2021 Bakery Packaging Trends: Lessons North American brands can learn from Europe

By Harpak-ULMA
Posted In : Bakery
Individually Wrapped Bakery Products

It’s the same in packaging as it is in fashion: What’s currently in vogue in Europe will make its way across the Atlantic in a few short years.


To give you an example, think about the big shift to retail-ready case packaging that emerged a few years ago. It started in Europe as a way to combat labor costs. When restocking products in retail-ready packaging, all an employee has to do is grab another case, pop it open and put it on the shelf. Aldi and Lidl brought this model over to North America and, ultimately, even Walmart adopted it. Today, you probably even package some of your own product lines in this way.

Europe has always led the charge in packaging innovation – and for North American bakery brands, this fact presents a great opportunity. To get ahead of the next big thing, all you have to do is look across the pond.

Of course, your brand can’t invest in a major packaging change on a whim just because European brands are doing it.

You also have to consider:

  • “What impact will this have on packaging costs?”
  • “Will I have to slow down my packaging line?”
  • “How can I minimize speed-to-market for this change?”

We recently spoke with our packaging team in Spain about the trends they’ve seen in the bakery packaging segment, which we’ll explore below.


And as we do, we won’t neglect any of the above considerations.


For each trend, we’ll provide actionable advice on how your brand can adopt it – and what conversations you need to have, both internally and with your suppliers, to avoid negative consequences on your operations, throughput and bottom line.


Let’s dive in.


Lesson 1: Plotting a course for your sustainable packaging initiative

It’s no secret that Europe is lightyears ahead of the U.S. in terms of packaging sustainability. They rolled out sustainable concepts like tray-less meat packaging a decade ago that the U.S. is only now beginning to test.


And with the sustainability wave now hitting the U.S. in full force, it’s time for large and small brands alike to accelerate their sustainable packaging timelines.


Brands that don’t move quickly are putting themselves at massive risk of:

  • Losing contracts with key retailers (e.g., Target, Walmart) if sustainability deadlines are missed.
  • Missing out on sales as consumers continue to boycott brands based on packaging alone.
  • Tarnishing their brand reputation if consumers share pictures and information about unsustainable packaging.

Many bakery brands – especially large, international brands with a European footprint – have already developed, tested and rolled out commercial-ready sustainable packaging.


But for those that haven’t, there are some key lessons to be learned from how European brands have successfully transitioned to more sustainable packaging formats.


Below, we’ll give you a clear roadmap as to how to get your brand’s own sustainable packaging initiative underway.


Switching packaging materials

“Sustainable packaging materials” is a term that describes a broad category of materials, enveloping any material that boasts a distinct environmental benefit.


It includes:

  • Compostable materials such as PLA which break down into valuable organic material in industrial composting facilities.
  • Recyclable plastics and papers which lengthen the life cycle of packaging materials.
  • Recycled films and papers which give new life to post- and pre-consumer waste.
  • Lightweight film and paper materials which reduce the raw material consumption of your package, as well as the greenhouse gases emitted in the transport of your products.

Within each of the above categories exist hundreds of proprietary packaging material products from various suppliers – and each discrete material option will offer different performance attributes and will interact differently with your packaging line machinery.


Picking the right material on your own – the material that will both meet your performance requirements and run seamlessly on your existing form/fill/seal equipment – is like finding a needle in a haystack.


There’s a better way.


From observing when brands have been successful in their packaging material transition, and when they haven’t, our European packaging team has a simple recommendation:

Loop your equipment manufacturer and material supplier in as soon as possible.


Any equipment supplier worth the badge on their machines will be in constant contact with film suppliers, testing new sustainable material options as they come out. As they test each new material, they’ll record any adjustments they need to make on their machines in order to run it efficiently.


Ultimately, both the film supplier and the equipment supplier will give feedback to each other’s product development teams. The equipment supplier will update their machines to better accommodate the sustainable material, and the film supplier will update the film so it will interact better with the machine.


During your initial conversation with your film supplier and equipment supplier, you’ll need to tell them:

  • Your throughput speed requirements.
  • Your package performance requirements (burst strength, shelf life, etc.).
  • The packaging equipment on which you plan to run the material.
  • Your sustainability goals: Are you in a region with the infrastructure to support composting? Or do you need to meet a specific sustainability requirement set by a retailer?


They’ll work with you to home in on the just-right material to meet your needs and take you through the prototyping and testing process to leave you with a commercial-ready package.


First, they’ll seek to figure out a way to run the new material on your existing equipment with minimum modifications, and without incurring a significant decrease in throughput or increase in per-package cost.


And when it isn’t possible to run the new material on your existing equipment, they’ll point you toward the best long-term solution for your brand’s packaging needs.


Proactively including your material and equipment suppliers early on will mitigate the risk of:

  • Ordering large quantities of the wrong material, only to realize it won’t run at your desired throughput and quality on your packaging line equipment.
  • Spending months searching for a new, sustainable material when your equipment supplier likely already certified that a material that perfectly fits your needs will run efficiently on their machines.
  • Increased production costs due to a drop in throughput speed – and the downstream supply chain ramifications of reduced output.


We have an entire team of packaging experts dedicated to testing out new packaging materials. Our only goal is that when a brand reaches out with a packaging design need, we’re able to deliver on it as quickly as possible to reduce their speed-to-market.


