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Sustainability Drives Food and Beverage Packaging Innovation

July 28, 2023
Packaging materials and operations continue to advance based on environmentally friendly initiatives, with some companies stepping up in big ways to meet that challenge.
Advances in packaging lines, equipment and materials in the food & beverage industry can give processors an edge in a variety of ways. Whether processors are looking to meet the needs of the environmentally conscious consumer, stand out in the marketplace as a trailblazer or eek out that last little bit of productivity from their packaging lines, the innovative mindset of the industry can help meet those needs.

From paper-based packaging of “wet” products to improved modules on robotics to help make packaging lines more efficient, the food & beverage industry is full speed ahead on innovation in this arena.

Likely one of the first areas people think about when it comes to advances in packaging has to do with sustainability or the impact on the environment of the materials used. As corporate social responsibility reporting has evolved, marketing and investor relations departments dig deep for positive initiatives to highlight. But not every innovative story makes the same impact.

“In some cases, the changes are big but not obvious to the consumer, because they’re something that maybe isn’t explained or seen in the reports,” says Tom Egan, vice president of industry services for PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies and formerly the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (www.pmmi.org). “But the packaging community in general is making constant, incremental improvements to packaging materials and packaging operations every day.”

Sustainability advances

Volpi Foods, a St. Louis-based charcuterie meats and snacks processor, has focused on sustainability in packaging — and targeted, detailed consumer marketing around it — as a differentiation point in the marketplace, explains Lorenza Pasetti, CEO of Volpi (www.volpifoods.com), as part of a larger rebranding effort undertaken a few years ago.

“If you go to the deli, you see a lot of plastic — it’s disturbing how much plastic there is in supermarkets today,” she says. “We wanted to find a film that was attractive to use with our new logo and was environmentally friendly.”

Pasetti recalled seeing a film product overseas and began researching solutions that fit the market best here in the States. Volpi eventually developed what it calls its “Eco-Pack” packaging, which aims to reduce the amount of plastic needed to package pre-sliced deli meat products significantly by relying on a recyclable paper-based backing.

“We started out with a film that was 70% less plastic, and we’ve now moved to a version that is 80% less plastic [versus a typical all-plastic deli meat package],” Pasetti says. She says there were learning curves around finding the right film, being able to use it in the process as they required and creating an attractive package at the store level as well.

“The film runs a little more slowly on the equipment and costs a little bit more, but for the progressive retailers that we service, it’s important to them — and they want to contribute by using vendors who offer this type of packaging,” Pasetti says.

Occasionally, customers will hesitate and reference the belief that people want to see both sides of the product before they buy it (the paper-based backing on the package is not transparent). However, Pasetti believes the benefits to the environment outweigh that concern, and as consumers look for solutions to minimize the impact of their food choices, this type of packaging will grow in popularity.

“Change starts with you: If you want to make an impact, you have to take a stand,” she says. “It’s a compliment to see others follow our lead, and I don’t mind that following because I believe it’s great for the world.”

Pasetti hopes more companies will jump on board and adopt more environmentally friendly packaging advances, without waiting for their customers or consumers to say that they want it.

“[The technology] is there, it’s just not being embraced by companies at a very rapid pace,” she continues. “Companies will say that consumers drive the demand for it, but I really do think the consumer is waiting enthusiastically for this, they’re just not seeing it out there enough yet.”

To that end, Pasetti says Volpi will continue down this path, planning to extend the paper-based film application to its snack cups and salami sticks product lines later this year.

Paper-based packaging made international headlines in the candy industry as well when in April 2023, Mars Wrigley Australia announced all chocolate bars manufactured in Australia would transition to a new, paper-based wrapper that could be included in any curbside recycling stream. Iconic candy bars such as Snickers and Milky Way would no longer be packaged in plastic wrappers.

The company invested millions in funding and extensive R&D testing to develop the new wrapper, and it said the paper-based wrappers would eliminate nearly 400 tons of plastic from its supply chain once the Australian operations were fully transitioned to the new packaging. Furthermore, in May, Mars Wrigley announced a test run of its paper-based wrappers for Mars Bars in Tesco grocery stores in the UK, extending the work done in Australia.

Operational advances

The extensive R&D work done by Mars Wrigley Australia is a perfect example of what is truly necessary when switching materials. PMMI’s Egan agrees that even the slightest tweak to the process can cause unforeseen issues with equipment that must be addressed prior to full rollout.

“The package seal is crucial to maintaining freshness, so you have to get that right; and you might have billions of data points for the packaging material you were using, but you still need to build those experiences with the new material, and consumers aren’t always aware of those details,” he says.

“Maybe you need to adjust the clamp time, pressure or temperature to make the new technology work properly — all things we think about in the business, but consumers may not realize when they’re purchasing a new packaging material.”

On the packaging operations and equipment side, Egan sees manufacturers striving to squeeze out every bit of yield and maximize processing throughput wherever possible, using innovation to get any additional bumps they can.

Robotics have revolutionized packaging lines by taking the human element out of many tasks. Pick-and-place robotic arms continue to get faster, safer and smarter, but Egan points out that some industry innovators have drilled further down to innovate on a smaller portion of these machines.

Improved end-of-arm tooling and grippers that these robots use to handle product more gently and also grip the products better continues to give processors the ability to shave time off their production runs and pump out more product.

“The new tooling is widely adaptable to a variety of packaging shapes, which means the uptime on the machine improves,” Egan explains. “You're getting more throughput in a given period of time because the machine itself is not wasting any time or consuming more electricity and power than is needed to move product.”

Additionally, manufacturers of these arms and the tooling that goes with them are working to lighten them, helping the arms move more quickly and, again, using less power to transfer product to and from the destination.

Egan also notes that the modifications and/or rollout of equipment that can handle new paper-based blister packs has helped to turn a curious eye toward those types of packaging materials.

The ability to reduce the use of plastic remains an achievable step for most processors that want to advance their packaging operations in the near term. Other industries have seen success with paper-based blister packs, and the equipment is ready to handle it.

It simply takes a trailblazing company like those mentioned above to step out on the ledge and meet consumers in the middle.

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.

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