In 2040 a fifth of all food packaging could still be landfilled or incinerated unless packaging innovations accelerate

This key trend emerges from a study commissioned by UPM Specialty Papers, where it found that while recycling, reuse and composting of packaging will all increase significantly, a fifth of all food packaging could still find its way to landfill and incineration even in two decades time.

Today, food packaging is predominantly plastic and recycling rates are relatively low. While, fibre-based packaging is widely recycled in non-food uses, the industry believes that by 2040 fibre-based packaging will approach circularity as technical development broadens its suitability for food packaging. Recycling rates for plastics are also projected to grow.

‘The packaging industry will focus research and development efforts to meet increasing consumer and regulatory demand for more recyclable and compostable packaging,’ believes Maria Saloranta, Vice President, Strategy for UPM Specialty Papers. ‘As a result, we expect the share of fibre-based food packaging to grow, accelerated by breakthroughs in barrier properties and use of smart technologies that help relay information to consumers quickly and easily.’

In the report, more than 200 global packaging professionals from across the value chain contributed to the first-ever collective assessment of key trends that are projected to drive sustainability in the food packaging industry by 2040. The industry anticipates the global share of polymer-based packaging will fall by half over the next two decades in sustainable food packaging applications, while fibre-based materials are projected to contribute to over 40% of all materials in use for food packaging.

Key trends for sustainable packaging in 2040:

1. By 2040 consumers won’t tolerate a choice between sustainability and convenience. They will expect both. Brands will need packaging solutions that provide good end-of-life options without compromising convenience and performance.

2. By 2040 sustainability will not be a brand choice but a strict government mandate. Materials and pack types that do not reach thresholds for environmental performance will not be available for use.

3. By 2040 Fibre-based packaging will be perceived as the most sustainable packaging solution by consumers.

4. By 2040 recycling, reuse and composting will all increase significantly but 21% of all food packaging will still find its way to landfill and incineration.

By 2040, consumers won’t tolerate a choice between sustainability and convenience:

– All products will be a few clicks and a few minutes away, omnichannel packaging that enables speed and convenience will be essential.

– Retail environments will become more experiential, orientated to product launches and engagement.

– Packaging will continue to play an important promotional role enabled by highly customised or personalised campaigns and immersive technology.

Sustainability will be a strict government mandate by 2040:

– Many fossil fuel based and non-recyclable packaging materials are now banned and companies face heavy taxes and fines for packaging this is not reused or recycled.

– Food safe recycled fibres are FDA and EFSA approved, improvements in recycling technology and better supply chain traceability enable safe use of recycled fibre in food applications.

– Smart packaging will enable informed sustainability choices for consumers and better traceability throughout the value chain.

Challenges in meeting targets for sustainable end-of-life:

– By 2040 23% of food packaging could be used through a range of retailer return and collection systems in store and through delivery with consumers incentivised through price to participate.

– By 2040 recycling rates for plastic and fibre based food packaging have increased significantly. Fibrebased packaging is approaching circularity as it can be used in food applications.

– By 2040 17% of all food packaging can be easily home composted.

By 2040 fibre-based packaging will dominate: 

– A range of new technologies including micro fibrillated cellulose, novel coatings technologies and nanotechnology has enabled fibre-based packaging to compete in a wide range of markets.

– Consumers perceive fibre based packaging as the most sustainable packaging solution.

– A range of sophisticated and low-cost digital tagging technologies will enable extremely accurate tracking of materials throughout a circular lifecycle.

‘The survey shows the industry is anticipating a USD 20 billion-dollar shift from polymer-based to fibre-based packaging by 2040,’ notes Ciaran Little, Global VP of Business Development, Smithers. ‘The use of polymer packaging will not be eliminated but will focus on robust applications in which high strength barrier requirements and reusability are critical.’