Polyethylene Key to Many Plastic Food Packaging Innovations

From new types of flexible packaging to technologies that make it easier to reuse and recycle products, innovations in food grade plastic packaging, often made from polyethylene, are typically driven by some combination of consumer convenience, consumers’ hygiene and food safety preferences, brands’ sustainability demands, and product shelf appeal.

Converters don’t have to go it alone. In addition to its high-quality polymer resins and reliable supply, Shell Polymers has the know-how and facilities to help converters test and optimize production processes efficiently and effectively.

The plastic packaging industry has been inventive over the decades, and with ongoing demand creating continued opportunities for converters and suppliers, there’s surely more transformation to come.

Let’s explore several notable innovations that have emerged and evolved in the food and beverage packaging space in recent years.

Be sure to note the key role that polyethylene, such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE Resin) and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), has played in the product innovations listed below: 

HDPE Pouches

Flexible pouches have become ubiquitous in supermarket and convenience store aisles, used to package peanut butter, beef jerky, dried fruit, and numerous other foods. Demand for pouches stems from a broader demand from brands and consumers for lightweight, convenient, and cost-effective packaging.

Flat pouches and stand-up pouches (typically made from polyethylene film) are the modern-day descendant of so-called retort pouches developed by the U.S. Army in the 1950s and 1960s for soldier Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs).

The flexible plastic pouches market had an estimated value of $53.7 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach $73.5 billion by 2026, at a CAGR of 6.5%. Polyethylene has the largest market share within the pouches market, attributed to its unique flow properties such as its propensity to stretch when strained, as well as its low production costs, high clarity and heat sealability.3

HDPE Bottle Closures

Driven squarely by demands to increase recyclability and sustainability, an increasing number of brands and converters are producing bottle caps or “closures” from the same polymer – high-density polyethylene – as the bottles they seal.

This is known as a mono material approach, and it increases recyclability because legacy closures made of polypropylene are not recyclable. A combination of design, material, and molding closure technologies have enabled the innovation to take place.4

The trend has even included more complex bottle closures, such as three-piece closures used for sports drink bottles.5

Polyethylene caps are expected to see revenue CAGR of 5.1% through 2026, the fastest of any segment within the overall $41.2 billion plastic caps and closure market. Polyethylene caps are expected to hold 22.2% market share by 2026.6

Modern Pigments Enable Recycling

Even when dealing with a polymer as highly recyclable as HDPE, sometimes infrastructure can get in the way of ensuring food-grade plastic packaging is recycled.

One key example is near infrared (NIR) automated scanners at recycling plants, which are typically unable to “see” through certain pigments, such as those used in black plastic bottles made for alcoholic beverages and other liquids.

However, in recent years NIR-compatible additives and pigments, known as “masterbatches” have emerged to help solve this challenge, and a growing number of plastics companies are now using them in their products.7 8

There are other benefits to masterbatches besides recyclability, including longer additive shelf life, easier incorporation of antimicrobial technology, and improved product consistency and process stability.9

Shell Polymers Supports Converter Innovation

Shell Polymers’ technical experts are tuned into the latest industry developments, and they can help converters explore and trial new product lines for food grade plastic packaging, to better address evolving market opportunities and challenges.

At our new Monaca, Pennsylvania polyethylene plant, our technical experts collaborate with converters in state-of-the-art facilities such as our polymer science laboratories, where molecular modeling capabilities can help a customer develop new grades and resins with specific properties.

In our application hall offers converters access to some of the best commercial molding and extrusion machinery on the market to help with their production endeavors.

For example, our blown film equipment has market-leading sensitivity, which helps our experts better compare one polymer with another. We can also accommodate customers’ own molds in our application hall, in order to help converters find solutions to their challenges.

Leveraging Shell’s new plant for plastic product troubleshooting and testing has another significant benefit for converters: They won’t have to set aside production capacity at their own facilities, allowing their production schedule for their own customers to continue apace.

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1. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/plastic-packaging-market

2. https://www.bizongo.com/blog/retort-pouches-and-how-they-are-changing-our-daily-foods-packaging

3. https://www.labelandnarrowweb.com/contents/view_breaking-news/2022-01-18/flexible-pouch-market-to-reach-735-billion-by-2026/

4. https://www.recyclingtoday.com/article/improving-hdpe-recycling/

5. https://www.universalclosures.com/ucl-develop-world-first-closure

6. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/09/04/1911054/0/en/Plastic-Caps-and-Closures-Market-To-Reach-USD-58-50-Billion-By-2026-Reports-And-Data.html

7. https://www.recyclingtoday.com/article/product-innovations-summer-2021-plastics-recycling/

8. https://www.ampacet.com/masterbatch-products/core-product/rec-nir-black/

9. https://www.microban.com/blog/top-5-benefits-of-using-polymer-masterbatches