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Food Processors Beginning to See Benefits of Going Green With Packaging

March 4, 2011
From Heinz to the Girl Scouts, everyone wants packaging with less environmental downside.

The term "green packaging" is a bit of an oxymoron. The very existence of a package presumes impact on the environment during the package's life cycle and perhaps beyond. But, recognizing that we need packaging to protect food between the point of manufacturing and the point of consumption, processors are focusing on greener packaging.

The initiatives include virtually all package formats, from glass jars to plastic bottles and paperboard cartons to flexible packages. Brands attached to greener-packaging projects include the iconic; pantry standards like Heinz Classico and Frito-Lay Tostitos; natural foods brands like Naked Juice, CalNaturale and Stonyfield Farm; even seasonal favorite Girl Scout Cookies.

This year, for the first time, the Girl Scouts are selling cookies packaged in a film-overwrapped tray rather than in a paperboard carton containing a tray. The organization is testing the new, greener package for Thanks-A-Lot cookies. By eliminating the carton, the switch will reduce the use of paperboard by 150 tons, enough to fill 14 garbage trucks.

ABC Bakers, Richmond, Va., which bakes the Thanks-A-Lot cookies, initiated the packaging changeup after receiving queries at its website from scouts asking about the environment and best use of natural resources.

"The reason ABC is trying this out is because girls were asking for it," says Molly Smart, director of public relations and marketing with the Girl Scouts of Southern Alabama, Mobile, Ala. "And they've certainly been excited about it."

Scouts Speak Up for Greener Packaging
Sustainable packaging is a hot topic not just for adults, but also for kids, tweens and teens. Food Processing asked the Girl Scouts of Southern Alabama to share their views on earth-friendly packaging, including the new packaging for Girl Scout cookies (see main story). Here's what the girls, ages 6 to 13, had to say:
  • Hope Staton, Daisy Girl Scout and kindergartener: "If the landfill got too full, we'd have to make a new one and I wouldn't want 14 truckloads of trash in my yard."
  • Brianne Staton, Brownie Girl Scout: "Reducing waste is important to me because if we get too much waste in the landfills, it will pollute the air and water and hurt people and animals."
  • Kimberly Brown, Junior Girl Scout: "It's like the Earth is saying ‘thanks a lot' for safe packaging!"
  • Sarah Staton, Junior Girl Scout: "Girl Scouts is about setting goals and helping the environment. Making a more Earth-friendly [package] is important to me because this is a fun way for Girl Scouts to help improve our environment and make the world a better place. Reducing trash by 150 tons is reducing the size of landfills, and that is better for everyone."
  • Cheyenne Hayes, Cadette Girl Scout: "I like to know that in Girl Scouts we take extra steps to fulfill our Go Green mission and help save the environment."

It's becoming increasingly important to look not just at the package but at the entire life cycle of the package – and that includes the manufacturing practices of the package's supplier. Eagle Flexible Packaging, Batavia, Ill., for example, lays out a menu of green options for customers, which includes the use of water-based inks and adhesives, renewable films from plant starches or corn and compostable materials – as well as the company's own recycling of its ink waste and film scrap.

"Water-based inks and adhesives contain less than 5 percent volatile organic compounds, compared to solvent-based inks and adhesives that can contain 45-65 percent VOCs," says Millie Nuno, director of marketing. That reduces the carbon footprint of whatever is the end product.

Glass goes lighter
Glass packaging also is getting greener. When H.J. Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, decided to introduce a 44-oz. "value size" version of Heinz Classico pasta sauce, the company worked with its glass supplier to develop a lighter-weight glass jar.

Standard glass jars for products of this magnitude weigh 17.5 oz. Heinz's greener jar, which weighs 16.3 oz., delivers a 7.2 percent weight savings. The lighter weight yields more efficient shipping and a reduced carbon footprint.

"We worked with Heinz to come up with this lightweighted design," says Angela Luring, marketing manager, food category, O-I North America, Perrysburg, Ohio.

"Sustainability is a high priority for Heinz as it is for us."

But not all greener glass packages are custom designed. Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, uses a lightweighted stock jar for 16-oz. Tostitos quesos, salsas and dips. The original weight of the stock jar was 9.17 oz., but O-I was able to reduce that weight to 8.17 oz. Saving an ounce on each jar adds up quickly for high-volume items like these.

O-I also has come out with a line of lighter weight wine bottles that look the same as conventional wine bottles. The so-called Lean+Green bottles are available in weights ranging from 11.6 to 16 oz. (weight of the unfilled bottle), and they are up to 27 percent lighter than standard wine bottles. In addition to being lighter to ship, the new bottles require less energy and a reduced amount of raw materials for manufacturing.

Bronco Wine Co., Ceres, Calif., is using O-I's 11.6-oz. claret and burgundy bottles for its Charles Shaw wines to reduce weight and improve the brand's carbon footprint while protecting flavor and maintaining a traditional look and feel.

Naked bottles
Monrovia, Calif.-based Naked Juice Co., which makes all-natural products, continues to green its packaging. The company announced in November that it would start filling its 10-, 15.2- and 64-oz. juice and juice smoothies into the reNEWabottle, which is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET).

The company started using the recyclable reNEWabottle in 2009 for 32-oz. products; Naked Juice claims to be the first nationally distributed beverage to do so. Previously, the brand used high density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles for its 10- to 32-oz. products.

According to the company, switching to rPET bottles will reduce Naked Juice's virgin plastic consumption by 7.4 million lbs. per year, save more than 12,000 cubic meters of space in landfills and reduce the company's packaging-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 35 percent.

