Technavio’s Top 3 Emerging Trends in the Global Returnable Packaging Market (with Editorial Comments)

Technavio has issued its latest report on the global returnable packaging market. It offers an analysis of the most important trends expected to impact the market outlook from 2017-2021. Technavio defines an emerging trend as a factor that has the potential to significantly impact the market and contribute to its growth or decline.

It observes that returnable packaging products are available in different forms, shapes, and sizes, depending on the applications in the chemical, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical industries. Globalization and international trade are identified as main forces in the growth of reusables (which in some sense seems counterintuitive, as a longer return distance makes the economics of reusables more tenuous, especially in non-pooled solutions. For example, the globalization of automotive seems to have been a negative for reusables, at least in the short run. – ed) Trade liberalization and capital markets have fueled trade activities across all regions worldwide. This has brought about an increase in the demand for returnable packaging worldwide. Another factor driving the global returnable packaging market is an increase in the demand for chemicals.

According to Technavio, the top three emerging trends driving the global returnable packaging market include:

  • Use of biodegradable alternatives
  • Increased customization and investment in R&D
  • Enhancing brand image

Use of biodegradable plastics

“Returnable packaging such as pallets, bulk boxes, barrels, and plastic drums are the vital packaging materials for the bulk shipment of various types of goods, such as food and beverages, chemicals, and pharmaceutical items. Plastic returnable packaging materials are usually made up of polyethylene or polypropylene,” says Shakti Jhakar, a lead analyst at Technavio for research on packaging.

The growing environmental concerns about the use of synthetic plastics for commercial purposes, which are mainly made from petroleum feedstock, have encouraged industry players to develop environmental-friendly plastics for consumers. Firms such as The Dow Chemical Company and Braskem have been investing heavily in developing technologies to produce bio-based polymers through biomass. (We are aware of a few companies offering plastic pallets and containers made from plant-sourced resin, but haven’t seen a lot of discussion around this offering. Read this article from Packaging Digest to understand the basics of bioplastics. They can be conventional fossil-based plastics designed to biodegrade, or plant-based plastics which may or may not be biodegradable. At this time, I just don’t see biodegradable as one of the three top trends for reusables. I would be more in alignment with some of the other drivers recently mentioned by Tim Debus of the Reusable Packaging Association, such as recycled material utilization, asset tracking/IoT and asset restoration/repositioning.)

Increased customization and investment in R&D

“Despite the wide optional range available while purchasing packaging containers, companies are increasingly providing customization in various types of containers to suit customer specifications. Limited stock sizes impair the sales of products for vendors. Customization in containers and capacity of boxes in terms of height, length, and breadth, and the material type used in their build are the main changes carried out,” adds Shakti.

A combination of materials is used to make containers with plastic dunnage, reinforcements, and panels. In material handling, packaging containers need to be shaped in accordance with the shapes of the equipment parts that need to be stored. Vendors are increasingly providing custom solutions, and this is set to become a major trend during the forecast period.

(Cost-effective packaging customization is extremely important to the value proposition of reusable packaging in many applications, and to the growth of the reusables market, overall. Whereas injection molded containers might not be affordable for smaller orders, break-even quantities can be smaller when other processes such as thermoforming or corrugated plastic are employed. For a discussion of various options regarding custom packaging, read our coverage of Mike Chiado’s Promat presentation. Research and development continues to play an important role in the growing the reusable packaging sector, whether through the development of more efficient tooling and production, robotics, etc., advanced corrugated board, through to designs to get more performance from less material, the capability to better utilize recycled materials, etc.)

Enhancing brand image

Companies implement effective marketing tactics to gain customer attention. Hence, companies have started to focus on labeling returnable packaging products to increase consumer awareness regarding their products and gain more visibility on the shop shelf. (For a discussion of this trend, which has been ongoing, check out our 2016 article, Crate Appeal and Reusables: Increasingly Attractive.) For instance, Rehrig Pacific Company manufactured a branded returnable tray with a color in 2015, which exactly matched the color of PepsiCo 2-liter soft drink bottle. This branded returnable tray was compared with standard reusable trays to assess consumer behavior. It is observed that consumers showed a strong preference for soft drinks in branded returnable packaging products. Therefore, it is expected that the global returnable packaging market will observe growth in the use of returnable packaging products by end-users, such as the food and beverage, pharmacy, and chemical industries.