Are Smart Packaging and Sustainable Packaging on a Collision Course?

Are Smart Packaging and Sustainable Packaging on a Collision Course?

Two trends in the packaging industry are arguably on a collision course in the near future.  Though not much has been debated regarding the two trends, and both currently appear to have a bright future, it seems possible that in the end the two will battle for standing in the multi-billion dollar industry.

Smart packaging refers, in general, to packaging that does more than just protect the product and advertise to possible consumers.  An Examples would include pharmaceutical packaging that records the time medication is taken as well as the doses taken. Other packaging may allow recordings or vibrations on products to attract attention on the shelf or even adjust expiration dates based on temperature and other environmental factors.

Sustainable packaging, again, in general terms, refers to optimizing the materials and energy used in the packaging process, minimizing waste, pollution and cost.  This refers not just to the package and product itself, but the entire process, from manufacturing components to shipping and packaging to recycling the components.

At first glance, it would seem that there is no reason that these two packaging trends could not co-exist, but digging a little deeper shows the potential for the two to work against one another in the future.  One of the biggest obstacles for smart packaging is the cost, and this cost is not simply limited to the package or smart components of the package.  Obviously, the package itself will cost more when electronics are involved to add a voice, record data or otherwise perform some higher function.  This added cost itself is somewhat in conflict with sustainable packaging, but were it to end here, a cost/benefit analysis may continue to allow the two trends to co-exist.

However, current packaging machinery will likely require some modification to allow certain smart packages to be run on current lines.  Others may require entirely new packaging equipment.  This once again drives up the cost of not just the package but also the process of packaging.  Filling machines, capping equipment, power conveyors and labelers may need to be modified or completely re-designed to package product while protecting the electronics that make the smart packaging smart.

All of these costs are, in almost every case, passed on to the consumer, and so begin the battles of the two trends.  In some cases, consumers may be willing to pay more money for the smart packaging, as there are undoubtedly some who would welcome the reminder to take medication.  In others, such as a talking box, the advantage or benefit may or may not outweigh the added cost.  Each product and package combination, then, may create its own battle between smart packaging and sustainability.

Furthermore, smart packaging may conflict with other facets of sustainable packaging as well.  The electronics and other components of smart packaging may or may not be eco-friendly or easily recycled.  Given that truly sustainable packaging refers to the entire process, there is the potential for conflict with the special components of smart packaging.  

Though both of these trends appear to have support in the packaging industry, there may come a day when the two are in direct conflict.  The two likely outcomes appear to be one trend living on while the other fades away, or a case-by-case cost/benefit analysis to gauge the actual value of the smart packaging against a sustainable packaging process.