Home Media Blog Primary, secondary and tertiary packaging: differences and key characteristics

Primary, secondary and tertiary packaging: differences and key characteristics

Use and function of the different types of packaging

The different types of packaging used for the transport, safety and communication of products – of any type and in any sector – can be grouped into three macro-categories:

  • primary packaging is the actual container in contact with the product, representing the minimum sales unit;
  • secondary packaging groups together several primary packaging units, protecting them during transport or helping to promote their sale;
  • tertiary packaging, in turn, consist of the groupings of secondary packaging, with the aim of protecting them during transport from the producer to the point of sale.

These three broad groups therefore encompass all the different types of existing packaging, composed of materials such as paper and cardboard, plastic, glass, metal or wood, each of them associated with diverse and specific technical characteristics with respect to the needs of the product they must protect and contain.

In this article, we will focus on the definitions of the three packaging macro-categories, looking to understand what their actual purpose is and in what form we can find them along the packaging supply chain.

What is Primary Packaging?

According to the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive 94/62/EC, primary packaging is packaging “conceived in such a way as to constitute a sales unit to the final user or consumer at the point of sale”.

A few practical examples include the bottle of milk, the tube of toothpaste, the bottle of nail polish, the bag of coffee, the blister of medicinal tablets, the tub of ice cream or the tray with cuts of meat found in the refrigerated section of a supermarket.

Primary packaging
Primary packaging

What is the purpose of Primary Packaging?

As it is the first packaging that comes into direct contact with the product – whether the product is food or another consumer good – primary packaging plays a number of essential functions. Let’s look at them together:

  • Safety: the product must not be contaminated, it must be isolated from the external environment, it must be stored according to the specific rules defined by regulatory bodies and it must be stable, in order to be easily introduced into the spaces of a store.
  • Identification: all the mandatory information defined by regulatory bodies must be indicated on the packaging; this includes ingredients, the nutritional table, the expiry date, the origin of the product, the disposal of the product as well as of the packaging, etc.
  • Promotion: typically, primary packaging is designed to have a captivating appearance in order to attract attention and serve as a link between the user and the brand. From design, to the graphics and visuals found on labels, every individual detail has specific communicative and strategic purposes.
  • Sustainability: all packaging must exploit as few resources as possible; it must therefore be composed of few materials and – potentially – all correctly recyclable, according separate waste collection practices. Companies most attentive to this issue have, for years now, been designing and developing recyclable, recycled, biodegradable or even compostable packaging.

What is Secondary Packaging?

In the EU Directive 94/62/EC, secondary packaging is defined as “Packaging conceived so as to constitute, at the point of purchase, a grouping of a certain number of sales units whether the latter is sold as such to the final user or consumer or whether it serves only as a means to replenish the shelves at the point of sale. It can be removed from the product without affecting its characteristics”.

A few practical examples include the film that holds the bottles of water together (the so-called bundle), the box that protects the blister packs of pills, the cardboard envelope that holds together multiple containers of yogurt, the tray used to display small packages of pet food, the cardboard box that contains the tube of toothpaste, or even the plastic packaging that holds the individual packages of tissues together.

In all these cases, the secondary packaging presents two key characteristics:

  1. It never comes into contact with the actual product (whether it is food or another consumer good).
  2. It acts as a collector/container/display for the product, holding two or more primary packages together.
Secondary packaging
Secondary packaging

What is the purpose of Secondary Packaging?

Secondary packaging serves to group together a series of product units, with the aim of ensuring:

  • Protection: the units found inside each secondary packaging must be protected during transport from the manufacturer to the distribution company.
  • Traceability and identification: producers must guarantee the traceability of products by marking them with specific codes and information. The units contained inside the packaging are thus easily identified along the entire distribution chain.
  • Promotion: the secondary packages, like the primary ones, can carry advertising messages associated with the brand; moreover, secondary packaging is often also designed to be used to display the product at the points of sale.
  • Sustainability: secondary packaging must be made using as few materials as possible – particularly in the case of secondary packaging used in E-Commerce (online trade) – in order to support the fight against over-packaging (i.e. the overproduction of packaging), as well as being ecological (in other words recycled, recyclable, biodegradable or compostable).

What is Tertiary Packaging?

According to EU Directive 94/62/EC, tertiary packaging is “Packaging conceived so as to facilitate handling and transport of a number of sales units or grouped packagings in order to prevent physical handling and transport damage. Transport packaging does not include road, rail, ship and air containers”.

A few practical examples include the pallet used as the base of a number of (secondary) packages, held together by a containing and protective film.

What is the purpose of Tertiary Packaging?

Unlike secondary packaging – which can often also be used inside a store or even by the consumer themselves – tertiary packaging, instead, is designed to provide benefits for the entire distribution chain, generally hidden from the eyes of the end user.

Tertiary packaging has two key objectives:

  1. Protection: during transport the secondary packages must be stable, safe and protected from shocks and from the various movements to which they are subjected.
  2. Facilitating handling: pallets make it quick and easy to move the units inside the means of transport that will be used and, subsequently, to the warehouses in which they will be stored.

Our packaging machines

As we have just seen, we can distinguish different types of packaging, based on a variety of techniques, materials or different packages.

At Zambelli, we manufacture packaging machines that enable companies to efficiently and automatically carry out secondary packaging:

  • Cartoners: machines intended for the packaging of small products – such as industrial bearings – placed inside pre-glued or wrap-around packaging.
  • Case packers: both intermittent motion and continuous motion models and available in the wrap-around or American carton version, to package a large selection of products across different sectors (from food, to industrial, cosmetics and household products).
  • Shrinkwrappers: available both in sealing bar and lap seal versions. These machines pack in film only, as well as flat pad+film or tray+film packing styles, depending on the specific product to be packaged.
  • “Combi” machines: these machines take their name from their key feature, in other words they are the COMBInation of two machines (shrinkwrappers + case packers).