This article was published in the July 2023 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our July digital edition.

When pet parents shop the pet food aisle in grocery stores, specialty retailers or even in independent pet shops, they encounter an immense range of options when it comes to pet food and treats. There are products for dogs and cats in an assortment of formulations designed to fulfill a wide variety of dietary needs. And alongside those options, there are products in cans, tubs, pouches and bags, each with their own perceived benefit.

With so much selection lining the shelves, pet food and treat processors are tasked with the challenge of having their product stand out above the rest. Since many shoppers will “judge a book by its cover,” having packaging that can grab a shopper’s attention can help processors make the sale.

But pet food packaging needs to go beyond appearances. It needs to help processors deliver quality product with every purchase, while potentially offering features and benefits that go beyond the product qualities themselves — first and foremost, sustainability. Today’s leading packaging companies are working diligently to create innovative packaging options to help processors meet increasing consumer and industry demands for sustainable solutions.  

Flow wrapper FFS technology by Matrix Packaging Machinery

Flow wrapper horizontal form-fill-seal packaging machines are the ideal choice for packaging individual pet food treats, bones and even pet toys. 

Source: Matrix Packaging Machinery

“While there are numerous ‘green’ and holistic choices when it comes to pet food, there is a substantial push underway to extend green attributes to pet food and pet care packaging as well,” said Christine Duncan, marketing director for Grafton, Wis.-based Matrix Packaging Machinery, a ProMach brand. “The key to responding to these market needs is to provide the industry with packaging options that meet the sustainability standards that pet food manufacturers and consumers are looking for. This is a challenge Matrix is gladly undertaking.”


Premium packaging

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. This adage rings true when it comes to selling pet food and treats. With so many offerings in the pet food aisle, it’s crucial to stand out. When shopping for packaging solutions, pet food processors have a wide array of options, especially if they’re trying to convey a message of premiumization to the pet parent customer.

“High-quality, premium pet food offerings can use packaging functionality and finishes to signal best-in-class products and shelf-appeal,” said Jake Reinke, Amcor Flexibles North America.

“High-quality, premium pet food offerings can use packaging functionality and finishes to signal best-in-class products and shelf-appeal,” said Jake Reinke, market manager for pet at Amcor Flexibles North America, Oshkosh, Wis. “Packaging aesthetic additions such as metallic inks, anti-glare matte, soft touch matte, tactile (paper-like feel), or a combination help signal premium at a glance.

“Amcor’s Amplify™ print technologies provide our customers with engaging brand visual identity to signal the quality of the contents of the packaging,” Reinke added.

Packaging featuring bold colors and high-quality printing can deliver a premium message to the shopper. In addition, unique packaging materials — including film type or texture — can also communicate quality.

“Premium packaging has the following characteristics: superb printing quality with special effect inks and overprint varnish; enhancements such as easy-tear zippers or a clear window to show the product; packages that stand up to freezing or refrigeration,” said Alex Dam, executive vice president of Vietnam-based Thanh Phu Packaging Co. “In addition, film with barrier properties that are targeted to the unique properties of the product being packaged with the ability to reduce the amount of plastic used or eliminate multi-layered packaging that is not recyclable.”

Flexible pouch packaging solutions by Matrix Packaging Machinery

The Pacraft pre-made pouch packaging machine from Matrix Packaging Machinery offers flexibility for a wide variety of bag styles with quick changeover. 

Source: Matrix Packaging Machinery

Clear windows on product packaging not only convey quality but build trust with the consumer by allowing the product to be seen before it’s purchased.

“Additional premium offerings include the use of shapes on packages to stand out on the shelf,” said Julie Lichtman, director of market development, TC Transcontinental Packaging, Chicago. “Shaped pouches and shaped windows build brand equity with the consumer through the packaging, while use of clear windows provides transparency of product to the consumer.”

However, the consumer’s interaction with product packaging is not only a visual experience — packaging must also be functional. Functionality can include features such as easy-to-open, re-closable and even easy-to-tear packaging.

