Consumers say sustainability, not Styrofoam, should be poultry packaging’s new status quo
Packaging for mass-produced poultry has not seen significant change in over 30 years. For more than three decades, many of the top producers in the nation have relied on overwrapped polystyrene foam trays to preserve food and transport goods to market. These non-recyclable trays allow them to process and package product with the least expensive materials possible, meet national consumer demand, and keep operating costs to a minimum.
But that demand is changing.
Plastic packaging production and use are expected to triple between 2015 and 2050, with flexible packaging – paper, plastic, film, or a combination of materials – outpacing industry growth. Today, flexible packaging makes up $33 billion in annual U.S. sales, representing the second-largest sector in the packaging industry and it is rising.
For all that expansion, however, there seems to be one concept at the heart of everything that mass poultry producers have been unable to adopt or achieve at the highest commercial levels: sustainability.
The Social Drive for Sustainable Poultry Packaging
Much like the Styrofoam burger boxes from yesteryear’s fast-food chains, the new generation of consumers just aren’t having it. Led by GenZ (18-24) and Millennials (25-38), the modern consumer class makes up a large majority of the spending power in the U.S. to the tune of $350 billion per year. Their renewed drive towards, and willingness to pay for, sustainability, safety, and quality in all things, including mass-produced poultry packaging, is making companies, non-government organizations (NGOs), and even the U.S. government take notice.
For them, sustainability in all poultry packaging is a focal point. The importance of reducing plastic waste and helping to prevent and alleviate climate change is key. These principles are tipping the scales towards building a circular economy (C.E.) – recycling and reusing existing materials and products as long as possible – across the packaging chain.
“Sustainability in poultry processing is prevalent, but it’s not the only area in which sustainability in packaging is seeing interest,” said Jay Siers, Case Ready Specialist at Harpak-ULMA Packaging in Taunton, MA. “The reduction of packaging materials and material sustainability is a key issue across all segments of fresh protein packaging, including case ready beef, pork, lamb and bison.”
Younger consumers know the numbers. They see food waste is up to 40% in the U.S. They know the recycling rate is a paltry 4% in their own country. Yet, they are taking tangible steps to see real change right now.
When making purchases, whether online or at the grocery store, they look past potential savings and support brands who are committed to eco-friendly packaging now, rather than those with lofty, long-term goals of being “sustainable by 2050.” According to the Mintel Food Packaging Trend Report 2020, 26% of consumers say they will increase purchases from eco-friendly brands. In addition, 23% said they would purchase from brands with sustainable packaging.
Millennials and GenZ are making outright demands for corporations to align with their sustainability values and not taking “no can do” for an answer.
And they’re getting help.
Stewards of Sustainability
Millennial and GenZ buying habits have a domino effect. As they develop trends and redirect the cash flow, companies, producers, and NGOs are building the roadmap for Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) consumers crave.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, founded in 2010, is calling for all packaging to be recyclable, compostable, or reusable globally. They have more than 450 brand owner, retailer, government, and packaging provider signatories signing up for their New Plastics Economy.
The Flexible Packaging Association of America (FPA) produced a Future State Model 2030 that calls for a 30% packaging recovery rate and a common usage of Post-Consumer Recyclables (PCR) (>20% of feedstock) and biobased materials.
Companies have instituted a renaissance for their Environmental Social Corporate Governance (ESG) initiatives that closely measure brand perception based on sustainability, social impact, and individual investor expectations.
These entities all know that sustainable plastic packaging can have a positive, lasting impact on the environment and combat world hunger through improved shelf life and food waste reduction.
They, like consumers, aren’t prepared to let mass-produced poultry slide.
Mass Produced Poultry’s Sustainability Problem
With all this support for a new, sustainable economy for flexible packaging, what obstacles does mass poultry face when reconciling cost vs. earth-friendly demand?
Their challenges stem mainly from processing.
Mass-produced poultry is not free-range, nor is it organic where processers can pack product dry. The top producers in the industry still use a process called
“chilling,” where water is used for cooling the carcass of every bird before processing. This better preserves the product for processing, packaging, and transport but also raises the water activity – conditions where microbial growth can occur – significantly.
Increased water activity hinders the use of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) when gas flushing mass-produced poultry due to the sour odor caused by the water. This is what the consumer would consider as spoiled when the package is opened.
