Future-proof Packaging

Bringing Sustainability to the Industry

From packaging food in edible containers to eliminating plastic shipping products, businesses are increasingly on board with the future of packaging.

Love it or loathe it, packaging in some form is a necessity. From keeping food fresh to displaying nutritional information and cooking instructions to keeping items dry, to reducing tampering, protecting electronics from damage and making products easier to transport, it is impossible to imagine a world without packaging. And despite efforts over the years to reduce or even eliminate packaging from the planet, much of it is driven by consumer demand.

Some packaging seems to defy logic, particularly packaging inside, well, other packaging. One often cited example is toothpaste, already in a tube, which is then packaged in a box. Although made largely from plastic, toothpaste tubes and other squeezable tubes are not recyclable in most municipalities because of multi-layer laminates (although in some locations pump-type toothpaste containers can be recycled). Boxes used for toothpaste are made from cardboard, and can be recycled.

So why, in the first place, are boxes even necessary? In short, marketing. Products in boxes are not only easier for stores to stack, but they also display better on store shelves, attracting the eye of consumers.

Alternative packaging materials
The backlash against excessive and non-recyclable packaging from consumers and lobby groups alike shows no sign of slowing down, with much of the indignation directed toward plastics. Attempts have been made in the past toward sustainable, greener materials, including a trend in the late 1990s of using air-popped popcorn instead of reusable foam packing ‘peanuts’ made from polystyrene.

But although the attempts were well intentioned, popcorn doesn’t hold its shape, is heavier than foam peanuts, is flammable, and is prone to moisture, microorganism, bugs and rodents. It also has a tendency to stick to items inside boxes. While packing-peanuts made from starch was another solution, these too attract rodents and create dust, an issue when shipping delicate items like computer parts and other electronics.

From takeout food containers to plastic bubble wrap, the amount of municipal solid waste we generate daily keeps rising. Styrofoam coffee cups, single-use water bottles, plastic lids, candy wrappers, cardboard inserts and more amount to 2.12 billion tons of waste every single year, according to theworldcounts.com. Times are changing, and as many of us adopt a zero-waste outlook, manufacturers are following suit through sustainable packaging.

Driven by environmentally conscious consumers, packaging has been changing for some time. Back in 1990, fast-food giant McDonald’s stopped using Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) for its burgers in the U.S., making the move to paper. Then in 2012, the company – facing criticism from non-profit shareholder advocacy leader As You Sow – switched from foam plastic for hot beverages to paper packaging.

While making the move from environmentally unfriendly plastics to paper represents a progressive move by many businesses, it is just one option of many for changing packaging, and how we as consumers perceive how products look and feel.

Much more than a trend
For manufacturers, switching to greener packaging make sense, both for the environment and the bottom line. In the age of social media, good news and bad spreads at the click of a mouse, evidenced by the worldwide push to eliminate plastic drinking straws, single-use cutlery, and plastic grocery bags.

And while alternatives like reusable travel mugs, cutlery and cloth bags are common, much more is being done with sustainable packaging and alternatives to petroleum-based products, which take centuries to break down and pollute lakes and oceans.

Yet, despite the good intentions behind these moves, packaging still needs to do its job, namely protect and display products. The research agency for the United States Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Research Service, is actively investigating dairy-based protective films as an alternative to synthetic polymers. Made from casein, a kind of phosphoprotein, these films boast many advantages over the plastic variety when protecting food. Apart from the fact that it is biodegradable, casein is also sustainable, edible, and actually does a superior job preventing spoilage, being 500 times better at keeping out oxygen than its synthetic counterpart. The subject of an article in the March edition of Food Quality and Safety entitled “Edible films based on milk proteins release effectively active immunoglobulins”, milk-based films are also antimicrobial, deterring or killing microorganisms.

Ideally, sustainable packaging should be reusable more than once and, unlike plastic, biodegradable. Far from being buzzwords, ‘reusable’ and ‘recyclable’ are becoming the industry norm. Alternatives to oil-based packaging are emerging, many of them ingenious, like straws made from sugar and seaweed (agar) using a 3D printer, to durable and lightweight bamboo, to containers made from mycelium, found in fungi.

In the food and beverage industry, we should soon be able to ‘have our cake and eat it,’ as the world moves toward edible packaging. From cups made of gelatin or cookies coated with chocolate to frozen yogurt ‘pearls’ serving as wrappers and spoons and muffin and candy wrappers created from potato starch or rice, the world is moving away from waste to taste.

Business on board
For companies worldwide, optics are more important than ever, and one need look no further than Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks. Pledging last year to eliminate the use of over a billion plastic straws annually, the company vowed to replace them with clear, recyclable lids in over 30,000 locations worldwide by 2020.

Packaging engineer Andy Corletta said: “We’re seeing a lot more public awareness around sustainability in packaging. We have a major opportunity here. The impact and reach of this project make it really special. Plus, we think customers are going to love it.”

While some environmental groups are sceptical of the company’s claim that these adult sippy cup-style lids will help the planet, there is no question that the move by Starbucks was brilliant and strategic.

As more states and cities move toward limiting or banning the use of some petroleum-based products – California the first with plastic bags in 2016, followed by New York this March – the trend will inevitably continue. Savvy manufacturers and businesses will make the switch to environmentally sustainable products before they are forced to comply with emerging government regulations.

In Australia, the nation’s environmental leaders are focused on ensuring that 100 per cent of all packaging can be reused, recycled, or are compostable by 2025.

As well as cooperating with government-imposed regulations, companies that keep a finger on the public pulse, particularly millennials, will fare better than others. Representing a significant part of the market, these young men and women millennials (in their twenties, now) grew up with a strong social and environmental consciousness; for companies to fail to respect and respond to the green demands of this group is short-sighted.

According to a recent survey by multinational professional-services company Deloitte – appropriately called Deloitte Millennials – about 40 percent of respondents said the goal of businesses must be to “improve society,” a duty second only to generating jobs. Another 64 percent said that making the world a better place was a priority, along with 88 percent wanting “work-life integration.” In short, millennials, the employee generation stepping up right now, don’t want to be accountable to companies that don’t respect human rights, or the environment.

In the years to come, it seems inevitable that Styrofoam-type pellets, non-recyclable laminates, and all the other types of plastics that trouble our environment will become but a distant memory, as reusable containers, 100-percent recyclable cardboard with non-toxic inks, and plant-based packaging become the norm. The manufacturing sector is meeting the challenge with its own brand of ingenuity and drive, developing future-proof solutions for today and tomorrow.

Working Smarter

A key goal of any successful manufacturing operation is a continual drive toward improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process. Traditionally, this has been accomplished through the adoption of lean production principles, waste reduction using the Six Sigma approach, and similar productivity solutions. These systems have been widely incorporated throughout the manufacturing industry and have significantly improved product quality, production speeds, and perhaps most importantly, the safety of those working in manufacturing plants.

Past Issues

October 14, 2019, 7:18 AM EDT