How sustainable is the food packaging industry?
More consumers are seeking products that are completely eco-friendly, but there are still many barriers on the design and manufacturing side.
As more consumers search for sustainable packaging options, food and beverage companies are forced to make tough decisions about their products.
Shoppers and investors are increasingly looking for companies and brands to take the initiative on environmental issues. A Horizon Media study found 81% of millennials expect companies to make public commitments to good corporate citizenship and 66% of consumers will pay more for products from brands committed to environmentally friendly practices, according to the Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report.
But more eco-friendly practices haven't been easy for the food packaging industry. Designing eco-friendly packaging that can keep products fresh and endure temperature changes that come with cooking can be a challenge. Packaging companies told Food Dive they recently made moves to offer sustainable options with water-based ink and more compostable packaging, but have faced obstacles along the way. While some brands are aiming to only appear more sustainable, others are making slow efforts to be eco-friendly with new innovations and products.
For major food and beverage companies, the higher cost of sustainable materials and the struggle to keep food fresh are barriers. Production costs for sustainable options be about 25% more compared to traditional packaging. These materials also tend to be less effective in maintaining freshness, since packaging companies say plastic can have a tighter seal and keep out air better than other materials.
"That’s their compromise, it looks eco-friendly — but it's not."
Account representative at Green Rush Packaging
Some companies have found a way around the high costs. Damon Leach, an account representative at Green Rush Packaging, told Food Dive that a solution for some food companies has been to use material that looks recyclable to shoppers, but in reality, is not.
Instead of paying more for eco-friendly materials, companies have been picking material, like kraft paper, that looks more sustainable to consumers, he added. Leach said the products that appear to be more green do sell better.
"That’s their compromise, it looks eco-friendly — but it's not," Leach said.
Although Leach said more suppliers and consumers theoretically want sustainable packaging, those materials typically don’t have a long shelf life and consumers don't want to pay the extra money. But some companies are still making an effort to pay more for eco-friendly packaging despite the challenges.
When will sustainable be the norm?
From producers and companies to retailers, consumers and recycling organizations, packaging can affect the whole supply chain. So the challenge for packaging manufacturers becomes determining what new innovations and materials are the best investments.
Randall LaVeau, business development manager at Interpress Technologies, which manufactures formed paperboard and plastic food packaging products, told Food Dive there is a huge push for more recycling in the marketplace. But he said it is hard to get an eco-friendly material that holds water but isn't plastic and doesn't degrade — a necessity for microwavable products that need water to cook.
Many companies are now working to develop recyclable packaging that can withstand heat and hold liquids, but LaVeau said there is still a lot of research and development to go before it is widespread.
"Everybody is in the shop trying to figure it out," LaVeau said. "People have been working on it for the last 10 years or longer, they just haven’t had a good success for it."
For companies that have made sustainability goals, the time is ticking to figure it out. Mondelez just announced its plans to make all their packaging recyclable by 2025. Nestlé, Unilever and PepsiCo have agreed to phase in packaging made from recyclable, compostable and biodegradable materials with more recycled content by 2025, but haven't released specific details about their plans. In fact, a recent report identified Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle as businesses contributing most to pollution.
But as these big companies push for more development on sustainable materials, that means cost could continue to be an obstacle. Although consumers say they are willing to pay more for sustainability, they don't always pick up the more expensive options in stores.
"Just like anything else, when something new comes out... it is more expensive until they can work with it in time and maximize their efficiencies for the cost to come down," LaVeau said.
New innovations in sustainable packages
Several companies have developed more sustainable options this year. For example, HelloFresh is rolling out more sustainable packaging for its meal kits with recyclable liners created by sustainable design company TemperPack.
And some new developments haven't come into the mainstream yet. U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers have developed an edible, biodegradable packaging film made of casein, a milk protein, that can be wrapped around food to prevent spoilage.
Other companies are working to find new ways to help the environment. Wayne Shilka, vice president of innovation and technical support at Eagle Flexible Packaging, a printer of packaging in Chicago, has prioritized offering more sustainable options to their customers. Eagle Flexible Packaging uses a water-based ink because it doesn't create any probable organic compounds that then go out into the atmosphere, making it more environmentally friendly, Shilka said.
"We are finding that sustainable packaging is getting more and more and more interest," Shilka told Food Dive.
“We are finding that sustainable packaging is getting more and more and more interest."
Vice president of Eagle Flexible Packaging
Six years ago, Eagle Flexible Packaging put together a compostable material for packaging, and about 100 companies discussed the option with them. Only one customer ended up using the compostable product because it cost more any other packaging option the company offered. Every year since, a few more customers have worked with them to outfit their products with compostable material, Shilka said.
As more companies turn to compostable and sustainable packaging, the price will come down and make it more appealing, Shilka added.
"It continues growing to the point that it's becoming not mainstream, but it's much more routine that we had people who are calling and are interested and are actually doing something sustainable," Shilka said.
'Recyclable to an extent'
While some companies work to find new recyclable materials, others are satisfied with current packaging options. Flexible packaging — which is any package whose shape can be readily changed, such as bags and pouches — is popular. Representatives at packaging companies said flexible packaging can be an issue for sustainability since it has multilayer films with plastic and paper that need to be separated to be recycled.
LaVeau said most of his products are "recyclable to an extent" because of the layers. Certain recycling mills can handle his products, but at others, consumers need to separate the packaging for recycling — which doesn't always happen.
Green Rush Packaging has the same issue.
"We got to get the end users to separate and recycle better instead of just facilities otherwise it is just waste, bad for the environment," Leach said.
Flexible packaging can also provide a higher product-to-package ratio, which creates fewer emissions during transportation and ultimately uses less space in landfills.
Some companies stand by their use of packages that aren't fully sustainable. Robert Reinders, president of Performance Packaging, a family owned corrugated box plant founded in 1995 by packaging professionals, told Food Dive that about 5% of his products are recyclable. He said flexible packaging is a sustainable option because it uses up less energy and prolongs the shelf life of the food so it eliminates food waste.
"There is all kinds of great benefits to flexible packaging that gets drowned out by the recycle, compostable needs," Reinders said.
Falling behind other countries' sustainable goals
In the last two years, more than 70 bills have been introduced in state legislatures regarding plastic bags — encompassing bans, fees and recycling programs. However, many of those laws have not impacted the food packaging industry.
In comparison, countries across the globe are increasing their efforts and goals when it comes to sustainability for both food and beverage product packaging. But U.S. companies are still in the development stage on many of their innovations.
The Singapore Packaging Agreement — a joint initiative by government, industry and NGOs to reduce packaging waste — has averted about 46,000 metric tons of packaging waste during the past 11 years, according to Eco-Business. In Australia, national, state and territory environment ministers have agreed that 100% of Australian packaging will be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025.
Vancouver, Canada has adopted a ban on the distribution of polystyrene foam cups and containers, as well as restrictions on disposable cups and plastic shopping bags. The U.K. also plans to eliminate plastic waste by 2042.
As countries around the world change their packaging to adjust to these sustainability goals, Reinders said U.S. companies will likely adopt more changes. And as more CPG makers start mass producing sustainable options around the world, he said it will drive prices down globally.
"I was at Nestlé headquarters in Switzerland and they are currently making the efforts to find different materials and different processes so they can be recyclable," Reinders said. "It’s all starting now. The more the big guys get into it, the better it will be."
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