As a result, mass poultry producers are forced to forego extended shelf life provided by MAP and sustainable packaging methods and opt for the standard preservation of inexpensive, non-biodegradable, overwrapped polystyrene trays.
A Breath of Fresh Air
For mass poultry to meet modern sustainability goals, producers would need to integrate a breathable, recyclable packaging film into existing high-speed, automated poultry processing. While there are modern permeable thermoform films that eliminate the need for trays, none seem to fit mass-poultry’s processing methods and meet sustainability criteria.
Companies like Videplast in Brazil, Duropac, and Swiss packaging leader AMCOR have been innovating their sustainable thermoform films to adjust to mass production processes and machinery. However, the materials aren’t fully functional to where they could comply with industry and government standards and regulations, be rid of the foam tray for good, and keep American families from feeling the financial pinch.
Enter Vacuum Skin Packaging (VSP)
When sustainable mass-produced poultry packaging film is inevitably realized, VSP will almost certainly rise as the optimal packaging process for mass mass-produced poultry to achieve its eco-friendly objectives.
In standard VSP processing, product is placed in a tray or bottom film. Heated film is then stretched over the product, while a vacuum simultaneously removes all the oxygen from the package’s interior. This process allows the packaging film to fit all the product’s contours, forming a protective second skin.
Unlike conventional Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), VSP enables the product to better adhere to the protective tray or film and reduces the risk of physical damage, especially during transport. VSP also offers poultry lovers better flavor, leak-proof seals, cleaner appearance, and easier handling and disposal, overall.
Most importantly, however, you can use VSP in various packaging applications, including existing thermoformer and tray sealing systems. Combined with a usable film, these packaging systems provide a better barrier against oxygen and water vapor, facilitating up to 20% longer shelf life and reducing food waste.
VSP for Paperboard
One of the key attributes of VSP is versatility. Medium and low-production packers employ VSP for poultry regularly in today’s market (where they can justify the additional cost). With a breathable, recyclable film, high-production mass poultry could follow suit.
The specialized film would work with current thermoforming methods to adhere to sustainable paper-based trays and flat boards to reduce packaging plastics by up to 85% overall as they do presently. Compared to polystyrene trays, mass produced paper-based trays would not only be fully recyclable and reinforce C.E. principles, but a plastic breathable film could also be easily separated, cleaned, and recycled as well.
“Paperboard and paper seal trays reduce landfill, require less materials, and are considerably more user friendly, said Siers. “While this push seems to be somewhat regional to the East and West coasts, the trend continues to gain traction and will soon be available nationwide.”
VSP on Trays
Paper trays aren’t a packager’s only option. VSP’s ability to work in multiple formats gives today’s meatpackers other customized alternatives to polystyrene foam, such as pre-formed, 100% recyclable polyethylene, polypropylene, and PET trays. Paired with reusable low-barrier or no barrier roll stock film, these trays create an airtight, leak-proof seal that locks in juices and odors and offers incredible durability for high-speed production, transportation, and handling without structural weakening or product loss.
Packagers also cite VSP’s value for its customization options. They can easily opt for the size, shape, thickness, and color that fits their requirements, including clear for 360-degree product viewing. Trays are adaptable to thermal processes like freezing and thawing, allowing customers to freely feel and examine them in the grocery store’s refrigerated section and purchase using sensory cues like sight and touch.
On the production side, VSP on tray facilitates a fast and simple switch from polystyrene to newer, more earth-friendly materials like polypropylene (PP) without purchasing new equipment. By simply changing the seal plate and system programming, producers can produce both VSP and conventional MAP products, extending poultry shelf life up to 30 days and reducing retail product loss to less than 5% instead of 10%.
“Europeans already know skin is a great way to differentiate the product,” said Carlo Bergonzi, Assistant Product Manager for Tray Seal at Harpak-ULMA. “Compared to previous years, here in the States, there certainly has been an uptick in the demand for VSP across a number of different applications. We’re getting a lot more requests for skin packaging in terms of concepts and equipment.”
VSP is quickly becoming the packaging process of choice for meat and poultry. But, for all its flexibility and versatility, the question stands:
“Why haven’t mass producers in the poultry sector adopted it and integrated VSP into production industry-wide?”
