Environmental consciousness is influencing how food processors do business, and nowhere is the effect more noticeable than in packaging.
Suppliers' R&D labs are working overtime to create earth-friendly packaging materials from sustainable resources. In addition, new services and tools are taking the mystery out of designing "green" packages. Retailer initiatives both in the U.S. and abroad are important drivers for the greening of packaging.
Domestically, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (www.walmartfacts.com), Bentonville, Ark., last fall unveiled a Packaging Scorecard that evaluates packaging on dimensions such as recycled content, cube utilization, transportation and the volume of greenhouse gas emissions produced in manufacturing.
See the Nov. 28, 2006, story on Wal-Mart's Packaging Scorecard.
The company's suppliers can use the scorecard to consider what-if scenarios for their own packaging and to evaluate their packaging-sustainability status relative to competitors. Those with the most sustainable packaging will be well positioned to win Wal-Mart's business; starting in 2008, packaging sustainability will play a key role in the retail giant's buying decisions.
Wal-Mart's purchasing power is the locomotive for change on the supply side. The retailer currently buys from 60,000 suppliers worldwide, and none will be exempt from filling out the scorecard.
Ruiz Foods Inc. (www.elmonterey.com), Dinuba, Calif., has been a Wal-Mart supplier for more than 10 years, supplying items such as El Monterey brand 10-pack burritos and chicken and shredded beef Taquitos. "It is extremely logical for Wal-Mart, with locations worldwide, to integrate this initiative into its business plan and work to drive positive change," says Bryce Ruiz, president and chief operating officer, Ruiz Foods.
"We believe that reducing our environmental impact is the right thing to do and believe we can accomplish this by improving our products, processes and packaging, as well as through our commitment to the community," he continues. Ruiz Foods worked with the packaging scorecard and, based on the results, believes its packaging ranks in the top one-third of Wal-Mart's package sustainability scale.
"The scale was very helpful [and] extremely easy to use," Ruiz says. As a result of using the scorecard, his company is investigating alternative package structures that are more environmentally friendly, with the goal of affecting as many packages as possible.
In Europe, retailer Sainsbury's is one year into its initiative to eliminate conventional plastic packaging from its stores. The plan includes gradually using compostable packaging in place of conventional plastic trays and bags, to the tune of 150 million trays and bags per year. Ultimately the effort will eliminate 3,550 metric tons of plastic, significantly reducing waste destined for landfills.
In all, Sainsbury's hopes to put more than 500 types of food in compostable packaging. Items include Sainsbury's SO organic fruit and vegetables, Sainsbury's Ready Meals, organic sausages and organic whole birds. For foods not compatible with compostable materials, such as deli salads and prepared fruit, the company uses recyclable packaging.
For its compostable packaging, the company is focusing on bioplastics -- polymers made from organic materials such as corn and sugarcane. Package components include trays, baskets, flow-wrap films, labels and netting.
The company recently introduced Sainsbury's SO organic baby salad potatoes packaged in a flexible, heat-sealed bag made from Amcor NaturePlus Mater-Bi vertical form-fill-seal film. The 40-micron, co-extruded film, supplied by Amcor Flexibles (www.amcor.com), Gloucester, UK, is made from renewable, non-genetically modified (non-GM) vegetable materials such as corn starch and is home compostable. The film's all-over print pattern features a compostable logo and text. The back of the bag includes information about the packaging material's compostability and stresses Sainsbury's commitment to compostable and recyclable packaging.
The greening of plastic
Several other bioplastics also are finding applications in food packaging. The most familiar is polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from corn starch. PLA is a high-clarity material that can be formed into thermoformed trays, bottles, films and labels.