I don't envy plastics packaging designers.
Don't get me wrong, I think you have very cool jobs. I'm often impressed with packaging design and technology. And I've been known to linger in supermarket aisles, admiring your latest work.
But there's a lot of pressure, right?
At the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2016 conference in Chicago, there were many strong presentations from plastics packaging designers, molders, consumer products companies, resin and additive makers, tooling suppliers and machinery makers — basically the entire supply chain for making innovative caps, closures and fitments.
Plastic caps and closures may appear to be pretty mundane, but they're not. The tooling alone is fascinating and highly specialized. When I see a machine capable of molding hundreds of closures per minute, it's a reminder of the scope and the technological capability of the plastics industry.
Some of the most innovative closures are in places the public never even sees or notices. For example, have you seen those fancy Coke machines in quick-service restaurants that let customers push a button and get just about any soft drink that Coca-Cola sells? Danny Beard, president of Packaging Specialists, a consulting business that focuses on liquid flexible food and beverage packaging, explained that a closure paired with a flexible pouch are the keys to the technology. The pouches feature very precise closures, capable of dispensing a specific amount of flavors and syrup.
Dave Johnson, global strategic business development manager for AptarGroup Inc., also talked about how new closures are helping to change modern packaging. You know the drivers: consumers have on-the-go lifestyles, so they're looking for convenience. So they want packages that stand up to long shelf lives, preferably without refrigeration — even though we don't want foods with lots of preservatives.
We also want products that can be quickly dispensed, without a spoon or a knife, then simply and securely resealed.
Examples include prepared baby food — if you haven't noticed, they don't come in little glass jars anymore — or the new squeezable mayonnaise, sour cream and yogurt packages.
It's all fun, amazing technology. But here comes my point about the pressure: Eventually, the conversation about innovative packaging always turns to sustainability.
The basic question: Can you design a package and a closure that can do all these amazing things that doesn't cause problems for recyclers, or end up as an environmental nightmare? That means avoiding certain materials that are contaminants in the recycling stream. It also means making products as lightweight as possible, without sacrificing performance.
Some brand owners also want materials that are easy to recycle, or even contain recycled material. It's all possible, according to John Sugden, senior research scientist at Dow Chemical Co.
“Sustainability? It really comes down to the design,” Sugden said.
There are plenty of success stories. KW Plastics Recycling was showing off post-consumer polypropylene closures on a high-end cosmetic brand. Kara Pochiro, communications director with the Association of Plastic Recyclers, talked about recyclers' successful effort to recover PP from bottle caps and rigid packaging. (One key: convincing consumers to keep the caps on bottles in the recycling bin. Otherwise the potentially valuable PP gets thrown away.)
APR also is always ready to assist with advice for designing new packages that are easy to recycle. They're one of many allies that packaging designers have in their effort to make new products not just more convenient, but also more sustainable.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.