Every three years, Michigan-based packaging consultant PTIS, LLC sends detailed surveys to leaders throughout the packaging value chain to get their insights into the future. The survey isn’t a simple email blast to random contacts. It is a curated list of top people in academia, trade associations, and companies, says Todd Bukowski, a PTIS principal who helps organize the survey.
This year, the respondents to the “Packaging Thought Leader Survey 2032” included 165 experts, including leadership from the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA). The questions include deep looks into key technologies and trends that will impact packaging by 2032.
When asked if their organizations were ready for the future, about 45% said they were not, while nearly 55% said they were. The optimists increased from 2019 when 49% said they were ready for the future. Those who said they are ready this year probably have sustainability plans and feel good about their direction and strategy, Bukowski says. “That sustainability came through quite a lot.”
Comparing Previous Survey Results
PTIS developed an overview of the survey results, at times comparing answers from previous surveys in 2016 and 2019, which can identify hot topics that fade with time, while highlighting those with staying power, Bukowski says. For example, sustainability continues to dominate answers. However, some of the details have changed: The 2022 survey shows the need for reuse/refill options has become a much stronger focus area, Bukowski explains. Supply chain and labor concerns showed up in the survey this year, yet they were not mentioned three years ago, he adds.
When it comes to a question about the top impact forces for packaging, the New Plastics Economy and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation slipped from the No. 2 position in a previous survey to the No. 8 spot this year, although the messages about circularity and a focus on plastics collection remain strong, Bukowski says.
“The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was not as much of a driver as it was in the 2019 report,” Bukowski says. “However, the tenets of what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation talks about as far as the circular economy are the driving forces for all plastics and packaging to be collected and recycled. But the New Plastics Economy report was new then and was getting a lot of focus. I think a lot of companies are still using all those principles.”
Legislation a Top Concern
The survey this year shows that great concern remains around legislation and regulatory impacts, especially in the United States, which lags the European Union (EU) by about five years in implementing circularity initiatives, Bukowski says. Legislation and regulatory concerns come as No. 2 under the question about top impact forces. Regulation and legislation show up as the No. 1 answer from respondents when asked about the top areas of risk for packaging. In comparison, while legislation came to the forefront in 2019, it was not mentioned in 2016.
“I think legislation is becoming top of mind for a lot of people in the industry, and there is a recognition that to get flexible plastic packaging collected we need to be working with policymakers,” Bukowski says. While every packaging material has its pros and cons, the various stakeholders are trying to ensure new legislation does not leave out some materials. “There is a lot of focus on what any future legislation will be and any associated fees.”
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws are spreading in the United States (See 2022 Wraps Up With California Passing EPR for Packaging on page 14). However, no cogent national policies have been developed, an FPA concern central to its efforts calling for expanded circularity initiatives on multiple levels. In the survey, legislation/regulations also show up under the top “wild card”—or forces that are not certain but could have a major impact.
Bukowski says U.S. companies should continue to monitor developments in the EU. The EU is cited in the survey as the top entity that will lead the marketplace and packaging sector to a circular economy, followed by brand owners at No. 2 and packing industry leaders/associations at No. 3.
The EU has been moving toward taxes on virgin plastics (UK), recycling targets for different materials, and other measures to encourage circularity. The economic impact of such laws on packaging companies and brand owners could be extensive.
And Bukowski cautions that companies should study options for plastic packaging before changing processes, because there might be unintended consequences, such as what happened with pulp-based packaging and the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to coat paper packages. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified PFAS as a growing environmental problem.
“There is a concern that it can end up getting in the compost, and there is a lot of legislation looking at PFAS,” he says.
Developing New Facilities
Advanced/chemical recycling was the No. 1 response when asked what top scientific advances will have the greatest influence on packaging. Bukowski mentions this as an example of where cooperation will be needed, because these processes are so complex and expensive that companies should work together while getting support from government agencies and others.
In another question about the most important programs to get to zero waste and a circular economy, about 30% mentioned advanced recycling and EPR implementation, and about 40% mentioned material recovery facilities.
“Individual companies have goals. But to get everything recycled and collected, it must be a much bigger picture of the industry coming together,” Bukowski says. “Much of this is outside the purview of packaging converters and brand owners—such as developing composting and food waste collection—so these sorts of infrastructure changes are way beyond what packaging companies or brand owners have direct control of. It also involves working with the government, the waste industry, policymakers, and legislators.”
Another top concern is developing recovery facilities in emerging markets. While the United States might be behind the EU in recycling efforts, it is much further ahead of emerging markets where facilities might be few or nonexistent, Bukowski says. For global brand owners with a worldwide reach, the survey shows a need for additional focus on developing recovery facilities in those areas.
