Packaging plays an important part in protecting products and with green issues permeating every part of the industry; environmentally-friendly packaging is a rapidly emerging market, writes Katy Whitelaw.
It has been estimated that by the year 2050 we will need to produce twice as much food as we do today if the predicted global population of nine billion is realised.
With a surge in the required stocks of food will come an increase in packaging and forward thinking companies are already trying to address a rising consumer awareness of environmental issues surrounding packaging. Increases in ready-prepared foods, smaller households and a shift from metal, glass and other packaging to plastic has led to an increase in waste going to landfill.
In 2006, around 81 million tonnes of packaging waste was generated in the EU alone and in the UK, supermarkets were recently criticised for using too much plastic packaging for food products.
A survey by UK consumer magazine Which?, found that 94 per cent of respondents thought there was too much food packaging and almost one third had refused to buy an item because of the amount of packaging it contained.
Despite receiving an anti-social image, packaging’s value lies in its association with products and the biggest environmental benefit of packaging is its role in preventing waste. In Western Europe, three per cent of food at most spoils before it reaches the consumer but in developing countries, up to 50 per cent does. It is estimated that food wastage would rise 15-fold without packaging in Western Europe, so food producers now face the challenge of keeping products safe and fresh before they arrive for sale but also in ensuring their product is also kind to the environment.
A recent poll of 1000 residents from 18 countries by Ipsos Marketing, showed a high consumer interest in how sustainable the products they buy are. In particular, North American respondents placed environmental packaging high in importance after fresh ingredients and health benefits.
And in a separate 2008 Datamonitor study, the majority of surveyed consumers across 15 countries agreed that contemporary packaging has become excessive. Over 75 per cent stated that protecting the environment is important to them and given that providing more sustainable packaging plays a significant part in meeting customers’ expectations, it seems appropriate for industry players to invest in changing this perception, particularly as packaging will continue to be targeted as wasteful.
Datamonitor reported that people in the UK were more likely to be concerned about over-packaging (60 per cent), followed by China (56 per cent) and India (53 per cent). France (51 per cent), Germany (45 per cent) and Italy (46 per cent) were the top three countries with consumers who said they would seek alternative products if their brand of choice had excessive packaging. Thirty-four per cent of American respondents were concerned about excessively packaged goods; meanwhile, 35 per cent of the respondents from the US said they would seek alternative products if their first choice was overly packaged.
Datamonitor’s Matthew Adams, said, “Sustainable packaging has the potential to become the new breakthrough consumer issue of its time, in the same way as organic food or fair-trade products a decade or so previously. Consumers’ relationship with packaging in many ways is complex because few will admit to its importance because it is often taken for granted, but increasing consumer concern about ecological matters means packaging is an issue that’s rising in prominence.
“This makes for startling reading for consumer brands if half of their customers could be lost due to sustainable packaging concerns. Sustainable packaging need not only be seen as a worthy environmental issue but more so as a ‘win-win situation’ where consumers, producers and the environment all reap the benefits.”
New laws being brought through the European Union will mean changes to the way Europe treats waste. Recent packaging directives from the European Commission, have led to the imposition of challenging targets for recycling, and national governments are also examining new ways to discourage packaging waste. Landfill is becoming a major political issue, with landfill taxes being introduced by governments – in some cases before the necessary infrastructure is in place to provide alternatives to disposal.
In many countries, food and drink manufacturers now face steep consequences for breaches of the law, as Red Bull UK recently discovered. The firm was ordered to pay £271,800 for flouting regulations on the recovery and recycling of packaging waste over a period of eight years, after admitting charges including failing to register with the government’s Environment Agency (EA).
The UK Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has launched an innovative scoping project with the aim of enabling retailers and brands to use recycled polypropylene plastic in food packaging.
Polypropylene is regularly recycled into industry plastics application (such as buckets and pallets), but until now, recycling it into food grade packaging had not been possible. WRAP has commissioned a study to test the process of recycling polypropylene, and the commercial viability of it in food grade packaging. Using recycled polypropylene instead of virgin plastics, for food packaging also presents significant environmental benefits which can be enjoyed by retailers, brands and consumers. As polypropylene makes up a significant proportion of plastic packaging in the household bin (yoghurt pots, margarine tubs etc), developing a process to enable it to be recycled is an important next step towards creating sustainable packaging.
Paul Davidson, WRAP’s Special Advisor on Plastics said: “Developing a commercial process for food grade polypropylene is widely seen as the next big challenge for food grade recycling technology. WRAP recognises that the retailers, brand owners and packaging companies all want polypropylene to be available for food grade packaging. However with its many different grades and colours used in packaging, developing such a process will be demanding. We are pleased to be working with experts in this area to help scope this work, and enable the industry as a whole to move towards sustainable packaging.”