In contrast to the old, opaque HDPE bottles, the rPET bottles offer a clear view of the brightly colored Naked Juice products. The company prides itself on being "transparent" about the ingredients it uses in its products, and the high-clarity bottle reinforces that message. Using rPET packaging also aligns well with the company's brand mission of making superior products while minimizing environmental impact.

A svelte green carton
Earth-friendliness was one of the reasons California Natural Products, Lathrop, Calif., chose Tetra Prisma Aseptic packaging for CalNaturale Svelte protein drinks, which launched last year. Tetra Pak, Vernon Hills, Ill., supplies the packaging.

With years of experience as a co-packer specializing in aseptic low-acid filling of soy milks, soups and nutritional beverages, California Natural chose Tetra Pak cartons for its own Svelte brand for several reasons.

"Our objective is to improve the health and wellness of our customers, and we have some parameters around that," says Pat Mitchell, president and founder of California Natural Products. "It has to be a very good tasting product, it has to be convenient, it has to be a great value and it can't compromise the environment."

Finding the Hot Spots

Protein processors are finding their own path to greener packaging. One European seafood company approached Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C., to find ways to move its packaging for smoked salmon in this direction.

Sealed Air performed a product/package life cycle analysis and determined that using a different package style could help the company reduce its carbon footprint. The company switched from a lidded rigid tray for 150g salmon packs to a much thinner profile package, a shallow shrink-wrapped foam tray.

"The weight reduction was significant," recalls Ron Cotterman, executive director of sustainability for Sealed Air. "This one had a profile change, too," which increased distribution efficiency because more packages can be packed in each shipper.

As part of the life cycle analysis, Sealed Air looked at the various steps in the seafood company's processing operation. The evaluation uncovered a hot spot — a processing step that was adversely affecting carbon footprint. The seafood company prefers not to reveal exactly where its processing hot spot is, but it's currently working to remediate it.

He adds that "there are quite a few" environmental benefits of using aseptic cartons. "It would take 26 truckloads of glass bottles, for instance, to replace one truckload of Tetra packaging materials on the inbound side."

Looking at it from another angle, the aseptic cartons account for only about 4 percent of the weight of the filled package. "With other packaging forms, a much higher percentage [of filled package weight] is actually the packaging material and not your product. You're paying to ship it in, and you're paying to ship it out," Mitchell says.

The lower transportation costs go hand in hand with reduced GHG emissions. Other factors that keep the aseptic carton's carbon footprint down are its shelf stability — no refrigeration is needed during storage or distribution — and storage density.

Because the cartons are rectangular rather than round, Mitchell says his warehouse density is 20 to 30 percent higher than if he were storing cans or bottles. Higher storage density permits smaller warehouses and, correspondingly, lower energy requirements for heating and cooling.

To address the cartons' end of life, a key concern when assessing packaging sustainability, California Natural has been working with Tetra Pak to establish a post-consumer carton pulping plant in the Lathrop area. Pulp from the cartons will be turned into other products.

Tetra Pak and carton manufacturers Elopak, Evergreen Packaging and SIG Combibloc banded together two years ago to boost carton recycling in the U.S. and to encourage paper mills to process recycled cartons. Results to date are encouraging, with four paper mills participating and recycling rates on the rise.

According to Jeff Fielkow, vice president of sustainability and recycling programs for Tetra Pak, the number of households with carton-recycling access (curbside or drop-off) last year increased by 12.3 million, reaching 34.3 million households by year-end.

In the first month of 2011, another 1.5 million households were added. Parsed in percentages, carton-recycling access on Jan. 1 was 30.6 percent and by the end of that month had grown to 31.7 percent of all households. All of these figures refer to households in the lower 48 states.

"Our top priority right now is carton recycling," says Derric Brown, director of sustainability at Evergreen Packaging Group, a paperboard packaging maker and probably the leader in gabletop cartons. He says the company is working with municipalities to increase those paperboard recycling rates.

Another R that's also a priority at Evergreen is renewable. The company makes more than 70 percent of its paperboard packaging from "responsibly managed forests." Its third-party certifications from the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative can be carried by food processors on their Evergreen-supplied packages, to share the green halo.

Bioplastic yogurt packs

Organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm, Londonderry, N.H., made news in sustainable packaging recently when it switched to polylactic acid (PLA) for all the yogurt multipacks it makes and fills at its Londonderry plant.

The multipacks are 93 percent PLA, which is a corn-based bioplastic. Stonyfield products now packaged in PLA include YoBaby, YoToddler, YoKids, B-Healthy, B-Well, Probiotic and O'Soy. Stonyfield also is co-packing organic Trader Joe's yogurt in 4-oz. PLA multipacks.

Stonyfield makes the PLA multipacks on the same Arcil form-fill-sealer it used, until last October, to make polystyrene multipacks. Stonyfield "is the first to do it," says Harry Marovskis, director of sales at Synerlink USA, referring to running PLA on the form-fill-sealer. Synerlink, Cincinnati, supplied Stonyfield with the Arcil equipment.

Switching from polystyrene to bioplastic is consistent with Stonyfield's overarching commitment to sustainability, which spans products, employees, the environment and the business itself. Stonyfield reports that by switching to PLA it has reduced its carbon footprint by 1,875 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which equals the carbon dioxide emissions from 4,360 barrels of oil.

Although the PLA multipacks look identical to the old polystyrene packaging, Stonyfield wants consumers to know that the new packages are greener than the old ones. Marovskis reports that if you look at the bottom of the cups, "they all say ‘this package made from plants.' "

In collaboration with Novamont, Zip-Pak has developed a cellulose-based, 100 per cent compostable profile for resealable packaging made of Mater-Bi resin. Also under development is a zipper using PLA for use with PLA films. These developments not only offer the benefits of resealability for reduced food waste, but also have the potential to substantially reduce packaging waste.

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