“New sensory focused re-close features provide enhanced audible and tactile experiences while ensuring locked in freshness,” Lichtman said. “From a Baby Boomer seeking easy-to-open and close packaging to a toddler helping to feed the fur baby of the home, these features are sought out by everyone in the household.” 

Reinke added, “Packaging functionality enhancements include high-end reclosures such as sliders and pocket zips. Additionally, it is important for the consumer’s experience with the packaging to be pleasing. Easy-to-tear films paired with scoring contribute to an immediate positive experience with a brand from the very first opening.” 

However, finish and functionality may not be as top of mind with today’s pet food consumer as other packaging qualities.


Sustainable solutions

According to Dam, the concepts of reduce, reuse and recycle are the driving forces behind packaging and equipment innovation.

Dam said such innovation includes “making stronger recyclable films, working with brand owners to assess their true needs versus what is available, and making sure that a package meets the brand owners’ specifications without being overpackaged.”

Pet food processors are looking for packaging options that offer sustainable solutions, and recycle-ready packaging is one of those innovations.

“Recycle-ready flat-bottom and quad-seal packaging are innovations primarily driven by the pet food industry,” said Julie Lichtman, TC Transcontinental Packaging.

“Recycle-ready flat-bottom and quad-seal packaging are innovations primarily driven by the pet food industry,” Lichtman said. “And not just a recycle-ready offering, but a premium pet food package that looks, feels and performs the same as the packaging consumers know and love today (yet sadly is not recyclable). And for processors, a sustainable offering at a comparable price that runs similarly on their existing equipment.

“Recycle-ready packaging that checks all these boxes requires both material and equipment innovation,” she added. “A great example of meeting this unmet market need is TC Transcontinental Packaging’s soft touch recycle-ready film with recyclable re-close features.”

Amcor also offers recycle-ready packaging, called AmPrima™, in both pouch and rollstock formats. The packages can be recycled through in-store drop off or curbside recycling if available.

“AmPrima is a mono-PE [polyethylene] solution that is designed with no compromise to line speeds or key packaging quality metrics such as clarity, color definition, drop strength, heat resistance, stiffness, seal strengths, and coefficient of friction for larger pouches,” Reinke said. “AmPrima can include recycled content for increased improvements in sustainability and the circular economy.”

While there are more sustainable packaging options on the market today, the job of figuring out what works best with the product being packaged and the processor’s existing equipment can be a daunting task.

Sustainable pet food packaging solutions by TC Transcontinental

TC Transcontinental has developed its packaging innovations with sustainability in mind. 

Source: TC Transcontinental Packaging

“Most of the recycled materials we use today are comprised of oriented polyethylene or polypropylene thermoplastic polymers. These two types of materials are mono-layer, which means they are comprised of a single main material,” Duncan said. “In contrast, many common flexible packaging styles on the market today use laminated films, such as metallic or metalized films like aluminum. These differences in films have posed a challenge to packaging machines in the past… While strong advances have been made, running recycled or compostable materials at high speeds on these machines can still be difficult, and for some manufacturers, a work in progress.”

As the demand for sustainable packaging increases and the requirements to meet those demands evolve, pet food processors need to consider packaging materials and equipment that can also evolve.

“Green films for pet food packaging are constantly evolving. Market demands and customer buying preferences today may very well be different five years from now,” Duncan said. “The best way to stay ahead of those trends is to have packaging machinery that is flexible to run a wide variety of films. Matrix, Pacraft, and Ossid are paving the way forward by working closely with film suppliers to deliver the best practical solutions to pet food manufacturers and their customers.”


Adding automation

While many processing facilities might incorporate automation into the packaging side of the facility, pet food plants oftentimes have more labor working on this end-of-line process, especially co-manufacturing facilities. This is mostly due to the ongoing product changeover that goes into servicing a large number of end customers. However, robotics and engineering firms encourage pet food processors to consider the benefits and return on investment that adding automation can bring.

“Pet food manufacturers can see substantial savings in both time and money through automating their end-of-line processes,” said Nick Szczechowski, regional sales manager for Brenton Engineering, Alexandria, Minn. “Increased efficiency, improved product quality, greater flexibility, and improved safety equals savings with a quantifiable return on investment that is hard to beat.”

