massive issue of packaging pollution has spurred companies and packaging producers to act, as has consumer demand for sustainability and the increasingly apparent ill-effects of plastic packaging on the planet.


🍄 How

  • Bioplastics (e.g. made from algae, corn or seaweed) 
  • Compostable and biodegradable packaging (e.g. mycelium packaging)
  • Innovative technology (e.g. food packaging sensors)
  • Refill stations and returnable packaging


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Biodegradable, compostable packaging cuts down on plastic pollution and removes the risk of food contamination by toxic chemicals contained in packaging. Using renewable resources such as mycelium also uses far less energy than traditional packaging manufacturing, is lightweight enough to transport easily, and even removes carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Companies are responding to changing consumer habits, and in some cases, even spearheading changes among shoppers by introducing features such as refill systems and returnable packaging ahead of the curve. The circular nature of refill stations and similar has great potential to reduce consumption of packaging and associated effects across the board. 
  • Innovative technology, such as food packaging sensors, provide real-time data about the shelf life of food, minimise spoilage and help to reduce food waste while also providing useful information to empower consumers.


👎 The bad

  • If major changes to packaging or the removal of packaging altogether come to pass on a large scale, CPG brands will need to find new ways of communicating with shoppers and drawing in new customers.
  • Despite the growth in the bioplastics sector in recent years, there is currently still a much smaller range of bioplastics compared to traditional plastics - and it will take some time to catch up.


💡 The bottom line

  • There’s little doubt that the packaging sector is undergoing a shift, with some companies quicker to adapt than others. The scale of plastic packaging pollution is such that it’s not going away anytime soon, but innovative new solutions that have other added benefits for food companies are revealing what the future of packaging might look like.

Whether it’s more plastic than can be efficiently recycled or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, packaging waste is taking over the globe. Food and drink packaging is one of the major contributors to plastic pollution worldwide, with around 40% of plastic packaging waste attributed to food. The use of single-use plastic or other non-biodegradable packaging has grown dramatically in recent decades, and as countries grow richer, demand for packaged convenience foods only accelerates.

An extraordinary 78 million tons of plastic packaging is produced worldwide each year, but just 14 percent of this is recycled. Much of the plastic once used for food packaging ends up in the ocean, where it damages wildlife, can kill marine mammals and takes several hundred years to degrade. Cardboard and paper packaging, while recyclable, bring a few of their own own sustainability challenges too. 

But the sector is big business: The global food packaging market was worth $304.98 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $463.65 billion by 2027, at a CAGR of 5.9%. Similarly, the global eco-friendly food packaging market will reach $249 billion by 2025. That’s why some food packaging companies and the brands they serve are seeking new, sustainable ways to pack the goods they sell – from cartons grown with mushrooms, to water-soluble edible films.

Trend drivers: consumer attitudes, regulation & chemical concerns

The consumer and cultural shift towards sustainability is driving drastic changes in consumer goods packaging, with many consumers alarmed by the shocking statistics on packaging’s effects on the environment. One study found that two-thirds of shoppers are keen to see a total ban on non-recyclable packaging, while 69% of those surveyed wanted to avoid single-use plastics.

Regulation has also been introduced in recent years in an attempt to stem the relentless tide of single-use packaging waste. Some of the largest organisations and nations have passed legislation to this effect - whether it’s the handful of US states that have brought in statewide laws related to packaging waste, or the EU’s introduction this January of a tax on non-recyclable plastic packaging waste (€0.80/kilogram). Legislation like this can act as a trigger that pushes companies to act. 

There is also increasing concern about the toxic chemicals contained in some packaging materials. As well as being catastrophic for the environment, plastics are thought to be associated with various health problems and may disrupt hormone production. Styrofoam is a known carcinogen (that also wreaks havoc on the planet) and Bisphenol A (BPA), which is often used to line aluminium tins and cans, has been linked to several ill-effects on the body.

