Trend Report 2020: Material Innovation

by Bill McCool on 12/18/2019 | 5 Minute Read

2020 is finally here, and it's that time of year where we get to play Nostradamus and tell you where the future of branding and package design is heading. 

This is the final installment in our 9-part Trend Report for 2020; to view the other sections, click on the following hyperlinks to read about  Brand Merch', The Rise of Non-Alcoholic BoozeWhite Claw SummerMonochromatic PackagingPatterns, The Plant-Based World, Non-Binary Branding, and Flexible Logos.


Cactus juice. Mushrooms. Orange peels. Seaweed. Bamboo. Lobster shells. Cork. Banana leaves and leather. Wood. Algae. Avocado pits. Fruit and vegetable peels from apples and potatoes. Wetland weed. That off-putting UFO-like disc used in kombucha called a SCOBY

No, it’s not some weird salad your crystal-wearing Aunt who lives in Joshua Tree brought to Thanksgiving this year, we’re talking about new packaging substrates that can replace plastic—we’re talking about material innovation.

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For the last few years, there’s been no bigger story in the packaging industry than the single-use plastic crisis. We’re past alarm bells about plastic straws and the major-brand-punted waste goals of 2025, as well as the fatigue that comes with seeing a daily news story about how we’re either still polluting the oceans or when climate change will finally do us in. 

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Because at some point, you have to innovate yourself out of the situation, and that’s just what a lot of folks are trying to do. Now, the designer mantra is less pearl-clutching, more doing. You’ll find designers sick of an endless carousel of plastics that don’t break down, looking for not only newfound inspiration but real, viable solutions.

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Most plastic will not get recycled. It’s the truth. Our current system is overburdened, and packaging with flexible plastic or mixed materials will likely never make it through a recycling facility and will go straight to landfill or get burned. So you’ll find scientists and researchers like Sandra Pascoe Ortiz developing new materials by juicing cactus leaves. The sugars and gum contained in cactus juice make it a natural polymer, one that’s not only edible but biodegradable and will break down within 2-3 months if buried in soil, and significantly less if you compost it. 

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There are some materials that we can readily access from the ocean too—seaweed is simple to harvest, and it grows up to 30 times faster than conventional crops, plus it eats carbon. Evoware, the Circular Design Challenge winner, is seaweed-based packaging that can get applied in food sachets, personal care products, and medical supplies. 

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If you brand it beautifully and talk up the material’s seemingly unlimited potential, as Julia Marsh did with her thesis-turned-design-studio-and-flexible-packaging start-up Sway, you can captivate others with its regenerative possibilities. “Inspired...by the benevolent nature of seaweed,” this isn’t the green and brown-hued environmental activism we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. It transforms what typically gets viewed as a nuisance that washes up on the beach into something majestic, something that's always been a part of the natural world that undulates and, yes, sways, essentially rebranding it. 

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In some cases, the product can even become the packaging, because why design graphics when you can make the packaging a beautiful centerpiece? Designer mi Zhu created Soapack, sustainable toiletry products made from a vegetable oil-based soap. As we wrote last July, “The variations in color come from natural dying pigments found in minerals, plants, and flowers. From there, each bottle is formed in a mold and then coated with a thin layer of beeswax to waterproof them.”

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You can also make your packaging fun. Get rid of the plastic wrapper like Kit-Kat did for the Japanese market and use origami paper (OK, we’re biased because it’s a shout-out for the packaging nerds, but still). Creating something that lives outside of its primary use can create a pure moment of joy, transforming a mundane wrapper into something delightful.

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And if we want to talk about revolutionary materials, then we need to consider PHA, otherwise known as polyhydroxyalkanoates. You can find this natural polyester made from bacterial fermentation in the as-of-yet-but-soonish bottled water brand Cove. Aside from fully breaking down in compost or landfill, it also considered marine-degradable, meaning that if you happened to be an awful person and wanted to throw the bottle away in the ocean, it would thoroughly degrade (seriously though, don’t do that).

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And while we want everyone to get excited about mushrooms and banana leaves, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention some of the highly recyclable substrates brands know and love like aluminum and glass, and specifically with how Loop is using them to create refillable packaging.

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Created by TerraCycle, Loop is a back-to-basics solution where you shop for some of your favorite brands like Häagen-Dazs ice cream or Hellmann’s Mayonaise, and it ships to you in a refillable vessel that you pay a deposit for. Once finished, you return the container to TerraCycle so it can be cleaned and reused.

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Brands are genuinely excited about Loop, and while no one is exactly sure whether or not it’s going to work on a long-term basis, it does present consumers with an entirely new way to interact with the products they can consume, it’s one that gives them a nostalgic taste of yesteryear (bringing back the milkman they claim), that ties into having an immediate effect on wasteful packaging. Designers and brands are free to create reusable packaging that’s not only environmentally friendly but beautiful and near-permanent.

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So while plastic isn’t going away in the immediate future, there are plenty of new options for brands and packaging designers to play with. And while scalability might seem damn near impossible, it’s a marathon, not a 50-yard dash to a plastic-free grocery store, though we might be getting pretty close to that too.

Exciting times indeed.

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