Brand owners and major retailers are responding to consumer demands and increasingly stepping up to “do the right thing” environmentally as they publicly commit to sustainable food packaging. These initiatives are designed to reduce packaging waste and encourage a shift to the circular economy.
The goal of the circular economy – currently a better-known concept in Europe than in North America – is to move from our traditional take-make-dispose economy, to one that has a closed loop, where materials, nutrients and data are continuously repurposed. One impact of such a concept is that it encourages greater use of biopolymers and recycled content in all appropriate types of packaging, including in food and beverage packaging.
This is a plus for firms such as recycler Envision Plastics1, which produces a range of FDA-approved, food-grade, recycled high-density polyethylene resins branded as EcoPrime®. One case in point is Envision customer Vega. Launched in 2004, Vega describes itself as “a premium brand of convenient, plant-based, real-food alternatives.” The firm now makes its nutritional product bottles from 100 percent post-consumer resin (PCR).
On its website, British Columbia, Canada-based Vega2 claims to have diverted 1,349 tons of plastic from the waste stream. (Made into Vega bottles stacked end-to-end, it says that’s a stack 325 times the height of Mount Everest.) And it declares it has saved 1,611 tons of CO2 – or 63 percent less CO2 greenhouse gases than would have been expended in the making of virgin HDPE.
Danone goes circular
A much larger brand is pursuing similar environmental gains. The dairy and food giant Danone,3 which logged $24.5 billion in sales in 2016, has declared, “Our strategy is to promote a circular economy, using sustainable materials made from sustainable sources and treating waste as a new, valuable resource. Innovation will be key in this journey towards building a healthy packaging cycle.” Danone’s latest sustainable food packaging policy4 explains further.
The French firm – which just completed a $10 billion cash deal to buy WhiteWave Foods Co.5, the maker of Horizon Organic dairy products and Earthbound Farm salad greens, among other brands – said it aims to make 100 percent of its packaging fully recyclable, and “to actively contribute to create a second-life for all plastics we use.” As it happens, Vega is now a Danone brand, as WhiteWave Foods acquired Vega in June 2015.
Envisioning more recycled-content use
Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of sales for Envision Plastics in Reidsville, N.C., explains that her firm’s EcoPrime is a recycled resin specifically manufactured for direct food contact that’s also sturdy enough to be recycled, again and again. “Our patented cleaning process is designed to eliminate contaminants from recycled food and beverage packaging, making our resin the first of its kind for the packaging of beverages, vitamins, medicines and personal-care products.”
Meanwhile, Ettefagh said in mid-April that Envision also has submitted a request for a letter of non-objection (LNO) from the FDA for polypropylene (PP) use in direct food-contact applications. Envision’s leaders are optimistic that the firm will eventually win clearance for use of PCR polypropylene in such uses. Currently, recycled polypropylene can be used only in limited applications, such as in apple and orange crates.
The goal of Envision – whose parent company, Consolidated Container Co., has just agreed to be purchased by Loews Corp. for $1.2 billion – is to add more resin types, such as PP, to its EcoPrime portfolio.
The efforts to make food and beverage packaging more environmentally responsible are truly global in nature.
Tesco adopts rPET fresh-food pack
In the United Kingdom, grocer Tesco plc is partnering with LINPAC Packaging6 to maximize the recyclability of its plastic fresh food packaging. Those two firms – in conjunction with supplier Hilton Food Group – have collaborated to bring the lightweight LINPAC Rfresh® Elite recycled PET (rPET) pack for meat and poultry to Tesco’s shelves.
The new pack typically contains more than 95 percent food-safe recycled plastics content, most of which is recovered from post-consumer PET water bottles. The Elite pack also features a specially designed sealant between the rigid tray and top film. This “avoids the need for a PE layer and makes the mono-material easier to process by recycling companies,” according to LINPAC. The Elite sealant is said to reduce the amount of material required to produce the pack, further reducing its carbon footprint.
LINPAC said the process is the same as that used to recycle clear plastic water bottles, meaning the resulting clear rPET resin can re-enter the supply chain to create closed-loop recycling and ultimately, contribute to a circular economy.
In Australia, a packaging covenant
Down Under, meanwhile, the Australian Packaging Covenant7 also is attacking the problem. The Sydney-based sustainable food packaging initiative notes that Australians currently discard up to 20 percent of the food they purchase. This equates to wasting 4 million metric tons of food each year, at a cost of approximately A$8 billion (US$6 billion).
Changes in consumer habits are driving an increase in the use of single-serve and pre-prepared food items. While this may, in some cases, increase the amount of packaging required, it also can result in better resource efficiency, according to APC Chief Executive Officer Trish Hyde.
“This is because packaging has the potential to decrease food waste through a myriad of factors, including portion control, controlled dispensing, increased shelf life and appropriate labeling for inventory management.”
A good example of this, she noted, is meat. In open form, beef has a very limited shelf life of just three to four days. But modern packaging can extend the shelf life of the product to many weeks. “This has very real implications when looking at the entire lifecycle of the product,” Hyde said, “as 1 kg of beef takes 10 kg of feed and 100,000 liters of water to produce.”
Walmart helps set the tone
Another game-changer, of course, is Walmart Stores Inc. The mega-retailer, with its massive buying power, has the ability to almost single-handedly rewrite the rules followed by its packaging suppliers. Last October, Walmart released its new “Sustainable Packaging Playbook8,” which is meant help advance the company’s stated zero-waste goal.
The priorities of both Walmart and its Sam’s Club warehouse stores include encouraging suppliers to:
- source sustainably
- optimize design to reduce the amount of unnecessary packaging materials
- support recycling and the use of recycled content.
Join the discussion
Reducing the environmental footprint of plastics and driving scalable, circular-economy solutions are the key themes of a pair of sustainability conferences this spring, called The Plasticity Forum9. The first was held April 21 in Dallas, as part of Earth Day Texas activities, and the other takes place on May 9 in Southern California, collocated with the Society of Plastics Engineers’ ANTEC 201710 annual technical conference and exhibition. Both Ettefagh of Envision and Hyde of the Australian Packaging Covenant, are among the speakers in Anaheim, along with a host of other sustainability experts.
- Envision Plastics
- Danone Packaging Policy [PDF]
- WhiteWave Foods
- LINPAC Packaging
- Australian Packaging Covenant
- Walmart Sustainable Packaging Playbook
- Plasticity Forum
- Society of Plastics Engineers’ ANTEC 2017 conference
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