Exploring the trend: compostable options, bioplastics & refill systems

In the drive for sustainability, compostable packaging is emerging as a growing trend. Italian company DalterFood Group is deploying a biodegradable alternative to plastic film, made from agricultural waste, for its one-use sachets of grated cheese. And Austrian packaging company VPZ has come up with a solution for citrus packaging that you can throw straight in your home compost bin or food waste, with a cellulose mesh made from the pulp of beech trees. 

Packaging produced from renewable resources is also a burgeoning trend. Using plant-based packaging in this vein - think cardboard alternatives made from mushrooms or biodegradable bioplastics made from bamboo or seaweed - is a carbon-neutral process, as the plants or fungi remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Mycelium packaging was first developed in 2007 as a biodegradable alternative to planet-polluting Styrofoam. By combining mycelium from growing mushrooms with crop waste, the mycelium grow around the residues to form the desired packaging shape - all without light, water or the need for pesticides or chemicals. Since its invention, the energy-efficient process has caught on, with various types of mycelium packaging now being used by brands including Seedlip and IKEA.

As the technology develops, an ever wider range of these renewable packaging alternatives is becoming available. Current options span packaging made from corn, vegetable oil, sugar cane and algae, with the bioplastics packaging sector expected to reach a value of $34.24 billion by 2024. Examples include Biome Bioplastic’s plant-based bioplastic takeaway cup lids and FKuR’s Bio-Flex Blends for home compostable films that are designed to degrade in garden compost even at fluctuating temperatures. Coca-Cola PlantBottles, fully recyclable and containing at least 30% plant-based material, disrupted the packaging scene when introduced back in 2009, but the company now plans to expand access to the innovative design to its competitors. 

Innovative technology is also helping to improve the quality of foods for sale. Food packaging sensors like Innoscentia that indicate the shelf life of products in real time and notify customers of the presence of toxic chemicals are now in development. Imperial College London is working on a packaging tag that could be scanned by mobile devices, and eventually replace use-by dates on packaging, helping to reduce food waste and spoilage. 

And it’s not just the packaging itself – the whole idea of packaging as a concept is in flux. What if packaging wasn’t something to throw away, activists argue, but something to reuse over and over? This mindset has long been established in some European countries: think of Germany’s Pfand systems in supermarkets, where glass bottles can be returned in exchange for the return of an advance deposit included in the beverage’s sale price. With the sustainability benefits in mind, other countries are starting to catch up. In the US, private label store Trader Joe’s sells dry goods in bulk, allowing customers to bring their own containers to save on packaging. In 2019 UK premium supermarket Waitrose successfully trialled its own Unpacked refill stations at a limited number of stores, offering a range of dry goods for sale that customers could package and weigh in their own containers.

Case studies: Asda’s sustainability store & MonoSol’s edible films

In October 2020, UK supermarket Asda became the latest major brand to launch its own refill stations in a bid to reduce food packaging. The grocery chain opened its new ‘sustainability store’ on a trial basis in the city of Leeds. Aimed at helping shoppers to reuse and recycle effortlessly, Asda hopes the store will save 1 million pieces of plastic annually. What sets the offering apart from similar initiatives is its partnership with some of the UK’s most popular brands: five refill stations offer customers the chance to load up with over 30 household staples, including Kellogg’s cereals and PG Tips tea bags alongside Asda’s private-label dry goods like rice and pasta. The store trial will help the chain learn which features appeal to shoppers, which will then be rolled out at scale to further locations in 2021.

US company MonoSol, meanwhile, is perfecting its water-soluble alternative to traditional films and coatings used in food packaging (visualise the removable sheet of plastic film atop a microwaveable ready meal). The business, part of Japanese chemical company Kuraray, developed a range of transparent polymers that dissolve in water, which are most frequently used for dishwasher tablets and dissolving laundry detergent sachets. As of 2020, US regulators decreed its use safe for food, and free from any impact on a product’s smell, taste or texture. Already in use for protein powders, MonoSol hopes to include its films in food products cooked with water such as pasta and oats in future: the film dissolves when exposed to liquids, and is safe to be consumed alongside the food. Late last year, the company announced plans for a new production facility in Poland for manufacturing its water-soluble films driven by increased consumer demand.

