November/December 2020

Plant-based food begets plant-based packaging
By Sean Riley, senior director, media and industry communications, PMMI

U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew more than 11% in 2019, expanding the total plant-based market value to over $5 billion, according to The Good Food Institute (GFI) and the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA).

In comparison, the broader food market grew at a relatively modest 2%, according to the Trends and Advances in Food Packaging and Processing report from PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies.

All categories of plant-based foods experienced growth across the board, with the highest rates in creamers, sauces and dips, per the PBFA. A specific look at the plant-based meat category reveals a sector approaching $1 billion on its own, with sales up 18% in the past year. Refrigerated plant-based meat is the biggest driver, up 63%, while conventional meat more closely followed food in general at around 2.7%.

Sales of plant-based milks grew 5% over the past year and now account for nearly 14% of the entire milk category at a time when cow’s milk sales are nearly flat. More impressive than the recent increase in plant-based milk consumption are emerging plant-based dairy categories growing even faster. 

Studies show that as consumers embrace one plant-based food, they are more likely to experiment and try plant-based alternatives in other food sectors. For example, in the past year, plant-based yogurt has grown 31%, while conventional yogurt faces declining sales. Plant-based cheese has grown 18%, while conventional cheese is flat. Plant-based food sales are growing rapidly across the store, while many conventional animal products’ sales stagnate or decline.

With plant-based food positioned as an eco-friendly option to environmentally taxing animal products, the goal of packaging is to uphold these sustainability standards. With an ultimate goal of zero landfill, plant-based food companies are particularly interested in packaging materials that are plant-based to be more recyclable or compostable. 

Modern consumers prefer their food to be consciously sourced and ethically produced. Sustainability in packaging is as big as, if not a more significant concern for consumers who prefer materials from recycled goods that are also recyclable. The next frontier of sustainability is the biodegradable and compostable market. 

Packaging is moving toward sustainability with recyclable and compostable alternatives that use novel substrates to avoid plastic and decrease degradation times once discarded. Companies claiming sustainable food items want plant-based packaging materials. So much so that many consumer packaged goods companies are investigating renewable packaging, such as testing plant-based and biobased packaging options, according to PMMI’s Packaging Sustainability: A Changing Landscape report.

For machinery, this forces plant-based food manufacturers to retrofit existing machines to run these plant-based materials. A few of these materials include plantable packages made from 100% post-consumer compostable paper containing embedded seeds, mushroom-based alternatives to polystyrene for protective shipping packers, alternative flexible film from potato starch and renewable plant-based resin material targeting modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). Additionally, plant-based inks improve the overall sustainability profile of a product, especially when combined with some of these other strategies.

New technologies and trends covering the changing landscape of plant-based food and the packaging required to market it amid COVID-19 were numerous at the inaugural PACK EXPO Connects 2020, a live, web-based event produced by PMMI Media Group. 

Featuring more than 700 exhibitors in a diverse range of industries, the show serves as the resource for the most advanced packaging innovations and solutions. Equipment demos, educational content and valuable industry insights presented during PACK EXPO Connects are still accessible on the free platform until March 31, 2021. For more information and to access show offerings, visit

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