Over the past 20 years, packaging manufacturers have constantly strived to meet the food industry’s ever-increasing demands. This was initially achieved by introducing better hygiene standards in manufacturing units, then by taking the usability of packaging into account and most recently by developing intelligent packaging solutions.
Alongside these advances, the industry has also been challenged by a greater emphasis on sustainability. Waste packaging materials are one of the largest contributors to landfill.
This means that the industry not only faces increasing demands from specifiers, but also additional pressure to produce packaging materials that are sustainable.
One online dictionary defines “sustainable” as ‘of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged’. So how can the packaging industry achieve this?
Firstly, there is no simple answer. Clearly, using less packaging material is a start. However, in isolation this is not a satisfactory solution, as global consumption of food is increasing and it follows that the volume of packaging required to protect foodstuffs during transit will also increase. To become even more sustainable, other aspects of the packaging material manufacturing process need to be addressed.
Perhaps the most obvious opportunity to increase sustainability is recycling. The table below shows how effective the recycling of various materials has been in the USA.
Although the rates look good, the usability of the recycled material is limited, especially for the plastic materials that form the highest percentage of the material used in food packaging.
Global Food Market Primary Packaging by Packaging Material (million units), 2007– 2017
Unfortunately, many recycled plastic materials are simply not suitable for re-use as direct food contact material. However, they can be used in many other non-food applications.
The main exception to this, is recycled PET, which is already established with a number of new products entering the market in 2013. Meanwhile, studies into the viability of recycling polypropylene (PP) continue.
Food and beverage packaging applications currently account for over half the use of sustainable packaging. In a recent survey conducted by SmithersPira, sustainability is predicted to be the number one challenge facing companies by 2023. 60% of consumers have indicated a willingness to forego convenience to embrace sustainable food or drink packs.
Recycling is therefore only part of the story. The next area to be addressed is reducing the quantity of packaging material being used. There have been a number of attempts to achieve this, ranging from light weighting of the finished packaging product, to the use of innovative packaging materials.
Light weighting is effectively either removing material from a packaging product or changing from one material to a lighter weight material. Common examples are shifting from glass to plastic, or from metal to plastic. Other examples could be moving from a card carton to a flexible pouch.
The second aspect of light weighting is to reduce the physical weight of a packaging product. This could be by reducing the wall thickness of a bottle, or reducing the gauge of the steel used in a can. Whilst this method can have a number of positive benefits, there is a finite limit to how far this can be taken without a serious reduction in the functional performance of the packaging product.
Switching from a heavier material (glass) to plastic delivers obvious cost savings in the transportation process, but reduces recycling effectiveness.
It is clear that there are drawbacks to both recycling and light weighting. Alternatively, what other solutions are available to the industry?
A number of research projects are underway to look at other materials that can be used in packaging. These projects include the use of shell-based polymers, algae-based polymers and wood fibre based material.
Studies are also being conducted into the increased use of intelligent packaging. Intelligent packaging can provide additional information related to the freshness of a product, its storage condition, traceability, etc.
In order to achieve more sustainable packaging, a number of factors should be considered within the design process:
Material: Reduce material usage, but without reducing the functional performance of packaging
Transport: Using the most energy efficient transportation available
Production: Utilising the lowest possible amount of energy, or using sustainable energy
End of Life: Ensuring the material used is easily recyclable, or where possible re-useable
So where are we today?
The EU has set a recycling target of 55% for packaging. This has been achieved or exceeded by most member states. There have been rumours that this will be increased to 80% by 2030, with interim targets of 60% by 2020, and 75% by 2025.
Although recycling is only one part of the story, it is probably the easiest part for the commission to enforce and certainly one of the simplest things to measure.
Pressure for change will undoubtedly come from other directions most noticeably perhaps from consumers who are becoming more aware of the importance of packaging in the food supply chain. The food companies themselves also have a big part to play by supporting packaging development and encouraging packaging manufacturers to continue to innovate.
So the answer to the question posed at the start of this article, is sustainability ‘more than just a trend’ is an emphatic yes. Sustainability is here to stay, and in time, likely to become the metric by which all producers will become measured.
SGS is the world leader in providing supply chain solutions. With our network of over 1,650 offices and laboratories covering more than 150 countries, we can provide assistance, guidance and training related to packaging and also on how sustainability can be become an integral part of your organisation.
For further information, please contact:
Global Product Manager – Packaging
SGS United Kingdom Ltd