Wal-Mart switched from conventional plastic to PLA packaging for strawberries, cut fruit, brussels sprouts and herbs and says the change will prevent more than 11 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions and save the equivalent of 800,000 gallons of gasoline.
Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. (www.freshdelmonte.com), San Francisco, also uses PLA rigid containers to package cut fruit. Blue Lake Citrus Products Inc. (www.bluelakecitrus.com), Winter Haven, Fla., uses 32-oz. PLA bottles for its premium juices. All three processors use PLA supplied by NatureWorks LLC (www.natureworksllc.com), Minnetonka, Minn., a wholly owned subsidiary of Cargill Inc.
PLA, which has been in commercial use for almost 20 years, gradually is expanding beyond cups, trays and bottles. Amcor Flexibles has introduced a peelable NatureWorks PLA film for the global fresh produce market. Rabbit (www.rabbit.be), Molenstede, Belgium, uses the film on salads packed in PLA trays.
And piggy-backing on the trend toward convenience, a steam-in, microwavable PLA pouch recently launched. The BioSteam PLA self-venting steamer pack, from Rockwell Solutions Ltd. (www.rockwellsolutions.com), Dundee, Scotland, is made from transparent PLA film and features easy peeling.
Corn is not the only renewable resource that can be used to make bioplastics. Metabolix Inc. (www.metabolix.com), Cambridge, Mass., is conducting research into producing natural plastics from sugar cane and has already done so with switchgrass and corn sugar. Metabolix's technology focuses on microbial fermentation to produce biodegradable plastics.
Produce trays made from palm fiber have found a good fit in packaging organic produce. Four Seasons Produce Inc. (www.fsproduce.com), Ephrata, Pa., uses the trays to package a number of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, apples, cherries, onions and peppers. Four Seasons is a produce wholesaler serving the mid-Atlantic region.
Earthcycle Packaging Ltd. (www.earthcycle.com), Vancouver, B.C., produces the palm fiber packaging, which is biodegradable and home-compostable. According to the supplier, it decomposes in less than 90 days in a backyard composter.
In selecting the Earthcycle trays, Four Seasons knew it wanted packaging made from renewable resources. But it was the material's home compostability that clinched the deal. "It was one of the things that separated this product from others," says Daniel Chirico, vice president-business development with Four Seasons.
To communicate the packaging's eco-attributes to consumers, Four Seasons places a sticker on the film overwrap that reads: "Earthcycle Packaging! Renewable Resource - Backyard-Compostable." The availability of packaging with these qualities represented an important opportunity for Four Seasons.
The organic business has grown incredibly over the last five years and has come to represent 25 percent of our business," Chirico says. The packaging "aligns itself very well with the needs of mainstream organic customers."
Another product category -- fresh meat -- soon will have access to palm fiber trays, as well. Earthcycle is in the prototype stage with meat trays and hopes to launch them commercially in the fourth quarter of this year.
Back to the future
The renewable resource with the most history as a building block for packaging materials -- namely, wood -- is finding new life in both paperboard and film applications. The new generation of films includes a biodegradable, home-compostable cellulose film created from wood pulp sourced from managed plantations.
Called NatureFlex film, this product of Atlanta-based Innovia Films Inc. (www.innoviafilms.com), can be used as an overwrap, formed into heat-sealed bags and stand-up pouches, metallized, or laminated to paper. In addition, it's suitable for heating in the microwave or conventional oven.
"The core of this product line has been around for over 70 years. It's cellophane," says Malcolm Cohn, Innovia's market manager-Americas. "Cellophane has always been manufactured from a sustainable resource, but now it's reinventing itself."
Environmentally conscious food processors and retailers are lapping up the reinvented material. In the U.K., retailers Morrisons, Tesco and Marks & Spencer are using NatureFlex film as an overwrap on fresh produce. In the U.S., Wild Oats Markets, Safeway, Wal-Mart and Thrifty Foods are using it for the same application.
Askinosie Chocolate (www.askinosie.com), Springfield, Mo., selected NatureFlex for the inner packaging of its premium, small-batch chocolate bars. The company, which emphasizes social responsibility, appreciates the environmentally friendly character of the film as well as its aesthetics and functional properties.