Frozen food packaging gets more sustainable as consumers want more individually wrapped items

Dive Brief:

  • Almost half of consumers started buying more frozen foods during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from The Freedonia Group. Seven in 10 are focused on maintaining a stockpile of food at home.
  • During the pandemic, 39% of consumers sought out single-serving or individually wrapped products, which use larger amounts of packaging materials. Prepackaged foods, including frozen varieties, also saw higher sales than fresh produce stored in loose boxes because of health concerns.
  • The increase in frozen food purchases has added momentum to consumers’ demand for more sustainable packaging materials. Many manufacturers and retailers have made recent efforts to swap out older packaging for recyclable, reusable and compostable options.

Dive Insight:

Frozen food purchases have been on a steady climb since COVID-19 first hit. The items that have seen the biggest tailwinds, according to the report, include pizza (37%), vegetables (37%), entrees (27%) and poultry (26%). A few other items that saw a boost include beef, breakfast products, side dishes, seafood, fruit and desserts.

Between November 2019 and November 2020 alone, frozen food sales climbed 17.4%according to data from IRI and the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association. That trend hasn’t slowed, with frozen foods driving center store sales growth in 2021. Nearly every frozen product category has posted double-digit sales increases, according to a report from the American Frozen Food Institute and the Food Industry Association (FMI). Freedonia Group found U.S. shipments of frozen foods are slated to hit $108 billion by 2024, representing a 2.5% increase each year, according to the report. That figure is not only influenced by higher demand, but it also reflects food manufacturers adding a variety of new frozen foods — including healthy, organic and clean label offerings — to their lineups.

With consumers increasing demand for frozen foods and individually-wrapped items, the packaging industry is scrambling to keep up. New demand for frozen food packaging has spurred innovation, including improvements around microwavable products, including steamable packaging. Advancements in cold-chain technology and smart packaging that gives off alerts when the temperature changes can help meet increasing need.

Sustainability is a major topic among consumers, who are becoming more concerned about where the packaging from their food winds up. The Freedonia Group report notes a number of leading frozen food manufacturers have signed on to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment to eliminate plastic waste — which entails eliminating problematic or unnecessary packaging, innovating toward 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 and upcyclingSo far, food manufacturers including Danone and Mondelez, plastic food packaging makers Amcor and Berry Global and grocery retailers Target and Walmart have signed on to the commitment. 

Frozen food packaging companies are also working toward creating sustainable options. Associated Packaging Technologies is among the first to venture into recyclable frozen food packaging, and developed recycled crystallized polyethylene terephthalate frozen food trays containing between 30% and 40% post-consumer recycled content. Packaging providers Glenroy’s, Emmerson Packaging and ProAmpac are also making strides toward greater sustainability in frozen food packaging, according to the Freedonia Group report. The report also points out Sonoco Products’ 100% sugarcane-based fiber bowl for refrigerated, frozen and prepared foods, and Perdue’s compostable foam packaging made from cornstarch that dissolves under running water for frozen meat items.

Food companies are also working toward developing next-generation packaging. Nestlé pledged $2 billion Swiss francs ($2.1 billion) towards sustainable packaging development. General Mills’ Nature Valley brand is debuting fully recyclable plastic wrappers this spring, Kraft Heinz is testing recyclable paper bowls for its Macaroni & Cheese cups, and Diageo and PepsiCo are designing paper bottles to debut in 2021. Coca-Cola is also transitioning to bottles made from 100% recycled plastic.

While consumers are placing a higher premium on sustainable packaging, they are also willing to shell out more for products that meet these preferences. A recent Shorr Packaging survey found seven out of 10 shoppers check packaging and will pay more attention to both packaging and labels moving forward. If packaging clearly states that it is reusable or recyclable, 58% said they would be likely or very likely to make the purchase. So while the pandemic and its aftermath may make consumers interested in more packaged products in the near term, including a sustainability element could clearly pay off.

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