What are the trends and developments that are shaping the European packaging sector and the packaging sector in general, and also what factors will shape the food contact area in Europe in the near future? This article takes a look at each.
Trends and Influences in the European Packaging Sector
Many long-term trends continue to hone the chemical sector, especially in terms of eco-influences such as sustainability and recyclability, which are both very different and demanding in terms of technology and exert their attractions at opposite ends of the supply chain.
One short-term trend that many industries (including coatings) have experienced recently has been that of “de-stocking,” which has artificially skewed demand and growth statistics out of a fear of companies running out of their essential business requirements during the pandemic crisis.
This artificial blip has already manifested in the corrugated packaging sector across Europe in early 2022.
Corrugated packaging is one of the key areas of growth expected to continue for the packaging sector, particularly as customers look for superior quality board packaging. Unusually however, the Ukraine-Russia conflict is reportedly affecting this area in Europe as wheat starch from both countries is used in the corrugation process.
In addition, supplies to Scandinavian paper mills are heavily linked with Russia, so on both of these fronts, alternative supplies are likely to be sought as the conflict continues to exert massive disruption on European supply chains. The emphasis may well now see a shift in the greater of sourcing materials from the West once more, as well as Africa and India, as industry mulls over the disadvantages of being dependent upon Chinese supplies.
This rising demand for corrugated packaging in Europe on the back of greater buying online is a trend that has recently been picked up by Mordor Intelligence, in a survey which previews the future of the European consumer packaging market.
In e-commerce portals, demand has sharply increased for grocery packaging, healthcare products, and e-commerce shipments. Plastic packaging remains popular for both cost of production and ease of handling, even though there are many materials on the horizon to challenge it.
Within the EU there is a strong focus on promoting the circular economy that is driving research on many fronts, including overcoming the use of environmentally harmful polymers, the shift towards bio-based plastics and greater recycling and processing of plastic waste.
Trends in Packaging Generally
Corrugation (q.v.) is already well-established as a long-term trend within the packaging sector, particularly with consumers expecting better quality packaging when their goods arrive.
Alternative materials to plastics are also rising. Packaging based on corn starch is a natural-based alternative that is growing and its ecological credentials are far superior to those of most plastics, when measured in terms of sustainability, recyclability and carbon footprint. They are also ideally suited to the use of vegetable-based inks when printing.
Another key trend that is coming up in the packaging sector is that of edible packaging. The concept of edible water bubbles has been around for almost a decade now. Such bubbles are based on membranes that have been produced using seaweed, therefore making them edible.
They have many advantages, including being biodegradable if the customer does not want to consume the membrane itself; the advantages are that they can be flavored and colored with natural products.
Cartons and boxes continue to remain popular and another upcoming trend here is the shift towards more boxes and fewer plastic bottles. Boxes have the advantages of greater packing efficiency (space-saving) during transport and for at-home storage, as well as being made from board, which is more attractive for environmental reasons over single-use plastic bottles.
In the future, we can expect to see more in the way of boxed water rather than bottled water when it comes to packaging water.
From Packaging Water to Packaging Ink
A recent interview conducted by the European Printing Ink Association (EuPIA) and Mike Simoni of Sun Chemical has highlighted some of the challenges and changes that are taking place in the sphere of food packaging inks.
During the interview, Simoni, who is chairman of EuPIA’s Food Packaging Technical Committee, highlights one of the major areas of change in food packaging inks, which is happening in Germany.
What follows for the remainder of this article is a summary of the interview, covering the main areas shaping food contact inks and other materials both now and into the future, especially with regard to formulation.
The German Printing Ink Ordinance (GPIO) is a new piece of national legislation that is concerned with both the food contact and the non-food contact sides of food packaging. Its scope also encompasses the substances included and their migration limits for maintaining food safety so that packaging can be shown to be compliant and that food packaging safety standards are upheld for the consumer.
Despite its name, the scope of the GPIO extends to all of the food contact materials involved and not printing inks alone. The implementation of the GPIO brings with it a four-year transition period for the submission of toxicological information from industry partners (raw materials suppliers) so that they may be authorised as safe for use.
This process is seen as a long and cumbersome one that will require considerable time to have any positive effect. Although this must be viewed as a welcome move on safety, the fact that it is taking place only in Europe’s largest economy underscores the fragmented nature of industry in Europe at a time when it would be desirable for things to be harmonized across the EU bloc.
Regrettably it comes at what is obviously a difficult time for the printing ink industry; the trends towards sustainability through the incorporation of bio-based raw materials is currently a developmental area for the ink sector, which is distinct from another separate challenge that it faces in the domain of packaging recycling, where de-inking is desirable.
On a much broader level, what the EU is currently implementing in terms of its chemical sustainability strategy, which introduces the essential use concept and mixture assessment factors, highlights further the pressure the industry is currently experiencing.
There is either an irony or competitive edge to this. Harmonization may not be such a distant prospect after all, as the European Commission is considering changes to the EC 1935/2004 Framework Regulation, the regulation that covers all food contact materials and articles.
Once completed this could supersede everything that the GPIO is concerned with; however, the time-frame in which these things take place is of course, a drag for industry.
The frustration felt by industry is seen as prompting these developments within Germany, but with the EU as it is harmonization of standards across all countries is highly desirable for all of industry.
In addition there are also possible changes afoot in Switzerland regarding the long-held law referred to as Swiss Ordinance, which regulates food packaging safety in Switzerland, and which is often quoted as a compliance measure by those operating in the sector. EuPIA is working with the Swiss paint and ink industry association VSLF (Verband der Schweizerischen Lack- und Farbenindustrie) and the Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) so that its members can stay abreast of any forthcoming changes.