The “Packaging Thought Leader Survey 2032” is part of a much larger PTIS project that it conducted with the help of John Mahaffie, a futurist. Most business leaders think about today and the next quarter, perhaps looking two to three years into the future. What if they took some time to peer 10 years ahead and start plotting where they want to be in 2032? That is what about 15 companies along the packaging value chain—from raw material suppliers to packaging companies to brand owners to retailers—have been doing as part of the in-depth study by PTIS and Mahaffie.
The Future of Packaging has been conducted every three years since 2004. The latest iteration started in 2022, with the team monitoring different packaging-related topics involving research, legislation, retailer trends, and consumer preferences.
Then, in March, the participating companies sent representatives to Arizona State University (ASU). Participants spent two days working in groups to discuss macro issues involving circularity while learning about ASU’s extensive sustainability facilities and programs. In May, they met again at the University of Georgia, which runs the New Materials Institute, to fine-tune their discussions.
The first meeting at ASU helped facilitate thinking big. Although the school doesn’t have a packaging program, it offered participants a wider view of what sustainability entails, Mahaffie says.
The agenda included a look at the ASU College of Global Futures, which includes the School of Sustainability, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and School of Complex Adaptive Systems, says Ryan M. Johnson, executive director of executive and professional education at the College of Global Futures. The college is part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at ASU. One of Johnson’s duties as executive director is to work with midcareer professionals to build sustainability programs for their companies.
The ASU programming helped people to look at circularity issues from various perspectives that participants might not have previously considered, Mahaffie says.
The project culminated in September with a meeting in Washington, D.C., and then with program leaders developing road maps to 2032 for the participating companies. The details of the road maps are proprietary to those companies, which use the road maps to customize plans for their individual companies, Bukowski says.
“We talk about explore, define, and shape,” Bukowski says about the project called Future of Packaging: Navigating New Horizons. “Explore is the first meeting, define is getting a little deeper into the issues, and shaping is the road map. What actions can you take as a leader in this space and be ready for the future? What are the changes that are coming and how can you prepare for that?”
The project identifies key trends and takeaways that will impact packaging—the technologies, the people, and skill sets, as well as the type of collaborations or partnerships that will be needed along the road, Bukowski adds.
“Like the old Wayne Gretzky saying, ‘You want to skate to where the puck is going to be and not where it is now,’” Bukowski says. “We use that analogy for packaging—to think about where that puck is going to be for packaging in 10 years and try to help companies plan and use foresight rather than responding to current trends.”
As a futurist, Mahaffie says he immersed himself in the complexities facing the packaging industry, so he can ask the questions of industry leaders to test their thinking, enabling them to see the future through different lenses. One mistake is not understanding a company’s core mission and then misreading changes in the marketplace, Mahaffie says. There are plenty of examples, whether it was calculator manufacturers that didn’t foresee apps for phones and computers or camera makers that assumed people always would want printed photos. Great companies can fall victim to the same traps, including staying focused on their area of expertise while not monitoring the changes coming from outside, Mahaffie says.
“These are the changes that are around the corner, are less on their radar or not yet recognized, fully interpreted or grappled with,” Mahaffie explains. “I am the outsider there to say, ‘Let me help you think about the future and think about change early on.’ My role is showing people how to think differently, coaching them, but then also giving them a broad view of change and future possibility.”
Companies that lack foresight will miss the shifting marketplace and then attempt to buy their way into a new system or business.
“Often, the missed opportunity is hidden because big, powerful, well-functioning companies buy their way in afterward. It is not all that economical to do that,” he says. “I’ve been telling a lot of those kinds of stories and explaining what locks up thinking.”
Mahaffie acknowledges it isn’t easy for successful companies to think about changing their fundamentals or identities. That is where opening up to outside views and considerations helps. Through the Future of Packaging program, participants immediately are exposed to new ways of thinking, because they are working with other thought leaders from various industries who bring unique perspectives to the conversations, Mahaffie says.
“They get a cross-pollination of ideas. If we arranged for these people to sit together in a room for two days and we weren’t there, they already would have value in talking to each other,” Mahaffie says. “That is much different than going inside one company and talking about the future.”
He has been doing similar programs since the 1990s and found that 10 years is an optimal horizon, because leaders are forced to stretch their thinking while knowing that the goals they set will be achievable and in a time frame they can see through to completion.
“Taking a 10-year view has people thinking far enough out that we are not in their inbox,” Mahaffie says. “It is different enough from today that people will notice that you are talking about something different. What are the big goals? And then they need to make sure they are not just making minor tweaks or changes around the edges.”
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.