Designing an environmentally friendly package can be complex, but in some cases the direct route is best — just use less packaging. This may mean eliminating package components, using less packaging material or switching to lighter-weight materials.
In addition to reducing the amount of packaging ending up in landfills (or requiring resources to recycle), using less packaging drives down energy use for package manufacturing and reduces greenhouse gas emissions generated by transporting the packages to and from the processor’s plant.
“There are multiple strategies that [processors] are using for reducing packaging waste,” says Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for Dow Performance Packaging, a business unit of Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich.
“The one that’s the easiest for people to implement … is to simply use a package that’s smaller or lighter-weight than what they had before,” he adds. “So, for example, if you have a 12-oz. box of crackers, and the crackers only fill the box two-thirds full, you can make the box one inch shorter, and it reduces the size of the box.”
Another approach is to reduce package weight. A processor might switch to a plastic bottle that contains 18g of plastic rather than 20g, for example.
“As you think about the whole [packaging] system, it’s important to recognize that the biggest impact you can have is by reducing the amount of material you use at the beginning of the process,” Wooster says. “That carries all the way through the life cycle,” from package manufacturing through to end of life.
“It’s useful to increase recycling or recovery at the end of the product’s useful life, but it doesn’t have as much of a positive impact as reducing the amount of material at the beginning of the product’s useful life,” he explains.
Processors get the message; their tales of package lightweighting and source reduction are popping up almost daily. The following examples are drawn from brand owners in the U.S. and Europe who sell products ranging from biscotti to wine.
Small change, big results
Since 2009, Hershey Co. , Hershey, Pa., has worked on more than 175 packaging sustainability projects in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, reducing its packaging-material use by 14 million lbs.
The company’s most recent project focused on reducing the weight of wrappers for chocolate bars in Hershey’s Miniatures Assortment bags. Although the new labels are only 0.05g lighter than the old ones, the high sales volume of Miniatures translates into a significant reduction in paper and foil.
“It’s a small change on a small label, but if you think of the volume we sell of Miniatures, it’s pretty huge and it certainly does add up very quickly,” says Melinda Stamm, senior manager, packaging development-chocolate.
More than 16 stock-keeping units — including everyday items, seasonal Miniatures and Hershey’s Special Dark Miniatures Assortment — were included in the wrapper project.
Figures from Hershey indicate that the change saves more than 271,800 lbs. of wrapper material annually. Both the paper and the aluminum foil in the laminated wrapper were reduced, with paper savings equaling 1,957 trees per year and energy savings (for aluminum production) equaling the electricity needed to power 56 homes for a year.
“Thinking small can [yield] big payoffs,” Stamm says.
With any packaging-reduction project, finesse is required to meet sustainability goals while maintaining product protection. Such was the case with the Hershey’s Miniatures project. In addition, the company wanted to be sure the “entire consumer experience was maintained,” Stamm says.
She explains that consumers “talk about the ritual of opening a Miniatures label and how that feels. You stack your labels, or maybe you crinkle them up.” The lighter-weight wrappers factor that in, behaving so similarly to the old ones that the change is “almost invisible to the consumer.”
The ‘Ferrari of mozzarella’
Producers of private-label products also are finding ways to reduce packaging materials without sacrificing product quality or brand perception. Gruppo Francia, Sonnino, Italy, recently switched to a lighter, thinner-walled plastic tub for Cucina Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. Aldi sells the private-label product at its stores in Germany.
At Aldi’s urging, Gruppo Francia began exploring ways to reduce the amount of plastic in the package while still providing a premium look and feel for the product.
Like the previous package, the new tub is polypropylene. However, it’s 44 percent lighter because the walls are significantly thinner. RPC Superfos, a business unit of RPC Group, Rushden, Northamptonshire, U.K., supplies the tubs, which are from RPC Superfos’ SuperLight product line.
With the lighter tubs, “you’re talking about a wall thickness that’s below 0.38mm, which is a 50 percent reduction compared to our standard products, which have a wall thickness of 0.6-0.7mm,” explains Torben Nielsen, RPC Superfos’ sales director for Italy and Malta.
In addition to reducing carbon footprint — the lighter package uses less plastic and is more efficient to transport — the injection-molded tub maintains shelf appeal with graphics-friendly in-mold labeling. The label is also polypropylene, so recycling is straightforward.
A premium appearance was important to Aldi, because “the bufala mozzarella is much more expensive than a normal mozzarella cheese,” Nielsen explains. “The milk used is richer [and] has a special taste. It’s like the Ferrari of mozzarella.”