Top packaging trends for 2021

Manufacturers are continuing to innovate to meet the increased demand for takeout, delivery and safety.
Photograph: Shutterstock

In a year when to-go packaging demands skyrocketed with the surge in takeout and delivery, operators were sometimes left scrambling.

At times, the supply of packaging couldn’t keep up with the competition for takeout containers among restaurants, schools, health care facilities and supermarkets. A number of operations had to put sustainability on the back burner in an effort to simply keep up. To add to the challenge, the coronavirus crisis called for improved packaging safety and sanitation.

The packaging industry is responding with new designs, materials and other innovations, many of which will carry on into the future. Here’s what’s in store for 2021.

Sustainable packaging will become a priority again. In 2020, operators had to source any kind of packaging they could to meet the demand, and single-use plastic containers were widely available. As the coronavirus spread, recycling also took a nosedive, resulting in what some environmentalists are calling a “plastic tsunami.” But environmentally-conscious consumers and operators are eager to get back to more sustainable solutions.

Manufacturers are responding with new packaging materials and designs. Verterra, a leader in sustainable packaging, introduced to-go containers made from balsa sourced from tree stumps. Patent pending are balsa lids that fit snugly on the containers to protect food during carryout and delivery.

Takeout boxes with compostable, leakproof cardboard liners are another 2020 development. The Eco Chill box uses a plastic-free, recyclable cardboard insulator to maintain food quality and freshness during delivery. With to-go meals increasing demand and production volume of eco-friendly, compostable packaging, prices should come down in 2021 as well.

Grab-and-go packaging will encourage customers to make quick decisions. COVID has motivated consumers to spend a minimum amount of time inside stores, cafes and dining venues, and packaging can help speed up a visit. Clear labeling of containers and boxes, easy-to-read fonts and bold colors grab attention quickly and accelerate decision making, according to design company Crowdspring

Protective packaging will remain a concern. Viral spread has raised consumers’ consciousness about the sanitation and safety of takeout containers and even cardboard cartons. Tamperproof seals, airtight covers and lids, and other visible protective measures are essential to maintaining consumer confidence. Crowdspring points to data from the National Institutes of Health showing that porous surfaces, such as cardboard and wood fibers, are less hospitable to the virus than non-porous surfaces, such as plastic.

Reusable containers may become more widespread. Zuni Cafe, an independent restaurant in San Francisco, recently transitioned to stainless steel boxes and bowls fitted with silicone lids for all its off-premise orders. The restaurant partnered with Dispatch Goods, a company that provides the containers, collects the used ones, washes them and returns them to Zuni Cafe. Customers are responsible for contacting Dispatch Goods for a home pickup if they don’t want to return the containers to the restaurant themselves; the company also provides collection bins around the city.

Several college dining programs have gone the reusable route too, including SUNY New Paltz, University of Vermont and University of Northern Iowa. The colleges position return areas around campus, but the compliance rate varies from school to school. Some have found a way around this by linking the return to students’ meal cards; the diners have to prove they returned the container in order to receive a clean one next time they come into the dining hall.

Reusable packaging hits two 2021 sweet spots: the need for more sustainable solutions and sanitation. Putting the containers through a high-powered dish machine seems to be quite effective in killing coronavirus.



Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


Brands need to think creatively as the industry heads into a value war

The Bottom Line: Giving customers meal options they can afford will be key to generating traffic this year. But make sure those offers can generate a profit.


The Red Lobster bankruptcy is a seminal moment for the restaurant business

The Bottom Line: The seafood chain’s bankruptcy declaration was not surprising after months of closures and Endless Shrimp recriminations. But that doesn’t make it any less notable.


The White House has ideas about how all that AI on the Show floor should be used

Reality Check: President Biden issued a set of guidelines Thursday for protecting workers from the digital onslaught.


More from our partners