Data from Smithers Pira, UK, forecast steady growth across the packaging industry – pushing a market valued at $839 billion in 2015 to expand at 3.5% year-on-year and reach a total value of $997 billion in 2020. As this happens, sustainability will become an increasingly important factor for decision makers at all stages of packaging value chains.

Sustainability is now a fast-growing and vitally important area of concern for packaging and addresses economic, environmental and social objectives, according to the study, “Ten-Year Forecast of Disruptive Technologies in Sustainable Packaging to 2026

The study also examines topics that inform choices about packaging design and technology, such as consumer preferences, environmental group pressures, rising e-commerce volumes, government regulations, supply chain pressures and the evolution of the circular economy principles.

“The trend toward sustainability is an important influence on the packaging industry. Consumers, manufacturers and retailers are all demanding more sustainable systems, which are formalized in corporate social responsibility goals and publicized in product marketing,” says Dr. Terence Cooper, author of the report. “Consequently, sustainability is no longer just nice to have, but is now seen as a necessity for attracting consumers and protecting market share – i.e. it is now an expectation, not a differentiator.”

End-of-life recyclability has often been emphasized for packaging sustainability while the beginning of the package life cycle has been relatively ignored. However, mechanical recycling and sustainability are not synonymous, and many different factors contribute to the carbon footprints of different packaging types and materials. For example, pouches are more difficult to mechanically recycle than other formats, but provide large savings in materials and energy consumed in both their production and transport.

The most important rigid packaging plastic is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), followed by polyethylene (PE); PET and PE combined account for about 65% of plastics used for rigid packaging. Polypropylene (PP) follows third. In contrast, the most important plastic material used for flexible packaging is PE, followed by PP and PET.

There has been continuing success in lightweighting packaging, particularly rigid packaging, and in replacing rigid formats with flexible packaging systems, particularly new pouch structures. However, there is presently no package that is completely sustainable, and the various packaging materials, including plastics, paper, paperboard, metals and glass cannot be unequivocally classified as good or bad. All have their advantages and shortcomings depending upon the product application, and trade-offs are necessary to arrive at an optimum compromise position.

This report also identifies and assesses technology trends that will impact adoption of sustainable packaging principles by the packaging industry over the next 10 years to 2026. More specifically, it uncovers developments and changes that can be considered to be disruptive rather than simply evolutionary, where a disruptive technology is defined as a new or emerging technology or factor that could eventually replace an existing technology, conventional material or design or market position and cause significant changes in the packaging industry itself and industries that use packaging.