IDTechEx Discusses Which Sustainable Packaging Solutions Are Advancing the Circular Economy
Creating a circular economy is an essential sustainability target for governments, brands, suppliers, and the public.
A key driver is the risks that plastic consumption, which is expected to double globally by 2050, poses to the environment. Not only is plastic waste overflowing in landfills, but a significant portion is mismanaged and leaks into the environment: the OECD estimates that nearly 80 million tonnes of plastic waste was mismanaged globally in 2019.
Addressing plastic waste pollution requires solutions from every sector, but an especially important industry is the packaging sector, which utilizes about one-third of annual plastics production. Packaging, especially for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), utilizes significant amounts of single-use plastics that quickly end up in municipal waste streams. Therefore, sustainable packaging is a critical component needed to advance circularity. IDTechEx’s latest market report, “Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033”, explores the sustainable materials, leading players, and technology trends driving the field and presents a forecast for the sustainable packaging market segmented into 21 different materials. Three key segments emerge from these 21 different materials: mechanically recycled plastics, chemically recycled plastics, and bioplastics.
Mechanically Recycled Plastics
Mechanical recycling of plastics will be critical to pushing sustainability in the packaging sector forward. Mechanical recycling is the main source of recycled plastics, especially polyethylene terephthalate (PET), currently used by FMCG companies in products like beverage bottles and detergent containers. Not only does mechanical recycling prevent the further extraction of petroleum for virgin polymer production, but it is also the best end-of-life option for plastics in terms of carbon footprint.
As such, there is major market activity across the supply chain - from materials suppliers and recycling companies to packaging manufacturers and multinationals – to increase the recycled content of plastic packaging. IDTechEx predicts mechanical recycling will be the dominant source of sustainable plastics for packaging from 2023 to 2033. But as the latest IDTechEx report outlines, there are significant economic and technical problems preventing mechanically recycled plastics’ usage in sustainable plastic packaging, such as contamination, recycled material prices, downcycling, and more, which many players are looking to address.
Chemically Recycled Plastics
Conventional mechanical recycling methods are the primary choice for producing recycled plastic, but mechanically recycled plastics can often have worse material properties than their virgin equivalents. This creates the problem of downcycling, which keeps recycled plastics from being used again in packaging; however, this is where advanced recycling enters the picture. The allure of advanced recycling methods, like solvent extraction, pyrolysis, and depolymerization, is that they use thermochemical reactions to allow used plastic waste to be made into “new” virgin plastic, circumventing the issue of downcycling. There is also potential for processing mixed plastics, including polyolefins like polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), another issue facing mechanical recycling.
For these reasons, materials suppliers and FMCG companies are investing in chemically recycled plastics, many of which will end up in sustainable plastic packaging. However, chemical recycling is not a magic bullet; it faces numerous economic, environmental, and ethical barriers to adoption. Still, by 2030, chemical recycling will grow into a notable contributor to the sustainable packaging market.
Bioplastics and Biobased Materials
Yet, even if all the plastic produced every year were 100% recycled, there would still be a need for virgin feedstock to meet growing consumption. Bioplastics - plastics which are synthesized from biobased feedstocks - can replace incumbent fossil-based plastics here. Given their biobased origin, these plastics are a renewable alternative to incumbent petroleum-based plastics.
Many biobased polymers, including biobased PET and PE, polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), nanocellulose, and others, are being explored by major materials players and startups for application in packaging. Other biobased materials, like non-wood plant fibers and mycelium, are also seeing increasing attention for circular packaging solutions. IDTechEx’s analysis of 95 startups operating in sustainable packaging identified over twenty different biobased materials with over US$4 billion in investment. With such market interest, IDTechEx forecasts that bioplastics will be a consistent contributor to decarbonization efforts.
IDTechEx Sustainable Packaging Market Forecast
IDTechEx's new “Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033” report carefully segments the market by twenty-one different materials, which are extrapolated in the 10-year forecast to explore each segment’s current usage, the potential for growth, and key players. Additionally, IDTechEx provides comprehensive material benchmarking studies, examination of critical application areas, and in-depth market and economic analysis. For further information on this market, including discussion on 95 sustainable packaging start-ups, material benchmarking, and granular 10-year market forecasts, see the market report “Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033”.