According to Freedonia, an industry market research group, the active and intelligent packaging markets are expected to grow to 3.5 billion dollars by 2017. Demand for smart packaging is expected to grow to more than than 1.6 billion dollars by 2017. The food and beverage categories are leading in this trend, followed by pharmaceutical packaging.

But wait a second. What is the difference between Active packaging and Smart packaging? It is a valid question because the two are in the process of overlapping.

Active packaging has been around for many, many years and started out with packaging elements that remove unwanted gases, or humidity from packaging, such as dessicants, iron additives to absorb oxygen, or techniques such as flushing products (cheese, for example) with nitrogen to keep any other gasses from coming in. ‘Active ingredients’ hence ‘active packaging’, all basically there to increase the shelf life.

Within the last few years though, active packaging has gone down the road of digital monitoring: monitors for temperature and humidity, not only of the contents of the package, but of the outside environment, to keep the product in optimal condition. And in some cases, informing the consumer about the freshness of the product in real time. Although logging has existed for a while (such as with dyes to ‘trace out’ how much vibration a shipped product was subject to), digital logging can get very precise in terms of creating a history of what happens at every level of the products journey to the customer.

So in fact, active packaging has become a subset of smart packaging, which has become a very wide field of activity. To monitoring, logging and increasing shelf life you can add authentication, with RFID labels for example. ‘Smart’ also includes engaging the customer and participating in the Internet of Things, through real time traceability. It all sounds really good. There are efficiency benefits for the manufacturer, while customers get the freshest possible product. So why isn’t this industry growing even faster?

For one, cost. The cost of this sophistication has to be justified. Something that is not easily done in an industry that has spent the last several years systematically reducing costs. New electronic devices within billions of packages also represent a significant burden for the environment. It is already difficult, for example, to have proper recycling of flexible packaging, let alone for the kind of electronic waste that could be generated by smart packaging. Customer concerns for privacy have also been identified as a possible inhibitor of smart packing progress, as awareness of the dangers of being constantly geo-localized grow.

In the end, each manufacturer will have to judge whether it’s worth their while to have packaging that could be potentially more sophisticated than their product.