Form, Fill, Seal / Packaging

Conflicting Priorities Pull Food Packagers In Multiple Directions

Machine-builder and material supplier collaboration expands options in high-speed applications.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Is there a trend toward food packaging that is more sustainable and more environmentally friendly than conventional packaging materials?

Yes and no.

Cost savings, public image and individual values are some of the factors in decisions to simplify the packaging of foods and beverages. Customer requirements also enter into the equation. Unsurprisingly, companies pulling in one direction can be pushed in another. Two cases in point:

Diamant is a German sugar company that is serving as the pilot application for a specialized paper that can be used as a substitute for polymer film on a high-speed, vertical form/fill/seal (VFFS) machine. Diamant sees the paper alternative as a way to burnish its sustainability image with European consumers. In doing so, it became the first food company to apply a solution that was a decade in the making.

According to Marcus Velezmoro of Bosch Packaging (www.boschpackaging.com) in Waiblingen, Germany, that’s how long the collaboration between the machine builder and BillerudKorsnas AB, a supplier of biodegradable packaging materials, took to bear fruit. “It was unprecedented to co-develop a machine with a material supplier,” notes the sales manager for Bosch’s VFFS ZAP portfolio. In-house efforts to modify a VFFS machine to handle both paper and plastic were going nowhere.

The same could be said of the go-it-alone approach at Solna, Sweden-based BillerudKorsnas (www.billerudkorsnas.com). Even a machine-and-material partnership proved challenging. “We destroyed millions of bags on the prototype,” laments sales director Ole Paulussen.

Stretchability—in technical parlance, the amount of energy packaging material can absorb before rupturing—is not a characteristic of kraft paper. A recipe of 100 percent Nordic virgin fiber produced paper material with half the stretching ability of polypropylene film but 10 times that have conventional paper while retaining enough strength to withstand a 6-ft. drop.

Multilayer film includes a sealant layer that is activated by the VFFS’s jaws when the package is formed. A specialized sealant needs to be applied to monolayer paper in order to close the package. HB Fuller was asked to develop an adhesive that could be applied to specific areas of the paper while on the machine’s web.

Applying that sealant proved as challenging as BillerudKorsnas’s search for stretchable wood fibers. Bosch engineers developed an accessory module inspired by cartoning machines, which use a single nozzle to apply adhesive. Shorthanded as ZAP, the module uses multiple, programmable, flexible nozzles to apply precise amounts of the sealant. “The physics are the same as a cartoner,” says Velezmoro, “but in micron-thin quantities.” Heat from the sealing jaws activate the adhesive.

The result is packaging material that costs less than polymer, even if a finish is added for high-quality printing. The reason: less waste, because adhesives are applied only where needed, not throughout the film. “When you consider all the substrates in plastic, the cost of producing a biodegradable film is not justifiable,” he explains.

“Biodegradable paper turns out to be less expensive than polymer.”

The ZAP module is bolted on to Bosch’s SVC 2520, a continuous motion VFFS that fills and forms bags up to 2.2 lbs/1kg. The machine can output 80 bags per minute with conventional film. The speed drops to 65 bpm with paper, a rate food manufacturers indicated would be acceptable for packaging that meets consumer expectations for sustainable packaging, Velezmoro says.

The VFFS used by Diamant is a prototype machine that only fabricates paper pouches. Assuming sufficient demand from packagers, Bosch will make the ZAP module a bolt-on option that allows the SVC 2520 to run both paper and plastic film.

PET vs. recycled glass

Sustainable packaging never was a question at Once Again Nut Butter Collective Inc. (www.onceagainnutbutter.com), a Nunda, N.Y., natural and organic processor of peanut butter, seed butters and other spreadables. Environmentally sound practices are part of the employee-owned company’s ethos, and that extends to the 16-oz. recycled glass jars it uses.

However, bowing to market pressures, the Rochester area company expects to add PET containers as an option for private-label buyers who want to reduce shipping costs.