Changing up your package format to reduce raw material usage

The phrase, “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” begins with “reduce” for a reason. Source reduction, or using less material in the first place, has a greater net impact on the environment than recycling, composting and other energy recovery strategies.


In Europe, less packaging is considered better packaging – and pressure from consumers is intensifying in North America as well.


Even removing one packaging component (e.g., a tray, an outer carton, etc.) can have a significant impact on the sustainability of your packaging. And there’s often an opportunity to cut packaging costs through material reduction.


During any sustainable packaging initiative, ask yourself: Could we use less packaging material while still protecting the product and communicating our brand story?


Leveraging your packaging as a food waste reduction strategy

Food is not an infinite resource. And yet around one-third of all food produced is wasted every year. This poses an obvious sustainability issue: How can we future-proof food production for an ever-growing world population?


The environmental impact of the packaging material isn’t the only factor to consider when measuring how sustainable a package is. You also have to consider the degree to which it prevents food waste.


To this end, two European trends are slowly infiltrating the North American market:

  1. A heightened emphasis on shelf-life extension
  2. Reducing portion sizes to more accurately reflect how a product is consumed


We’ll break down how your brand can incorporate each trend one by one.


If you’d like to increase the shelf life of your bakery package, you generally have two options: Switching to modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) or spraying alcohol on your product to preserve it.


While using alcohol as a preservative is a cost-effective option to extend the shelf life of bakery products, few brands want to put that on their label nowadays.


For brands that want a clean label, MAP is the best option, although it’s more expensive. It often makes sense for premium, health-focused products such as gluten-free flatbread made of cauliflower crusts where the increased packaging cost can be justified.


MAP also makes sense for companies that have spread-out supply chains. If, for instance, you only have two plants serving the entire United States, then you’ll need to invest in MAP packaging or packaging that can be frozen, to ensure your products make it to their retail destination without going stale.


But before diving headfirst into a shelf-life extension initiative, talk to your equipment supplier. Chances are, they’ve helped another brand accomplish the very same thing – and can drastically speed up your time-to-market on the new package.


Portion size reduction of bakery products is commonplace in Europe. Instead of eight hamburger buns, there are four.


And it just makes sense.


As household sizes decrease, “Burger Night” no longer needs eight burgers. And if buns come in packs of eight, the remaining four either get tossed or go stale. You can already see this trend seeping into U.S. retailers like Aldi, where smaller packs are available.


And if your brand would like to capitalize on this trend as a sustainability play, there are ways to do so without slowing down the output of your oven and the speed of your overall production line.


Let’s say you currently run your eight-pack hamburgers on a bagging line that runs 60 packs a minute, meaning you package 480 buns every minute. If you were to change to four-packs on the same machine, you’d still be limited to 60 packs per minute, cutting your throughput in half.


And if you’re anything like our other bakery clients, your mantra when making any packaging change is, “We can’t slow down our production lines.”


In this case, investing in a flow wrapper would be well worth the expense. Flow wrappers run much faster than bread baggers and are flexible enough to account for both pack variations. You would simply increase the speed when running the four-pack to achieve the same bun-per-minute output.


Overarching recommendations for accelerating your sustainable packaging initiative:

  • Loop in key stakeholders early and often: Your internal marketing, engineering and operations departments will need to collaborate to develop a package that is not only environmentally friendly, but feasible.
  • Rely on the expertise of your material supplier and packaging equipment manufacturers. They’ve developed sustainable packages time and again for other brands and will help you start on Chapter 12 instead of page one.
  • There are many ways to address the sustainable packaging problem. And making even the smallest changes – removing the outer carton, for instance – can have a meaningful impact on the sustainability of your packaging.

Lesson 2: Less isn’t always more

Never are consumers more concerned about their safety than during a pandemic. And in Europe, fast food brands and commissaries responded to this heightened concern by asking their distributors to deliver products in smaller portions.


Whereas biscuits used to be delivered in large boxes of 150 or so units, now they’re individually wrapped to reduce hand-to-food contact during preparation. In some cases, products are even being heated up and served without ever removing the packaging.


You’ll likely also see this same shift in the artisan section of your bakery if you haven’t already.


In Europe, a lot of bakeries have transitioned to individually wrapped donuts and baked treats. Display cases that you used to be able to directly touch with a tissue now contain single-serve baked goods.


This trend toward individually sized packages has permeated even the markets most sensitive to sustainability, including Sweden and Norway. Our European packaging team has observed a marked increase in demand for small packaging machines from bakeries that previously sold products without any packaging at all.


This trend toward individually wrapped baked goods may seem diametrically opposed to the push for more sustainable packaging. In some ways it is, but there’s never an easy, black-and-white answer when it comes to packaging strategy.


With any package, you need to ask:

  1. Will this package deliver the food safely, and free of contaminants, to the consumer?
  2. What is the impact of this package on the environment?


COVID has tipped the scales in favor of the first question, but that’s not to say sustainability has become irrelevant.


The pandemic simply adds a layer of complexity, and another question: If you have to wrap your products in individual packages, how can you make them the most sustainable single-portion packages possible?


Last year was a whirlwind. Want some help planning for this year?

We’ll help you develop, test and prototype your next big packaging project — even if it has to be over Zoom meetings and screen shares.


If your marketing team has developed an innovative concept, or you’d like to tap into the latest consumer trend, our experienced team can help you go from back-of-napkin concept to commercial-ready reality.


Reach out to us today to get started.

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