Digital Magazine

Steady Growth & Sustainability for the Folding Carton Market

By Ben Markens, President, Paperboard Packaging Council

Among the many packaging options available today, paperboard remains key for branding, product protection and sustainability. From high-volume folding cartons for cereal, to highly stylized (and sometimes even handmade) rigid boxes for luxury items, paperboard packaging offers great versatility and the promise of a highly renewable and recyclable substrate. Here’s a high-level overview of the current state of the folding carton market.

Steady, Dependable Growth Ahead

When evaluating the carton market, I like to start with economic data. Each year, FastMarkets creates the Trends Outlook and Market Data Report (Trends) exclusively for PPC members. The 2022-23 edition predicts that demand for cartons will grow by 1.3 percent annually, with the market reaching 5.4 million tons by 2026. The moral of the story? Steady and dependable growth for folding cartons.

Beyond the high-level carton numbers, the Trends Report states that general economic fundamentals in the U.S. economy will remain strong through the coming years. Other factors playing a vital role in our industry include changing consumer spending habits, substitution away from plastic packaging, and efforts to reduce plastic waste. Shipment growth is predicted through 2026, with the total value of carton shipments at an estimated $13.6 billion.

The report warns about some short-term challenges. A short economic downturn is expected this year, and competition from alternative packaging methods and materials will also remain challenging. Interested parties can download a summary of this data through PPC’s website (members can download the entire 140-page report).

The Big Switch to Paperboard

After economic trends, I look at the state of design and converting. As I covered briefly above, brands continue switching from plastic to paperboard packaging as consumers become more concerned with sustainability, recyclability and Earth-friendly choices.

A fantastic example of plastic-to-paper substation took the top prize at PPC’s annual design competition in 2022. A new Mentos paper bottle won Paperboard Package of the
Year with a unique design that consists of 90 percent renewable fibers from sustainably managed forests — replacing the previous 100 percent rigid plastic container. The bottle is the first product in the gum category from a significant global confectioner to be delivered in paperboard packaging. Bottlers are expected to notice and be motivated to make a change when renowned companies switch to sustainable packaging.

Additionally, a paperboard yogurt container made for Chobani took home the Sustainability of the Year Award. This project put paperboard to the test, pushing the limits of the substrate. Not only did the new material have to keep the yogurt fresh, have a high standard for odor and taste neutrality, and be certified for product and hygiene management, it also needed high strength at a lower basis weight to improve material efficiency and allow the material to be precision formed into small container shapes.

Customization Continues

The growth of digital printing over the past decade has made room for innovation and customization in the folding carton space. We’ve seen serialization and customization become increasingly refined during the past few years. Often, these digital projects have compelling stories that highlight how cartons can add value to brands.

For example, the 2022 Digital Application of the Year winner from our competition was a digitally printed Cinnamon Toast Crunch “Cinnamoji” set of cereal boxes. In order to engage young consumers, the cereal brand chose five different celebrities to animate into cinnamojis and feature on the boxes. With a short print run of only 10,000 boxes highlighting each star, digital printing provided the speed and embellishment capabilities needed to fulfill this project.

Supporting Our Community

In addition to the technical aspects of our industry, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our camaraderie and community. PPC hosts conferences across the country twice per year, and I am consistently awed and impressed by the lifelong friendships I witness. The professionals in our field are keen to share experiences and best practices to grow together with a pro-competitive spirit. We are stronger together, and together we can elevate the industry and create a promising future. We like to say that, “There is great power in Association, especially at PPC.

About PPC

For over 90 years, PPC has served as the premier North American association for converters of paperboard packaging and their suppliers. PPC works to grow, promote and protect the paperboard packaging industry while providing its members with resources and tools to compete successfully in the marketplace. For more information, visit www.paperbox.org.

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