Responding to change: what might the future hold?

Major changes to the way food and drinks are packaged - or, in the case of refill stations in grocery stores, doing away with packaging altogether - may be a boon for the planet, but raises some intriguing (and potentially challenging) questions for consumer packaged goods companies. How to attract shoppers without eye-grabbing designs? How to communicate value? And how will consumers tell the difference between two brands of cereal in refillable dispensers?

Asda’s trial partnership with big brands offers one potential way forward. And with the wealth of sustainable packaging options coming to market explored above, a zero-packaging future may not be something food and drinks companies need to contend with anyway. One thing’s for certain, though: change is afoot and to stay relevant, food and beverage companies will need to respond to consumer desires for more sustainable, health-conscious packaging options.

The 30-second pitch: Packaging innovations in the food industry

♻️ What

  • With food and beverage packaging a major contributor to plastic pollution and energy-gobbling to manufacture, many companies are responding to consumer demand for more sustainable options with a range of innovative packaging solutions that range from bioplastics, mushroom cardboard and refill stations


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • New regulation aimed at tackling the massive issue of packaging pollution has spurred companies and packaging producers to act, as has consumer demand for sustainability and the increasingly apparent ill-effects of plastic packaging on the planet.


🍄 How

  • Bioplastics (e.g. made from algae, corn or seaweed) 
  • Compostable and biodegradable packaging (e.g. mycelium packaging)
  • Innovative technology (e.g. food packaging sensors)
  • Refill stations and returnable packaging


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Biodegradable, compostable packaging cuts down on plastic pollution and removes the risk of food contamination by toxic chemicals contained in packaging. Using renewable resources such as mycelium also uses far less energy than traditional packaging manufacturing, is lightweight enough to transport easily, and even removes carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Companies are responding to changing consumer habits, and in some cases, even spearheading changes among shoppers by introducing features such as refill systems and returnable packaging ahead of the curve. The circular nature of refill stations and similar has great potential to reduce consumption of packaging and associated effects across the board. 
  • Innovative technology, such as food packaging sensors, provide real-time data about the shelf life of food, minimise spoilage and help to reduce food waste while also providing useful information to empower consumers.


👎 The bad

  • If major changes to packaging or the removal of packaging altogether come to pass on a large scale, CPG brands will need to find new ways of communicating with shoppers and drawing in new customers.
  • Despite the growth in the bioplastics sector in recent years, there is currently still a much smaller range of bioplastics compared to traditional plastics - and it will take some time to catch up.


💡 The bottom line

  • There’s little doubt that the packaging sector is undergoing a shift, with some companies quicker to adapt than others. The scale of plastic packaging pollution is such that it’s not going away anytime soon, but innovative new solutions that have other added benefits for food companies are revealing what the future of packaging might look like.

Whether it’s more plastic than can be efficiently recycled or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, packaging waste is taking over the globe. Food and drink packaging is one of the major contributors to plastic pollution worldwide, with around 40% of plastic packaging waste attributed to food. The use of single-use plastic or other non-biodegradable packaging has grown dramatically in recent decades, and as countries grow richer, demand for packaged convenience foods only accelerates.

An extraordinary 78 million tons of plastic packaging is produced worldwide each year, but just 14 percent of this is recycled. Much of the plastic once used for food packaging ends up in the ocean, where it damages wildlife, can kill marine mammals and takes several hundred years to degrade. Cardboard and paper packaging, while recyclable, bring a few of their own own sustainability challenges too. 

But the sector is big business: The global food packaging market was worth $304.98 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $463.65 billion by 2027, at a CAGR of 5.9%. Similarly, the global eco-friendly food packaging market will reach $249 billion by 2025. That’s why some food packaging companies and the brands they serve are seeking new, sustainable ways to pack the goods they sell – from cartons grown with mushrooms, to water-soluble edible films.