One potato snack firm taking the initiative on environmental issues is Frito-Lay North America. The company has announced plans to work with TerraCycle to take used Frito-Lay packaging and turn it into goods such as purses, pencil cases and bags. Consumers and local community groups will also be able to earn money by collecting the used snack packs, which at the same time will redirect packaging from landfills.
Previous packaging initiatives by the company have already reduced the amount of plastic in their packaging by 10 per cent and as a result Frito Lay has eliminated over 12 million pounds of materials which would have been used to make the snack bags over the last five years.
And the company has further eco-plans in store. On Earth Day in 2010 Frito-Lay will launch a fully compostable bag for its SunChips brand. The pack will be made from plant-based renewable material polylactic acid (PLA), which will decompose in around 14 weeks in a composter.
Once the 100 per cent compostable bag is introduced, the company anticipates the switch will lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the production of the packaging and the elimination of petroleum-based packaging material.
Gannon Jones, vice president, portfolio marketing, Frito-Lay North America said: “To make packaging that would interact differently in the environment we had to change the composition of packaging and invent key technologies.
“Consumers interact everyday with our company and our brands through packaging. The TerraCycle program builds on our existing efforts to minimize the impact of packaging, while also engaging and rewarding our consumers for being part of the solution.”
When it comes to making conscientious packaging decisions as a food manufacture, more and more firms are springing up to provide positive solutions.
Global company Eatware produce food packaging which can safely hold oils and water, be stored in the fridge, are microwave-safe and are 100 per cent compostable. Products are 100 per cent natural fibres made from bamboo, sugar cane pulp, starch and water with no chemical additives. While there are several biodegradable food container companies on the market, some potato starch based; some corn starch based, Eatware prides itself in being among the most durable and safe- decomposable in the compost and dispersed in water in just two weeks or in just 180 days in soil.
Another firm which has established itself in the marketplace is Compostable Packaging Ltd. The company is the UK’s leading injection molder of compostable products and their products are distributed globally. Compostable Packaging’s main product material is Poly Lactic Acid (PLA), a starch derived polymer, made into compostable food trays,packaging and film for food wrapping.
A quick search of the internet would leave a food producer with little excuse for jumping on the green bandwagon as there are a wide selection of environmental packaging companies springing up around the globe.
Even The Soil Association – the UK’s leading organic organisation – offer farmers and producers a helping hand to improve their green credentials. The Soil Association supplies a range of environmentally friendly, branded packaging for organic businesses including ‘Food you can trust’ brown paper bags, shopping bags, produce sacks and delivery boxes.
Amongst the many ‘green’ companies vying for business, Biolice has emerged as the most competitively priced biodegradable plastic film on the market. Formed in 2006, Biolice can be used to form, fill and seal retail packs and used to make netting for potatoes. The innovative product is 100 per cent biodegradable, 100 per cent compostable and made mostly from wheat grain cereals.
Developed by Limagrain Cereales Ingredients (LCI), it is a patented compound containing specially developed maize flour along with biodegradable polymers. The only standard which lays down the requirements for packaging reusable through composting and biodegradation is EN13432 (which applies in France and Europe) and Biolice bears this and the OK COMPOST label.
David Pearson, marketing Director at LCI said, “Research on Biolice began in the mid 1990s and a major research effort spanning almost a decade of investment was made before the product was fully commercialised.
“Limagrain is a seeds cooperative owned by 600 farmers in central France. These farmer shareholders needed compostable mulch films for their maize crops to replace environmentally harmful polyethylene. Basically, our farmer shareholders had the environmental vision to match their conviction with their money.
“Biolice is very strong and resists tearing much better than traditional PE (three times more resistant). It also has the natural texture of silk and can therefore be easily differentiated. Technically, it is very easy to process, has good optical properties and is resistant to fats, water and solvents making it useful in certain food applications.
“It is incredibly versatile and can be used in film (including lamination), thermoforming and injection processes. Finally, it has a pleasant odour of cereals making it more appealing than its chemical cousins.”
Biolice biodegrades in an industrial composter in 12 weeks and around 120 days in nature.
“To put this in perspective, PE films would take several centuries and still leave toxic residues at the end,” added David.
“We have worked incredibly hard to ensure that Biolice performs well on industrial production lines. Our view has always been to make sure the product is practical and involved no investment or modification of equipment by plastic manufacturers.”
With environmental concerns growing, firms would be wise to ensure that if they are looking to leave their mark, they ensure it does not involve taking hundreds of years to decompose.