After the Second World War, the plastics industry underwent incredibly fast development. There is probably no comparable sector of industry (apart perhaps from computing) which has grown so rapidly. The result is that plastics, and plastics packaging, are now an essential part of our everyday life. The key to their success has been versatility. In packaging, plastics are used for many varied applications ranging from sterile storage of medical and pharmaceutical goods, to extending the shelf life of foodstuffs such as bread, meat and vegetables, and protecting sensitive technical products from damage. This means that plastics make a significant contribution to improving the quality of our life. At the same time they preserve valuable resources and help to save costs, as a result of their lower weight. Over time, plastics have become ever more sophisticated, lighter and more versatile due to innovative technologies and they have replaced traditional packaging such as glass and paper in many areas.
Plastics packaging came into widespread use with the introduction of polyethylene in the fifties. Before this, in addition to classical packaging materials such as paper, glass and wood, we used films of converted natural materials such as cellulose acetate and Cellophane transparent cellulose film.
The development of polystyrene, polypropylene, PVC, polyesters and polyethylene copolymers saw the start of the rapid increase in the use of plastics.
Plastics packaging is everywhere today. In spite of the size and economic importance of the industry, it is a fact that manufacturers of plastics packaging (predominantly medium-sized and small companies) are now open to a double dependency: on the one side the raw material suppliers dictate the prices of plastics, and on the other side there is massive downward pressure on prices by customers - particularly in the food industry.
In addition there is increasing competition, especially from Eastern Europe, where manufacturers have capacities for high quality extrusion and printing at a lower cost. We can also expect increasing competition from the Far East, although manufacturers there are yet not as advanced as in Europe, particularly in the fields of barrier materials and printing technology. An additional pressure is that the packaging market is characterised by growing overcapacity, which is placing even more pressure on prices. Nevertheless demand for packaging will continue to increase.
It is anticipated that growth rates over the last few years averaging 4-5 % per annum will remain at these levels, or increase. There also appears to be a slight trend in Europe towards flexible packaging systems.
As far as the individual plastic materials are concerned, very high growth rates are expected for PET, in the field of rigid packaging. The main application for PET is bottles for carbonated drinks and mineral water. In Europe and the USA, PET bottles are now also being tested for packaging beer.
Another application for PET which will gain in significance is food (such as preserves) that is hot-filled. Growth is also expected in the use of injection moulded polypropylene for large tubs and buckets that will gradually replace metal containers. PVC, which is under pressure from other materials in the food sectors, holds a strong position in `bubble` packaging of pharmaceutical tablets and in `display` packaging of products such as tools, ironmongery and hardware.
In terms of product areas, food packaging - which is the largest single product area in the whole packaging industry, - will be the major growth market for plastics packaging. The growth of the market is assisted by demographic developments in Europe, such as the steady increase in single and two-person households and the growing number of elderly people, which is fundamentally influencing consumer purchasing habits.
The market demand today is for practical, time-saving ready or deep-frozen meals in small microwaveable easy-to-open packaging or packaging that can be resealed. The trend towards these convenience products is enhanced by the fact that more and more people can now afford them. The flexibility of plastics, in protective properties and processability, has given them an excellent position for fulfilling the specific packaging requirements of this market.
Another new and growing special market is the packaging of pharmaceutical and medical products. Again, there is a strong and growing demand for these products in industrialised countries, where considerable consumer expenditure is available for healthcare. These products, such as medicines, prostheses and hygienic products place particularly high demands on packaging, for sterility, protection, appearance and security, which can well be met by plastics. This sector offers many exciting commercial opportunities for plastics. But here too, the plastics packaging industry is coming under pressure as governments around the world try to minimise their costs in the health sector.
Medical packaging requires high investment, high quality expertise and above all patience. Development of primary medical packaging takes at least three or four years before it can be tested in detail and licensed by the authorities. This is the only way to ensure that the demanding requirements on the integrity of the product can be satisfied in full. It also raises the price threshold at which companies can enter this sector, and ensures that only those with high technology, a long-term outlook - and strong financial resources - can play a role.
The flexibility of plastics makes them particularly suitable in the field of medical packaging for moulded packaging with sealing systems for controlled dosage, child-proof packaging and tamper-proof/tamper-evident packages. There is also very large use of plastics in transport packaging - for moulded crates, shrink and stretch film pallet-wrapping - and moulded plastics pallets themselves. This all saves weight and fuel in shipping products between manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, and is light and readily collectable at the store. The interest of the European packaging industry is therefore high in this market, and a number of significant companies are active. We anticipate also that the growth in the Far East will be in double figures.