Trend drivers: consumer attitudes, regulation & chemical concerns

The consumer and cultural shift towards sustainability is driving drastic changes in consumer goods packaging, with many consumers alarmed by the shocking statistics on packaging’s effects on the environment. One study found that two-thirds of shoppers are keen to see a total ban on non-recyclable packaging, while 69% of those surveyed wanted to avoid single-use plastics.

Regulation has also been introduced in recent years in an attempt to stem the relentless tide of single-use packaging waste. Some of the largest organisations and nations have passed legislation to this effect - whether it’s the handful of US states that have brought in statewide laws related to packaging waste, or the EU’s introduction this January of a tax on non-recyclable plastic packaging waste (€0.80/kilogram). Legislation like this can act as a trigger that pushes companies to act. 

There is also increasing concern about the toxic chemicals contained in some packaging materials. As well as being catastrophic for the environment, plastics are thought to be associated with various health problems and may disrupt hormone production. Styrofoam is a known carcinogen (that also wreaks havoc on the planet) and Bisphenol A (BPA), which is often used to line aluminium tins and cans, has been linked to several ill-effects on the body.

Exploring the trend: compostable options, bioplastics & refill systems

In the drive for sustainability, compostable packaging is emerging as a growing trend. Italian company DalterFood Group is deploying a biodegradable alternative to plastic film, made from agricultural waste, for its one-use sachets of grated cheese. And Austrian packaging company VPZ has come up with a solution for citrus packaging that you can throw straight in your home compost bin or food waste, with a cellulose mesh made from the pulp of beech trees. 

Packaging produced from renewable resources is also a burgeoning trend. Using plant-based packaging in this vein - think cardboard alternatives made from mushrooms or biodegradable bioplastics made from bamboo or seaweed - is a carbon-neutral process, as the plants or fungi remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Mycelium packaging was first developed in 2007 as a biodegradable alternative to planet-polluting Styrofoam. By combining mycelium from growing mushrooms with crop waste, the mycelium grow around the residues to form the desired packaging shape - all without light, water or the need for pesticides or chemicals. Since its invention, the energy-efficient process has caught on, with various types of mycelium packaging now being used by brands including Seedlip and IKEA.

As the technology develops, an ever wider range of these renewable packaging alternatives is becoming available. Current options span packaging made from corn, vegetable oil, sugar cane and algae, with the bioplastics packaging sector expected to reach a value of $34.24 billion by 2024. Examples include Biome Bioplastic’s plant-based bioplastic takeaway cup lids and FKuR’s Bio-Flex Blends for home compostable films that are designed to degrade in garden compost even at fluctuating temperatures. Coca-Cola PlantBottles, fully recyclable and containing at least 30% plant-based material, disrupted the packaging scene when introduced back in 2009, but the company now plans to expand access to the innovative design to its competitors. 

Innovative technology is also helping to improve the quality of foods for sale. Food packaging sensors like Innoscentia that indicate the shelf life of products in real time and notify customers of the presence of toxic chemicals are now in development. Imperial College London is working on a packaging tag that could be scanned by mobile devices, and eventually replace use-by dates on packaging, helping to reduce food waste and spoilage. 

And it’s not just the packaging itself – the whole idea of packaging as a concept is in flux. What if packaging wasn’t something to throw away, activists argue, but something to reuse over and over? This mindset has long been established in some European countries: think of Germany’s Pfand systems in supermarkets, where glass bottles can be returned in exchange for the return of an advance deposit included in the beverage’s sale price. With the sustainability benefits in mind, other countries are starting to catch up. In the US, private label store Trader Joe’s sells dry goods in bulk, allowing customers to bring their own containers to save on packaging. In 2019 UK premium supermarket Waitrose successfully trialled its own Unpacked refill stations at a limited number of stores, offering a range of dry goods for sale that customers could package and weigh in their own containers.

