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What is smart packaging?

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At its core, packaging is there to protect products and showcase them in a way that appeals to consumers. But these days, it can be about so much more as well. Companies are increasingly switching to smart packaging solutions that take advantage of the latest tech to do anything from interact with consumers to enhance products’ shelf lives. Highlighting this trend, research carried out by Mordor Intelligence suggests that the global smart packaging market will be worth $48.7 billion (£36.3 billion) by 2026. So what exactly is smart packaging and how is it being used?

How does smart packaging work?

Fundamentally, ‘smart packaging’ describes packaging that has extended functions, in other words functions beyond simply protecting and promoting products. It’s an umbrella term that can be used to refer to a whole range of different approaches and technologies. How smart packaging works depends on what specifically it is tailored to do. For instance, some of these containers are designed to interact with the products inside them while others interact with the outside world.

The two main categories of smart packaging are ‘active’ and intelligent’. We break down what these terms mean below.

Types of smart packaging

Active packaging describes containers that interact with the contents they hold. An increasingly popular choice for a range of companies, particularly those in the foods and perishable goods industries, this type of packaging can enhance the quality of products and increase their shelf life. They can do this by releasing particular substances into the immediate surroundings of the product or by removing substances from this medium.

For example, light filtering materials can be used, or ethylene or oxygen absorbers. Materials can also be coated with moisture-regulating or antimicrobial substances. A good example of this is a beer contained in a plastic bottle that has an oxygen absorber fitted into the cap, extending the product’s shelf life from three months to six.

Intelligent packaging, on the other hand, describes containers that in some way communicate with the world around them. For example, they may be able to monitor the condition of their contents and inform customers of any changes. They might include sensors to provide information on variables such as storage time, temperature and overall freshness. This can help consumers to see if there has been a problem during the movement or storage of goods that will impact on their quality. To illustrate this point, take the example of packaging that changes colour if there has been a leak of the contents or if the safe maximum temperature has been exceeded. There are also electronic sensors that can transmit details about when products have been opened or where they are at a given moment in the distribution chain.

The term intelligent packaging can also refer to containers that have characteristics such as QR codes or augmented reality features that convey information to users.

Is smart packaging the same as intelligent packaging?

As highlighted above, the terms smart packaging and intelligent packaging don’t refer to exactly the same thing, although there is overlap between the concepts. Intelligent packaging is generally considered to be one specific type of smart packaging.

How smart packaging can help fight food waste

Food waste is a huge problem. According to the charity WRAP, 25-30% of total food produced across the world is lost or wasted. But could greater use of smart packaging help to fight this problem? Potentially yes. There are various ways in which sophisticated containers that make use of new materials and ‘talk’ to consumers can help to combat unnecessary wastage.

For example, intelligent containers that show consumers how long packaging has been open for can reduce people’s dependence on potentially misleading ‘best before’ dates, helping consumers to only throw away food that is unsafe. And as mentioned before, active packaging can be used to preserve food for longer through the use of particular chemicals featured in the containers themselves. By reducing bacterial growth, they can extend shelf life considerably.

Other, more long-standing, examples of containers that help to reduce waste include ‘snap-packs’ that split food into individual portions within a larger container, allowing people to keep remaining food in sealed packaging. Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) is another well-established example of innovative packaging that has proven effective at lowering waste. MAP containers feature a specific blend of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide that surrounds food and helps to preserve its shelf life, as well as its taste and colour.

Incorporating smart packaging into your brand story

Whether you’re looking for ways to make your products last longer or you simply want to enhance the customer experience, incorporating smart features into your packaging could be key. Utilising innovative materials and technology in your packaging could elevate your brand and unlock new opportunities.

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