There are many challenges mass producers face when aligning to a new sustainable reality:
The goal for sustainable VSP is to incorporate low-carbon paperboard or breathable, mono resin-based films that are easy to recycle to help avoid polystyrene foam trays. However, mass-produced poultry is feeding customers on a national scale. The new breathable recycled film would have to tick every box – safety, sustainability, strength, and cost-effectiveness – before it could be utilized en masse.
The pandemic has caused a host of price increases in less than two years on everything from machinery and materials to processing and transportation. With such change in sustainable materials in mass poultry production – incorporating cutting edge films, designing and manufacturing new equipment, adhering to a circular recycling economy, and integrating food science advancements – there is a price to pay, even with VSP. Producers would have to cover these operating costs, machinery, and plant expansions through retailers and, ultimately, consumers. While larger, more affluent markets could bear such increases, other smaller markets – predominately peopled with working-class families – may find it financially difficult and fail to see the value in the investment in the short term.
National Recycling Infrastructure
Recent surveys indicate only about 50% of U.S. respondents separate waste at home. 15-25% of what American consumers throw away in a single-stream recycling bin cannot be recycled. In addition, consumers with access to recycling only place approximately 40% of recyclables into recycling bins. The remaining 60% goes directly to landfills or is incinerated. Packaging materials, such as the EVOH found in thermoforming films, are intrinsically difficult to recycle, with no outlet for such an effort aside from expensive private collection companies.
To successfully reach the 30% flexible packaging recovery rate by 2030, as suggested by the FPA, it would take Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) funding to create a circular economy on a scale our society has never seen. Producers, consumers, NGOs, and even the Federal Government would share in the recycling duties that operate under Sustainable Material Management (SMM) guidelines. No matter the sustainable material format or application for mass poultry production, questions of cleaning, collection, sortation, reprocessing, and end-market effects would require innovative solutions, starting at the local and state levels and working upwards to federal law.
But consumers, producers, and even governments see low flexible packaging recycling rates as a global issue. Thus, precedent for such a dramatic national shift towards full-scale packaging sustainability does exist across the pond in Europe.
In 2020, the United Kingdom passed the U.K. Plastics Pact, developing a five-year strategy to increase the recycling and reuse of flexible packaging nationwide. Their plan introduced British ERP frameworks and raised taxes on firms that produced packaging that did not have at least 30% recycled materials.
Currently, the U.K. Plastics Pact seems to be gaining traction and remains in line with the larger European Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) program on the continent.
Here in the U.S., green packaging legislation has seen slower momentum due mainly to the autonomy and individual planning of the states. Efforts are underway, though, to realize EPR funding and legislation for flexible packaging at all stages of government.
As of 2020, there are:
- 8 states (16 bills) exploring EPR
- 19 states (47 bills) considering recycling-based legislation
- 41 states (390 bills) looking at plastic specific initiatives
- 1 National Bill (U.S. Legislative Document 1541) signed into law
Putting Money Where Their Mouth Is
For all the innovation, debate, and legislation surrounding sustainable packaging for mass-produced poultry, the real issue boils down to one simple question:
“Will American consumers and corporations spend more to reduce or eliminate outdated packaging materials and help save the environment?”
With Millennials and GenZ leading the charge, backed by modern corporate investments, the answer is “yes.”
According to a 2019 report from Morgan Stanley, 85% of individual investors made sustainable investing a priority, up 10 percentage points from 2017. In addition, 95% of millennials saw sustainable investing as necessary for the future, up 9 percentage points from 2017.
In fact, investments in sustainability have quadrupled in the U.S. from $3 trillion in 2009 to over $12 trillion in 2018, with the number of earnings calls that included the mention of “plastic waste” increasing 340%, year over year.
Beyond just financial backing and data, an increasing number of U.S. consumers across most food, beverage, personal care, and home care segments said they would be willing to pay up to 10% more on sustainable packaging. They simply need the large-scale opportunity.
Looking Ahead to a Sustainable Horizon
The time for the status quo in mass-produced poultry is coming to an end. Younger consumers and companies are standing up, demanding new investment in sustainable packaging innovations, and walking the walk with their wallets and votes to make it happen.
While VSP and a new breathable poultry packaging film may be the answer, Americans companies and consumers continue to explore every option, take real steps to make sustainable packaging across all meat packaging their new reality, and will inevitably bring mass-produced poultry along for the ride.