Case studies: Asda’s sustainability store & MonoSol’s edible films

In October 2020, UK supermarket Asda became the latest major brand to launch its own refill stations in a bid to reduce food packaging. The grocery chain opened its new ‘sustainability store’ on a trial basis in the city of Leeds. Aimed at helping shoppers to reuse and recycle effortlessly, Asda hopes the store will save 1 million pieces of plastic annually. What sets the offering apart from similar initiatives is its partnership with some of the UK’s most popular brands: five refill stations offer customers the chance to load up with over 30 household staples, including Kellogg’s cereals and PG Tips tea bags alongside Asda’s private-label dry goods like rice and pasta. The store trial will help the chain learn which features appeal to shoppers, which will then be rolled out at scale to further locations in 2021.

US company MonoSol, meanwhile, is perfecting its water-soluble alternative to traditional films and coatings used in food packaging (visualise the removable sheet of plastic film atop a microwaveable ready meal). The business, part of Japanese chemical company Kuraray, developed a range of transparent polymers that dissolve in water, which are most frequently used for dishwasher tablets and dissolving laundry detergent sachets. As of 2020, US regulators decreed its use safe for food, and free from any impact on a product’s smell, taste or texture. Already in use for protein powders, MonoSol hopes to include its films in food products cooked with water such as pasta and oats in future: the film dissolves when exposed to liquids, and is safe to be consumed alongside the food. Late last year, the company announced plans for a new production facility in Poland for manufacturing its water-soluble films driven by increased consumer demand.

Responding to change: what might the future hold?

Major changes to the way food and drinks are packaged - or, in the case of refill stations in grocery stores, doing away with packaging altogether - may be a boon for the planet, but raises some intriguing (and potentially challenging) questions for consumer packaged goods companies. How to attract shoppers without eye-grabbing designs? How to communicate value? And how will consumers tell the difference between two brands of cereal in refillable dispensers?

Asda’s trial partnership with big brands offers one potential way forward. And with the wealth of sustainable packaging options coming to market explored above, a zero-packaging future may not be something food and drinks companies need to contend with anyway. One thing’s for certain, though: change is afoot and to stay relevant, food and beverage companies will need to respond to consumer desires for more sustainable, health-conscious packaging options.

The 30-second pitch: Packaging innovations in the food industry

♻️ What

  • With food and beverage packaging a major contributor to plastic pollution and energy-gobbling to manufacture, many companies are responding to consumer demand for more sustainable options with a range of innovative packaging solutions that range from bioplastics, mushroom cardboard and refill stations


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • New regulation aimed at tackling the massive issue of packaging pollution has spurred companies and packaging producers to act, as has consumer demand for sustainability and the increasingly apparent ill-effects of plastic packaging on the planet.


🍄 How

  • Bioplastics (e.g. made from algae, corn or seaweed) 
  • Compostable and biodegradable packaging (e.g. mycelium packaging)
  • Innovative technology (e.g. food packaging sensors)
  • Refill stations and returnable packaging


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Biodegradable, compostable packaging cuts down on plastic pollution and removes the risk of food contamination by toxic chemicals contained in packaging. Using renewable resources such as mycelium also uses far less energy than traditional packaging manufacturing, is lightweight enough to transport easily, and even removes carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Companies are responding to changing consumer habits, and in some cases, even spearheading changes among shoppers by introducing features such as refill systems and returnable packaging ahead of the curve. The circular nature of refill stations and similar has great potential to reduce consumption of packaging and associated effects across the board. 
  • Innovative technology, such as food packaging sensors, provide real-time data about the shelf life of food, minimise spoilage and help to reduce food waste while also providing useful information to empower consumers.


👎 The bad

  • If major changes to packaging or the removal of packaging altogether come to pass on a large scale, CPG brands will need to find new ways of communicating with shoppers and drawing in new customers.
  • Despite the growth in the bioplastics sector in recent years, there is currently still a much smaller range of bioplastics compared to traditional plastics - and it will take some time to catch up.


💡 The bottom line

  • There’s little doubt that the packaging sector is undergoing a shift, with some companies quicker to adapt than others. The scale of plastic packaging pollution is such that it’s not going away anytime soon, but innovative new solutions that have other added benefits for food companies are revealing what the future of packaging might look like.
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