However, adding automation doesn’t automatically mean a reduction in labor. In fact, many processors incorporate automation into packaging operations in an effort to redistribute labor to other areas of the plant.

“Typically, labor that’s been replaced by automation is relocated to other areas within the plant,” Szczechowski said. “For example, those operators from the packaging line can become more skilled employees through training which allows them to run the new automation systems. They can become more valuable to the organization, and their earning power increases — it’s really a win-win situation for all involved.”   


Lending a hand

Achieving sustainability goals involves a group effort from all members of the production and consumption chain — from equipment and materials companies to processors and manufacturers, all the way to the end consumer.

“Sustainable options are getting better and better, and we have a strong focus on offering these options to our customers,” said Dave Long, vice president of product and market development, ePac Flexible Packaging, Lenexa, Kan. “ePac strives to be straightforward in our approach to the market. When we dialogue with customers in the pet food market, we provide a hierarchy of sustainability options to show which options are more impactful in the United States today.”

Recyclable pet food and treat packaging solutions by Thanh Phu Packaging Co.

All Thanh Phu packaging materials are third-party certified as fully recyclable. 

Source: Thanh Phu Packaging Co.

Amcor works with its customers to help them choose a packaging system that best meets their overall sustainability goals. Its ASSET™ life cycle assessment service measures the energy, water and carbon footprint metrics between existing packaging and a more sustainable Amcor solution.

“Understanding a brand’s current packaging formats and their sustainability timeline is essential when working on sustainability goals,” Reinke said. “At Amcor, we have a dedicated R&D team that can work through a development plan on multiple sustainable options such as inclusion of recycled content, transition to recycle-ready, and even reducing plastic usage by right sizing and downgauging films. It’s critical that we develop a partnership and understanding of the [customer’s] end goal.”

Thanh Phu also extends its partnership with the processors it works with beyond simply providing packaging materials and services.

“We are constantly working to improve our offerings to our brand owners in our efforts to be a technology partner, not just a packaging supplier,” said Alex Dam, Thanh Phu Packaging Co.

“We are constantly working to improve our offerings to our brand owners in our efforts to be a technology partner, not just a packaging supplier,” Dam said. “As they face increased legislation regarding PCR (post-consumer recycled) plastics, we are here to help them in the process by continuous process improvements and compliance in our plant to help them meet the environmental legislation(s).

“We will soon be introducing our advanced recycling PCR food-safe solutions to create another technological advancement in our efforts to stay ahead of the curve in offering a truly circular plastic packaging solution for the pet food industry.”

Thanh Phu has taken its efforts another step further by participating in the Pet Sustainability Coalition’s (PSC) Packaging Pledge, which was unveiled at SuperZoo 2022. The pledge is a voluntary commitment industrywide to move toward more sustainable, refillable, compostable and recyclable packaging.

The pledge asks pet industry companies to develop measurable goals and track progress toward the use of refillable, compostable, and recyclable packaging by the end of 2025. In exchange for their commitment, PSC will provide informational tools, including:

  • A marketplace of vetted, pre-qualified packaging suppliers
  • Methods of measuring packaging life cycles
  • Packaging design guides and labeling support from How2Recycle
  • Legislative updates from North America and the European Union on sustainable packaging
  • Marketing assets, including badges and social media promotion opportunities

“We [Thanh Phu Packaging] have been one of the founding members of the PSC sustainable packaging pledge since its inception, and we are providing our technical expertise on material sciences and the evolving legislative landscape,” Dam said. “All packaging procurement personnel need to be informed of the changes that are occurring across the packaging landscape, from resins to packaging equipment to printing to waste management to legislation. We use multiple resources to help our fellow PSC members stay better informed of the options they have in choosing from the various sustainable choices in packaging.”

The Packaging Pledge allows PSC and member companies to collaborate in the ongoing effort to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment.

“We believe in the work PSC has done and continues to do driving the adoption of sustainable packaging, challenging brand owners to commit to sustainable packaging which benefits our environment now and the future,” Dam added. “We all need to do our part, and we need to be doing it now.”

Read more about packaging solutions and trends for pet food and treats.