Sustainable Packaging Impacts Food Manufacturing

By Harpak-ULMA
Posted In : Food Packaging, Consumers, Sustainability, Flexible, Environment, Greenhouse, Waste, Recycle, Green, Carbon Emissions

The packaging industry has put an emphasis on reducing waste, recycling, and creating sustainable packaging solutions to limit greenhouse emissions, while recognizing the demands of consumers. Selecting recyclable materials, cutting down on waste and being efficient are ways packaging companies can make a difference in the environment. The current concern over our environment makes it the perfect time for your company to develop a carbon footprint plan.

Companies and manufacturers today are under immense pressure to create sustainable solutions to reduce green house emissions and the amount of waste that ends up in our landfills and oceans. That pressure, in part, is coming from government ordinances which limits materials such as Styrofoam and plastics. Across the United States, more and more states and cities are banning plastics and single use Styrofoam.[1] Manufacturers that use certain types of plastics and Styrofoam must adapt or die.

In November of 2019, Massachusetts passed a bill banning plastic bags, besides for required purposes, replacing them with paper bag alternatives. New York City, DC, Hawaii, California, and others all currently have a form of plastic bag ban in place.[2] It is all part of an effort to replace materials such as Polystyrene, or Styrofoam across the country with more sustainable alternatives. Producers realize Styrofoam is not biodegradable. It’s made of fossil fuels and synthetic materials and toxins can leach into drinks and the environment.

For 2022, the EPA has developed a Sustainable Materials Management Program Strategic Plan. This plan has four objectives:

  • Decrease disposal rate
  • Reduce environmental impacts of materials
  • Increase socio-economic benefits
  • Increase capacity of state and local governments, communities, and key stakeholders to adopt and implement SMM policies, practices and incentives

From this strategic plan, the EPA states the focus of sustainable packaging as,

“The Packaging Strategic Area focuses on increasing the quantity and quality of reused and recycled materials from MSW, development of sufficient public and private sector collection and processing infrastructure and end markets, promoting the productive and sustainable use of materials across their entire life cycle, and leveraging how the federal government, private industry and consumers reduce the use of materials through thoughtful policy, manufacturing innovations, and information that consider the life-cycle impacts.”[3]

Consumers themselves are also becoming more environmentally conscious and manufacturers must reflect that concern. In a Packaging Digest Report on Plastic Packaging, 31% of American consumers surveyed say their concern about the eco impact of plastic packaging is as high as possible. Additionally, 61% of consumers picked 8,9, or 10 on a scale of 0-10 when asked how aware they are of the current climate surrounding plastic packaging.[4] Packaging industry professionals know the problems with recycling better than consumers, ranking recycling second to the top in a list of environmental concerns.

Eco Packaging Efficiency & Effectiveness

When analyzing the environmental impact of a manufacturer, it is important to look at packaging efficiency while keeping effectiveness in mind. According to the Sustainable Packaging Alliance, a package is sustainable if it follows these four traits:

  1. Effective – The packaging is to protect the contents within the packaging throughout the supply chain. The packaging should also support responsible and informed consumption.
  2. Efficient – Machinery should be designed to utilize material efficiently throughout the product lifecycle. New technology can trim plastics and reduce waste
  3. Cyclic – Materials used in packaging should be cycled through technical or natural systems. The materials would not need to use harmful additives. Using materials such as paper instead of plastics would be an example of this.
  4. Safe – In general, packaging should not be a risk for the planet or our health.[5]

Another important aspect of creating efficient sustainable packaging solutions is to consider the types of materials used. Each year packaging and containers account for up to 23% of waste that ends up in our landfills.

For example, it takes plastic bottles 10-1,000 years to break down while 7 million tons of non-biodegradable glass was estimated to enter our landfills in 2015, even though glass is 100% recyclable. While versatile, Styrofoam makes up about 30% of our landfills and are not biodegradable.[6]  Furthermore, 8 million metric tons of plastic goes into the ocean each year and with plastic production projected to double over the next 10 years.  That would mean there would be up to 250 million metric tons in the ocean.[7]

Perhaps more concerning is the health risk that some types of common packaging materials pose. Chemicals in Bispenol – A, phthalates, and poly-vinyl chloride have been linked to cancer and fertility issues.

Flexible Packaging as a Logical Alternative

Flexible packaging is a popular way for companies and manufacturers to cut down on greenhouse emissions throughout the supply chain.  In 2017, it accounted for 39% of packaging methods[8].

The term, flexible packaging, refers to any part of a package whose shape can change such as bags and pouches, and are not rigid. Flexible packaging helps with shipping costs because the packaging can be formed and flex into a desirable shape for shipping.

For example, Walmart reduced packaging weight by 8 million pounds, reduced CO2 by 3,400 tons and took 280 trucks off the road because of an efficient design of their private label wine.[9] Another benefit flexible packaging has over rigid packaging is less plastic used. Further, flexible packaging extends the shelf life of food and other products and helps consumers identify freshness.[10] To help with recycling efforts, packaging companies should make a shift to mono-materials, meaning the entirety of the packaging is made with one material that can be recycled.

There are many types of flexible packaging materials to use but here are a few that stand out:

  • Polyolefin (POF) shrink film is 100% recyclable, highly puncture resistant, thin yet strong, allows for a variety of shapes. Used for anything from candy, books, and retail items.
  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is 100% recyclable, tough, clear and has good moisture and gas barrier protection. When recycled, PET flakes are used for spinning carpet yarns and fiber. It is commonly used for food jars and microwavable food trays.[11]
  • Starch-Derived PLA (Lactic Acid) is 90% biodegradable. It is made from starchy foods such as sugar cane and potatoes.

Going green is good business. Unilever conducted a report that polled 20,000 adults from different countries. 21% said they would actively choose brands that made their sustainability credentials clear on their packaging. It is also interesting to note of Unilever brands, those that have incorporated green initiatives into their purpose are growing 30% faster than other brands under Unilever. For American’s, 78% say they “feel better when they buy products that are sustainably produced.”[12]

Consulting with organizations that specialize in carbon footprint reduction can help transition manufacturing companies to more sustainable packaging solutions and practices. The Sustainability Consortium uses metrics and offers tools and support to analyze supply networks and products.[13] Compass is a lifecycle assessment tool that tailors package designs. They offer comparisons of different packaging solutions that analyze life cycle impact data, environmental profiles, and solid waste profiles of proposed packages.[14]

Switching to sustainable packaging solutions and developing a carbon emission plan is essential for the health of our environment and industry. Working with organizations to develop a carbon footprint reduction method is a good first step.

Investing in state-of-the-art automated solutions with Harpak-ULMA will reduce packaging waste and can help toward sustainability goals. To learn more about how the brand-new G. Mondini Platformer can help your environmental concerns, click here for a free consultation today.