The versatility of plastics has made them the go-to choice for food and beverage containers, but competition has arrived in the shape of more sustainable options. Matthew Rogerson speaks with industry insiders to ascertain the future for fossil-derived materials in packaging.
Light, resilient and convenient, plastics are ubiquitous in beverage and food packaging. GlobalData’s latest figures show that they hold leading positions as a percentage of packaging mix across various markets, including household, personal care, food and non-alcoholic drinks.
Uncle Matt’s new, lightweight plastic packaging for its 12oz organic juice line demonstrates the enduring appeal of plastics. The firm has also added a 28oz option (also plastic). CEO and founder Matt McLean says: “The new packaging is an evolution in Uncle Matt’s line that aims to target a broader audience. The firm wanted packaging that would appeal to millennials and smaller households alike, and research suggested that these sizes and materials were the best fit.”
Reservations about plastics’ poor recyclability and disposal credentials have led to an increased focus on renewable or biodegradable options. Taking the initiative in this field, Procter & Gamble (P&G) has introduced a new recyclable shampoo bottle made with plastic recovered from beaches for its Head & Shoulders shampoo. The new bottle, which is produced from up to 25% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic, has been developed in partnership with recycling firms TerraCycle and Suez.
The limited-edition bottles will be available in the French supermarket chain Carrefour in summer 2017. P&G’s global sustainability vice-president Virginie Helias said: “The Head & Shoulders recyclable shampoo bottle made with beach plastic is a world first in the haircare category.
“Increasing the use of recycled plastic in the packaging of our flagship brands, like Pantene and Head & Shoulders, makes it easier for consumers to choose more sustainable products, without any trade-offs.”
The firm plans to be to producing more than half a billion bottles annually with recycled material for its haircare products by the end of 2018. This project will require 2,600t of recycled plastic every year and is part of a wider goal to double the tonnage of PCR plastic used in packaging.
For companies looking for ways to apply recycled content to food packaging, Unifi has recently won FDA approval to produce recycled bottle flake for food-grade packaging.
The company will be able to provide products such as clamshells, trays and baskets for fresh fruit, as well as vegetables and eggs. From its newly opened processing centre, Unifi will also be able to sort and clean recycled bottles. It will remove labels, debris and caps from the receptacle and chop them up into flake, which can also be used in a variety of consumer applications, including thermoformed food-grade packaging.
While post-consumer content recycling is crucial to raising plastics’ responsibility rating, biodegradable plastics remain potentially game-changing materials. US-based Danimer Scientific recently agreed to develop biodegradable film resins to help PepsiCo’s global food and beverage business meet sustainable flexible packaging requirements. The focus will be on film resins for the PepsiCo’s existing range and will include Danimer’s Nodax polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) bioplastic.
Danimer earlier developed bio-based compostable packaging for PepsiCo’s snack brands. CEO Stephen Croskrey says: “The partnership with PepsiCo marks a significant milestone as the company continues to expand its biopolymer technology to provide innovative bioplastic solutions to a wider range of applications and products.”
In October 2016, PepsiCo announced its 2025 sustainability agenda, which aims to design fully recoverable or recyclable packaging for its products and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across its value chain.
PepsiCo vice-chairman and chief scientific officer Mehmood Khan says: “From the start, PepsiCo has taken a holistic approach to our sustainability work.
“The first objective is achieving long-term profitability and that requires sustainable solutions to grow the business while minimising environmental impact. The plan to scale Danimer Scientifics’ technology is a step toward achieving greenhouse gas emission reduction, and recoverable and recyclable packaging goals.”
Danimer plans to expand its Nodax PHA plant in order to facilitate the production of the film resins for PepsiCo.
One company that is set to use fully recyclable bottles is Lifeway Foods in its Lifeway Organic line. The new bisphenol-A (BPA)-free polyethylene bottles will feature a thermoplastic resin, produced from a plant-based feedstock that will replace its traditional fossil-based material. Lifeway also uses biodegradable plastics, including cups, spoons, straws and napkins that are made from completely recycled, unbleached paper.
“In addition to a growing appetite for healthier foods, people are paying closer attention to the impact their purchases have on the environment,” says president and CEO Julie Smolyansky. “Lifeway has always been committed to green business practices and environmental sustainability, so we felt that choosing a greener packaging alternative was the natural next step.
“Lifeway wants customers to recognise that everything, from ingredients to packaging o, is good for them and the environment.” The firm also aims to reduce harmful emissions by using green polyethylene in its packaging.
Tesco, meanwhile, has been innovating with assistance from Coveris: Grab Box, a board and film hybrid, provides a unique packaging experience through its visual appeal and functional composition.