Once Again was founded in 1976 by two University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates with a passion for community involvement and organizing co-operative ventures. Like modern day Johnny Appleseeds, the couple made their way east to Rochester, leaving in their wake a string of co-ops. When they began roasting nuts and packing pails with nut butter in their basement, they were, once again, creating a co-op.

Before moving out of the basement and into a former silk plant in 1981, the couple began organizing peanut farmers to supply the organic raw materials they needed, subsidizing those growers until they could secure organic certifications and generate profitable crops. A similar template was used for other raw-material sourcing, including Romanian sunflower growers and Cornell University beekeeping alumni.

When the founders retired in 2006, they established an employee stock ownership plan, turning ownership over to the staff. Covenants stipulate that the highest paid employee cannot earn more than four times the pay of the lowest paid worker.

It took the market 30 years to catch up, but Once Again’s natural processes and business transparency are in sync with the values of today’s millennials. The same wave carrying startup food-company success stories is driving Once Again’s growth: Staff size doubled in the past five years, and a second processing plant was commissioned last year. The $13 million, 37,000-sq.-ft. facility provides enough capacity to produce 40-50 million lbs. of peanut butter a year.

More automation and higher efficiency distinguish the new facility from the company’s original plant, which grew to 32,000 sq. ft. in 2004. An example is the bulk bag discharge and flexible screw conveyor system from Flexicon Corp. (www.flexicon.com) that feeds the roasters. Instead of hoisting 2,200 lb. totes with a forklift and dumping raw peanuts into a bin, the system handles the totes without transferring the contents, eliminating airborne dust.

“The bulk bag dischargers in the new plant are safer, automated, and improve ergonomics for the operators,” notes Peter Millen, process engineer. They also double the feed rate to the roasters over the previous system.

A dedicated peanut butter plant will allow Once Again to create an allergen-free environment in the older facility. Another food-safety enhancement is the installation of a certified organic, nonthermal pasteurization system from Agri-Neo (agri-neo.com), Toronto. A peracetic acid cocktail provides a 5 log bacterial reduction without leaving a residue. The system is treating cashews, which become rubbery with thermal treatment, and it could enable Once Again to produce raw peanut butter, a niche product that’s attracting interest.

A glass-jar filling line is being installed in the new peanut facility, which currently only packages 1 and 5 gallon pails and 480-lb. drums for wholesale and industrial accounts (some of the nation’s largest sandwich cookie manufacturers are customers). Next up will be a PET line for private-label customers.

“It’s coming, but we’re still a couple of years from PET packaging,” says Millen. Depending on demand, containers will be sourced from suppliers or blowmolded in-house.

PET jars will be the firm’s second foray into plastic packaging: A 1.15-oz. squeeze pack debuted last year. The single-serve packs are shipped in a carton with a tear-away panel for retail display. It’s the kind of “retail ready” carton that Walmart demands and food packagers are gravitating to, suggests Peter Fox, senior vice president of Somic America Inc. (somic.us/company), the Bensenville, Ill., subsidiary of a German OEM of end-of-line packaging machinery.

Cheese and pet products are examples of categories gravitating from pegged pouches to cartons that simplify shelf displays with either a removable cover or a tear-away panel, according to Fox. Somic’s wraparound cartoner erects and closes up to 36 cases a minute.

Decentralized controls and servo motion provide a level of sophistication that gives many manufacturers pause, he concedes. To provide support, Somic establishes a virtual private network (VPN) connection with the machine, a service approach that consumer packaged goods companies have grown to accept.

“We consider ourselves pioneers in mechatronics and robotic motion,” says Fox, but most food customers were uncomfortable with VPN connections to shop floor equipment when Somic first offered this approach to remote diagnostics and troubleshooting a decade ago. “There still are a few with IT security concerns, or they have a corporate policy against allowing a VPN connection, but 90 percent of our customers want us to have remote access.” About three-quarters of service calls now are done on line.

Remote machine monitoring is more than a trend in packaging equipment: It’s approaching standard operating procedure.

The same cannot be said of biodegradable packaging materials. Regardless of motivation or company values, sustainable packaging is influenced by factors beyond a food company’s control. No matter which direction a food packager’s carbon footprint is heading, the materials options are increasing.