Plastics Growth in the Food and Beverage Industry

Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, food and beverage is one of the fastest-growing industries globally. This growth is being encouraged by the shift in lifestyle as a result of lockdowns, quarantines, and limited social activity, as well as consumer preferences for ready-to-eat, frozen foods, and processed foods. As result, the plastic packaging market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 4% from 2020-2027.1

According to the EPA, the containers and packaging sectors used 14.5 million tons of plastic in 2018,with a large portion going towards food and beverage plastic packaging. Commonly used for plastic film applications because of its low cost, versatility, and barrier properties, LLDPE Resin accounted for 46% of the PE film demand in 2019 and is projected to be the leading plastic film resin through 2024.3

Commissioned by the American Chemistry Council, research firm Trucost conducted a study4 comparing plastics with alternative packaging materials including aluminum, paper, and glass. One of its key findings was that for food packaging specifically, 4.6 times the amount of alternative materials is required to do the same job as plastics. As such, using a polymer like high-density polyethylene (HDPE Resin) or linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) for food packaging can be a prime choice for brands to improve the bottom line. In addition to the amount of material needed, there are other characteristics that make polyethylene ideal for food and beverage packaging, including strength, durability, light weight, and cost-effectiveness.

For example, an HDPE rigid milk jug can weigh as little as two ounces, but it is still strong enough to carry a gallon of milk.5 This shift to rigid plastic packaging came as part of a purposeful reinvention of the way milk is brought from farms to consumers. In the early half of the 20th century, milk used to be delivered to customers' doorsteps in glass bottles. However, glass is heavy and fragile, which made safe transportation difficult. If glass bottles were used today, a standard 16 oz bottle could easily cost over $2.00/bottle, including shipping, versus the approximate $0.60 per plastic bottle.6 To address this, the classic paper carton with a protective plastic layer was introduced to the dairy industry in 1915.7 Finally, in 1964, the patent for plastic milk jugs8 disrupted the market, promising to extend the product’s shelf life but also provide brands with a safe and cost-effective way to transport it.

Reduce Food Waste with Plastic Packaging

Along with being a cost-effective choice for food packaging, plastic film also plays a critical role in preventing food waste. Among other reasons, the FPA reports that spoilage is the primary reason for wasting food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Likewise, having to cook or prepare more than is needed is often the cause of tossing home-made meals, meat, and fish.9 Packaging design will be critical to addressing both of these challenges and limiting the amount of food that ends up in landfills.

Consumers often don’t realize the benefits of plastic packaging on the items they buy. In a study by denkstatt Gmbh, they outline several ways that packaging protects food, including how it can:

  • Prevent damage and contact with contaminants
  • Provide a barrier against oxygen and moisture
  • Optimize humidity and temperature
  • Provide a protective vacuum
  • Enhance the shelf life10

Designing flexible packaging that can extend the shelf life is critical. In its study, “The Value of Flexible Packaging in Extending Shelf Life and Reducing Food Waste,” the FPA has seen major gains in this area because of innovations in flexible packaging. Using ground beef as an example, it lasts approximately 3 days in the traditional styrofoam tray with polyethylene film simply wrapped over it. With a vacuum shrink packaging, the shelf life can be increased to 20 days. With perforated HDPE and low-density polyethylene (LDPE), the shelf life of bananas can be more than doubled from 15 days to 36.11

Designing effective, portion-control packaging is another way converters can be on the front lines of reducing food waste. A prime example is individually-wrapped versions of perishable products like meat. Perdue Farms offers packs of fresh chicken breasts that are in their own individual pouches, which enables consumers to only make what they need and preserve the rest in the freezer for when they need that product again.12 Innovating packaging for perishable products that help consumers to only buy or use what they need will make a big difference in limiting the negative impact of food waste on the environment.

Dan Falla

Meet Our Pro

Meet Our Plastic Film Expert

Meet our Polymer Pioneer, Senior Technical Service Engineer Dan Falla. Dan has spent more than 30 years helping customers innovate in new product and application development and is Membership Chair for the Society of Plastics Engineers’ Flexible Packaging Division.

Converters Encourage Recyclability of Food-Safe Plastic Packaging

APlastic packaging is essential to meeting consumer preferences and contributing to the growth of the food and beverage industry. Optimizing packaging design for recyclability is one way that converters can meet the needs of the industry, while still being sensitive to brand owners’ sustainability goals. This may mean consulting with a resin supplier to explore new materials, equipment, or converting processes that may suit the package better. Or innovating packaging that uses a single material, like this 100% polyethylene stand-up cereal pouch,13 which makes sorting and recycling much easier.

Converters can also collaborate with industry veterans like Senior Technical Service Engineer Dan Falla. Dan is working towards normalizing the chemical recycling (also known as pyrolysis) of flexible plastic films into chemicals that can be used to make thousands of other products like food packaging, automotive parts, sporting goods, and appliances. This would be a major step towards a circular economy in the packaging industry, since plastic film is one of the primary materials for packaging applications.

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