Go Green with Next Generation Packaging

Sept. 19, 2007
A new generation of packaging materials makes it difficult not to go green.

Environmental consciousness is influencing how food processors do business, and nowhere is the effect more noticeable than in packaging.

Suppliers' R&D labs are working overtime to create earth-friendly packaging materials from sustainable resources. In addition, new services and tools are taking the mystery out of designing "green" packages. Retailer initiatives both in the U.S. and abroad are important drivers for the greening of packaging.

Packaging made from polylactic acid (PLA), which itself is made from corn starch, is a high-clarity material that can be formed into thermoformed trays, bottles, films and labels.

Domestically, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (www.walmartfacts.com), Bentonville, Ark., last fall unveiled a Packaging Scorecard that evaluates packaging on dimensions such as recycled content, cube utilization, transportation and the volume of greenhouse gas emissions produced in manufacturing.

See the Nov. 28, 2006, story on Wal-Mart's Packaging Scorecard.

The company's suppliers can use the scorecard to consider what-if scenarios for their own packaging and to evaluate their packaging-sustainability status relative to competitors. Those with the most sustainable packaging will be well positioned to win Wal-Mart's business; starting in 2008, packaging sustainability will play a key role in the retail giant's buying decisions.

Wal-Mart's purchasing power is the locomotive for change on the supply side. The retailer currently buys from 60,000 suppliers worldwide, and none will be exempt from filling out the scorecard.

Ruiz Foods Inc. (www.elmonterey.com), Dinuba, Calif., has been a Wal-Mart supplier for more than 10 years, supplying items such as El Monterey brand 10-pack burritos and chicken and shredded beef Taquitos. "It is extremely logical for Wal-Mart, with locations worldwide, to integrate this initiative into its business plan and work to drive positive change," says Bryce Ruiz, president and chief operating officer, Ruiz Foods.

"We believe that reducing our environmental impact is the right thing to do and believe we can accomplish this by improving our products, processes and packaging, as well as through our commitment to the community," he continues. Ruiz Foods worked with the packaging scorecard and, based on the results, believes its packaging ranks in the top one-third of Wal-Mart's package sustainability scale.

Ruiz Foods, a Wal-Mart supplier for more than 10 years, will be paying close attention to the giant retailer's Packaging Scorecard if it wants to retain Wal-Mart's business.

"The scale was very helpful [and] extremely easy to use," Ruiz says. As a result of using the scorecard, his company is investigating alternative package structures that are more environmentally friendly, with the goal of affecting as many packages as possible.

In Europe, retailer Sainsbury's is one year into its initiative to eliminate conventional plastic packaging from its stores. The plan includes gradually using compostable packaging in place of conventional plastic trays and bags, to the tune of 150 million trays and bags per year. Ultimately the effort will eliminate 3,550 metric tons of plastic, significantly reducing waste destined for landfills.

In all, Sainsbury's hopes to put more than 500 types of food in compostable packaging. Items include Sainsbury's SO organic fruit and vegetables, Sainsbury's Ready Meals, organic sausages and organic whole birds. For foods not compatible with compostable materials, such as deli salads and prepared fruit, the company uses recyclable packaging.

For its compostable packaging, the company is focusing on bioplastics -- polymers made from organic materials such as corn and sugarcane. Package components include trays, baskets, flow-wrap films, labels and netting.

British grocery chain Sainsbury's has an initiative to replace conventional plastic packaging with compostable packaging. With a usage rate of 150 million trays and bags per year, that could eliminate 3,550 metric tons of plastic.

The company recently introduced Sainsbury's SO organic baby salad potatoes packaged in a flexible, heat-sealed bag made from Amcor NaturePlus Mater-Bi vertical form-fill-seal film. The 40-micron, co-extruded film, supplied by Amcor Flexibles (www.amcor.com), Gloucester, UK, is made from renewable, non-genetically modified (non-GM) vegetable materials such as corn starch and is home compostable. The film's all-over print pattern features a compostable logo and text. The back of the bag includes information about the packaging material's compostability and stresses Sainsbury's commitment to compostable and recyclable packaging.

The greening of plastic

Several other bioplastics also are finding applications in food packaging. The most familiar is polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from corn starch. PLA is a high-clarity material that can be formed into thermoformed trays, bottles, films and labels.

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.

Yeah, they're green: Applesauce cups from Metabolix are made with natural plastics from sugar cane, switchgrass and corn sugar.

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."

