IDTechEx assesses hardware innovations to enable sustainable smart packaging


Walk around the aisles of a local shop: aside from the prices, little has changed since the introduction of the bar code in the 1970s. While customers have smartphones in their pockets and there are sophisticated inventory management systems in the background, the digital revolution has yet to alter the packaging of most consumer items.

Enter smart packaging. By integrating small, low-cost electronics, smart packaging can bring the sensing, identifying, and communicating capabilities associated with electronics to a new realm. This promises benefits such as item-level tracking and traceability, freshness monitoring, improved consumer engagement, and quality assurance. The advantages are already seen in the apparel industry, where billions of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are deployed to track individual inventory items.

Sustainability Is Non-negotiable

For smart packaging to be widely adopted, sustainability is paramount. Brand owners see sustainability as a key part of their appeal to customers, with frequent efforts to reduce the packaging volume and replace plastic with biodegradable or easier to recycle alternatives - witness the recent announcement of a trial for Mars bars with paper packaging replacing the conventional plastic. Furthermore, explaining that smart packaging brings sustainability benefits throughout the supply chain, such as reduced wastage and better inventory management, likely won't convince brand owners who need to ensure that consumers perceive the product's packaging as sustainable. 

Exacting sustainability requirements means that conventional electronics, such as a small PCB (printed circuit board), coin cell battery, and packaged IC (integrated circuit), aren't viable for most consumer products - and that is before the cost is considered. This leaves space for innovative alternatives, as outlined in IDTechEx's "Smart Packaging 2023-2033" report.

Coin Cell Battery Alternatives

Providing power to smart packaging is a common challenge, with only an estimated 3% of coin cell batteries recycled. One emerging alternative is bio-based fuel cells printed onto a paper substrate, which are metal-free and can be either recycled or bio-degrade. If energy is required over a longer period, then printed organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells are well suited to harvesting indoor light - they can be made in any shape and size to be integrated into the packaging. Indoor energy harvesting with OPV is ideally suited to applications such as electronic shelf labels, where the maintenance reduction associated with eliminating battery replacement forms part of the value proposition. 

Another alternative is to remove the battery entirely. With established RFID technology, used in retail and in many travel and bank cards, electromagnetic energy from the scanner is harvested by the antenna and used to temporarily power the IC. An emerging approach takes this a step further by harvesting ambient electromagnetic waves, either from dedicated 'bridges' placed around the environment or signals from existing infrastructure, such as smart speakers. 

Sustainable Components and Materials

Smart packaging of all types, even simple RFID tags, requires an integrated circuit (IC). While a small silicon chip presents less of a sustainability concern than a battery or plastic substrate, they are energy intensive to produce and difficult to recycle. Flexible ICs produced by sequentially evaporating metals and metal oxides onto a flexible substrate can be cheaper while also using less water to manufacture and have less embedded energy.

Along with the components, the materials used to create smart packaging for electronics also need to be sustainable. Steps are already being taken in this direction, with paper used rather than plastic as a substrate for RFID tags. Replacing the stamped aluminum foil used for most RFID antennas with printed copper ink is nearing commercialization, reducing material consumption and facilitating biodegradability. Ultimately, printing antennas and mounting components directly onto existing packaging (such as cardboard) will remove the need for an additional substrate entirely.

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