An evolution of the traditional ‘grab-bag’ format, Grab Box targets top-tier product ranges. Made from sustainably sourced lined board, Grab Box delivers improved food protection with a premium shelf presence. It is lined using high-clarity, low-gauge polypropylene film with anti-fog properties, and features three windows for product visibility.
Tesco’s Dr Mark Caul, packaging technical manager, comments: “Creating something new in this competitive market is always a challenge and, as well as being an efficient pack for suppliers to use on fast moving lines, Tesco has ensured the board comes from sustainable forests and the delicate sandwich is protected with a minimum amount of packaging, reducing food waste in the supply chain.”
For a broader overview of packaging materials Packaging & Converting Intelligence spoke with Stuart Caborn, chief supply chain and procurement officer at Young’s Seafood.
“Packaging strategy is at the heart of the company’s vision, which is to inspire people to love fish now and for generations to come,” he says. “And as part of the ‘Fish for Life’ programme, a lot of sustainability and innovation has been designed into the packaging. Young’s wants to drive consumption with great packaging, and to be known for truly world-class packaging development.
“To deliver this, it is always looking for ways to allow packaging suppliers to showcase cutting-edge materials and designs. We can’t be complacent and must be collaborative. For example, the Young’s packaging development team now sits next to the packaging procurement team, which makes it much easier for them to share experiences or ideas.
“Young’s has also opened up its consumer intelligence and insight, because everything it does is driven by an understanding of what consumers want. For a smoked salmon product, for instance: what will the packaging look like in the future? Is it going to look like a part of a resealable, ham-style product? Will it be in sleeves, and what would look that like? What material is required? Will it be biodegradable, and what digital formats will be included? Will augmented reality play a role?
“Young’s has a varied brand portfolio from restaurant-quality food to eat at home, through to more experimental brands and ranges for different audiences. Packaging isn’t just about protecting products, it is a fully integrated part of branding strategies and I believe there is scope to take this one step further to help engage consumers even more.”
The company is developing an innovation centre to help make these plans a reality. Caborn outlined its purpose and how it will deliver the next generation of packaging.
Innovation for its own sake rarely produces practical packaging. Young’s has always aimed for practicality, and this will be a core principle behind the centre. “Young’s is constantly looking at other sectors and industries to see how they are using packaging. How Apple’s products are presented to the customer, for instance, gives the consumer an experience even before they have reached the product.
“This is something our centre will explore in detail. Young’s has 3D printers that enable it to test ideas. While packaging is there to protect the products, it must do so much more. It has to sell a culinary inspiration or experience.”
The question facing Young’s is how far it can push packaging design while adhering to brand values. “The company has been really innovative around its Gastro range,” continues Caborn. ‘It is looking at packaging that provides convenience… around bags for example. Young’s will take the big ideas and carefully select where to position them in the market.”
In support of this need for brand-owners and retailers to have options in their packaging, VTT in Finland has recently developed stand-up pouches from renewable raw materials and nanocellulose. These light, totally bio-based pouches provide high-performance oxygen, grease and mineral oil barriers. These properties have been addressed by using different bio-based coatings on paper substrates and exploit VTT’s patent-pending, high-consistency enzymatic fibrillation of cellulose (HefCel) technology.
“A third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally,” says VTT senior scientist Jari Vartiainen. “Packaging with efficient barrier properties is a crucial factor in the reduction of the food loss. VTT’s solution offers an environmentally friendly option for the global packaging industry.”
VTT’s HefCel technology provides a low-cost method for the production of nanocellulose resulting in a tenfold increase in the solids content of nanocellulose. The latter has been shown to be potentially very useful for a number of future technical applications. The densely packed structure of nanocellulose films and coatings enable their outstanding oxygen, grease and mineral oil barrier properties.
HefCel technology exploits industrial enzymes and simple mixing technology as tools to fibrillate cellulose into nanoscale fibrils without the need for high-energy consuming process steps. The resulting nanocellulose is in the consistency of 15–25% when traditional nanocellulose production methods result in 1–3% consistency.
The stand-up pouch is the fastest- expanding type of packaging, growing at a rate of 6.5% a year from 2015–2020. Fossil-based plastic films still dominate the packaging market, but the development of environmentally friendly new materials is of growing importance. Nanocellulose has been shown to be potentially very useful for a number of future technical applications.
While plastics may remain the most versatile packaging material, and are able to address shortcomings to make them attractive to brand-owners and retailers, there is no sign that they will remove the competition any time soon.
As long as other materials are able to shore up plastics’ inherent weaknesses, the industry will continue to have choice when it comes to selecting the best materials for the job.