Not only are the tomatoes organic, so is the packaging. Four Seasons Produce replaced foam trays with ones from Earthcycle Packaging. Made from palm fiber, they are biodegradable and home-compostable (less than 90 days in a backyard composter).

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.

The film heat-seals well and resists greases, oils and fats. In addition, it is glossy and transparent. "It really fits in the premium category," says Shawn Askinosie, the company's founder and chocolate maker. Revere Group (www.rgroup.com), Seattle, supplies Askinosie's NatureFlex bags.

Askinosie's outer packaging, which is made of natural unbleached waxed paper and closed with twine, educates consumers about the inner bag. Text on the back of the package explains: "The inner wrap is home compostable, non-GM packaging from a sustainable source. The tie that binds this package is from a biodegradable bag of beans shipped to our factory."

Paperboard also is greening up, with special attention to packaging for premium items such as gourmet, organic and luxury foods and beverages. The special challenge for this packaging is the need to convey a premium impression to consumers.

Packaging with the "crunchy granola look" is fine for some brands, but companies at the high end "cannot sacrifice their brand to go environmental," says David Lunati, director of marketing, Monadnock Paper Mills Inc. (www.mpm.com), Bennington, N.H. "You don't want to go out there with dirty-looking board."

Materials that deliver, both environmentally and vis-à-vis branding, are becoming available for these high-end companies. Envi by Monadnock PC80 folding boxboard recently launched. In addition to offering brightness, smoothness, thickness and other qualities required for high-end printing and converting, Envi contains 80 percent post-consumer waste.

Both the virgin and recycled fiber in this material are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification bodies, which is an assurance that the fiber was responsibly sourced. The material is geared to secondary packaging applications for gourmet foods as well as products in non-food, luxury categories.

Earth-friendly, business-savvy

In addition to the many green packaging materials that are commercially available or in development, services that help food companies address how they choose and use resources are becoming available.

Snyder's of Hanover used the Packaging Systems Optimization (PSO) service of Georgia-Pacific LLC (www.gp.com), Atlanta, to reduce waste, lower costs and improve sustainability across the packaging supply chain.

The PSO service evaluates a company's entire packaging system to identify areas where processes can be improved. Results of the evaluation can be used to optimize nine areas of the supply chain, including package design, SKU consolidation, materials handling and distribution. Georgia-Pacific's PSO Calculator is an online tool that quantifies not only the dollar savings a company can experience by addressing inefficiencies but also the sustainability advantages.

Test-drive the online Georgia-Pacific's PSO Calculator.

Benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and lower energy use are by-products of "reduced fiber usage, reduced transportation, reduced warehousing. Those things drive sustainability advantages," says Brian Reilly, senior director at Georgia-Pacific's Innovation Institute.

Snyder's and Georgia-Pacific worked closely to identify opportunities among Snyder's 10 highest-volume packaging specifications. Using the results, Snyder's redesigned six of the 10 specifications. In one instance, the PSO team identified a stackable corrugated tray as a candidate for downsizing. Snyder's uses the tray to protect bags of Snyder's Pretzel Sandwiches within shipping cartons. Snyder's redesigned the trays, reducing their overall knockdown size, fiber content and cost but without changing their inside dimensions.

This environmentally responsible design change could save Snyder's more than $42,000 per year. Plus the redesigned trays are easier to stack than the ones they replaced. Overall, Snyder's PSO-related redesigns and packaging optimizations have saved more than 350 tons of fiber, which translates into almost 971 tons of greenhouse gas reductions.

The PSO team also found ways to increase distribution efficiency. Snyder's recently upgraded its shipping fleet from 42- to 53-ft. trailers to reduce shipping and fuel costs. Using the PSO results, the company was able to change pallet configurations for packed cartons to take advantage of the increased shipping capacity.

Again, the results were positive both environmentally and from a business perspective. As Snyder's experience suggests, the new era of earth-friendly packaging holds much promise for food processors. "This is a time of disruption in the world of packaging," concludes Steven Levine, founder of Excellent Packaging & Supply (www.excellentpackaging.com), Richmond, Calif. And with disruption comes "great opportunities."

Note to Marketing

Designers looking for help creating "green" paperboard packaging have a comprehensive resource available in "A Field Guide to Eco-Friendly, Efficient, and Effective Print," published by Monadnock Paper Mills.

The guide's recently issued second edition provides guidance on choosing paper, inks, production techniques and more. It explains, "The message is threefold: Eco-friendly design can be cost-efficient, environmentally sensitive and beautiful. This guide gives graphic professionals the opportunity to think about design differently."

The guide is available in PDF format.