Ecopackaging Part Of Continuous Improvement For Sustainability

Sometimes, the wellness element of a food or beverage is what’s on the outside.

By David Feder, editor

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It’s unsettling to open a pack of “all-organic, pure and natural dried fruit snacks” only to find it’s enclosed in No. 7 plastic or another substance rejected by many recyclers.

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For a study in sustainable packaging, check out the Wellness Foods video interview with Ed Klein, vice president of environmental affairs for Tetra Pak Inc.

The Charlottesville, Va.-based Sustainable Packaging Coalition (www.sustainablepackaging.org) is a group dedicated to promoting sustainable packaging as “beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle.” Yet a list of the organization’s members shows less representation from food processing and food packaging companies than you’d expect. In Europe, adoption of biodegradable plastics from plant sources surges ahead, having spawned both a magazine, Bioplastics (www.teamburg.de/bioplastics) and a new annual conference.

But that’s about to change: Ecopackaging is a nascent trend, and a big one at that. At the 2007 Pack Expo, held in October in Las Vegas, the word burning like a lit fuse through the conference rooms and exhibit halls was “sustainability.” Multiple education sessions were devoted to sustainability and “green” packaging; all held overflow crowds.

Dave Lunati, director of marketing for Monadnock Paper Mills Inc. (www.mpm.com), Bennington, N.H., described how consumers are pushing along the chain, assuring continuous improvement in energy use, materials recovery, emissions and processing and shipping practices. “Sustainable packaging is now a requirement,” he says. “Brand owners demand it, retailers require it, consumers purchase because of it. Recycled or recyclable are no longer enough.” Monadnock provides a wealth of educational materials on green packaging on its website.

Lunati and others at the Pack Expo sessions described how effective ecopackaging comes only with recognition that it is a “cradle-to-cradle” issue. For example, susatianable, green packaging that leads to increased shipping costs and increased product damage can be worse, not better for the environment.

Elements (and energy use) that must be considered include: raw material sourcing, manufacturing, package design, waste (liquid and solid), emissions, printing and production processes and changes in shipping parameters. An example of what can go wrong included a product that switched to a type of green packaging that led to less product fitting into shipping containers and thus to the need for 40 more trucks to ship than previously used.

Admittedly, minimally processed, preservative-free products are more susceptible to those elements packaging keeps out: light, heat, air. A few years ago, the argument could be made that technology simply had not caught up to the twin challenges of recyclability and sustainability. That’s no longer the case.

Technological breakthroughs have made plastics from corn and other plants suitable for wider, more demanding packaging needs. Natureworks LLC, a part of Cargill Inc. (www.natureworksllc.com), Minnetonka, Minn., processes natural plant saccharides into a polylactide polymer (polylactic acid, or PLA) from which it makes bottles, boxes, bags and wrappings that are durable, yet compostable. When composted, bioplastic breaks down completely in a couple months or so. With this kind of tech on hand, any reservations about using bioplastic should melt away.

Speaking of melting away, Dissolvo LLC (www.dissolvo.com), Bowling Green, Ohio, helps processors earn green points with its line of dissolving paper products. The paper, made from wood cellulose fiber, looks, feels and tears like ordinary paper, and can be printed or written on, photocopied, coated and embossed. It’s sturdy enough to be laminated, corrugated or perforated. Labels made from Dissolvo remove instantly without scratching or scraping, and without soggy paper or adhesive residue.

But bioplastics are where the action is. MGP Ingredients Inc. (www.mgpingredients.com), Atchison, Kan., is another ingredient giant involved in spinning straw into ecopackaging gold. Its Terratek line of starch- and protein-based polymers can be formed into a variety of shapes and sizes. They have virtually unlimited applications in the production of both pliable and hard plastic products.

Decatur, Ill.-based giant ADM has its hand in the biodegradable plastic pie via its alliance with Metabolix Inc. (www.metabolix.com) at a new Clinton, Iowa, plant. Metabolix plans to make 110 million pounds of its Mirel Natural Plastic-brand biodegradable plastic products starting next year.

Dennis McGrew, president and CEO of Natureworks, has described “four critical areas related to growing the market for a new bio-based material:”

  • Growth of corporate social responsibility as both corporate value and an economic decision.
  • Global “greening” of the consumer as a powerful emerging trend.
  • Importance of collaboration through the supply chain to facilitate market adoption.
  • Importance of listening to many voices for the ongoing issues that will need to be addressed as the bioresin market grows.

Bioplastic packaging should be an inseparable part of sustainability. Petroleum-based food packaging and related materials contribute to the more than 100 million annual tons of plastic waste globally. Only about 5 percent is currently recycled. Being petroleum based, it also holds us 100 million more tons-worth of hostage to foreign oil interests.

Sunny Misser, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ global leader of sustainable business solutions, was quoted as saying, “Sustainability has moved from the fringes of the business world to the top of the agenda for shareholders, employees, regulators and customers. Any miscalculation of issues related to sustainability can have serious repercussions on how the world judges a company and values its shares.”

The field is filling with players. In October, Ampac Flexible Packaging LLC (www.ampaconline.com), Cincinnati, introduced its Apex 3000 SF (Sustainable Film) line made from renewable and compostable/degradable materials. The film is made from a proprietary blend with high percentage of PLA and is FDA-compliant for food contact.

Corn is just one source for bioplastic. Vancouver-based Earthcycle Packaging Ltd. (www.earthcycle.com) is made from palm fiber, a waste product discarded when the palm fruit is harvested for its oil. Plastics made from palm compost in fewer than 90 days.

By this time next year, ecologically friendly, sustainable packaging will be well on its way to being the rule, rather than the exception. To quote Mollie Beattie, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “In the long term, the economy and the environment are the same thing. If it’s unenvironmental, it’s uneconomical. That is the rule of nature.”

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