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Packaging Innovations Strive to Minimize or Eliminate Plastic

Jan. 12, 2024
Once a revolutionary innovation itself, plastic has become 'Packaging Enemy No. 1' nowadays, as food and beverage companies move toward more environmentally friendly materials.

As food & beverage brands search for ways to stand out in a sea of similarities and a multitude of messages, some are turning to packaging innovation to separate themselves from the competition. And in this day and age, many remain sharply focused on using sustainability and environmental friendliness as the lever to convince consumers to choose their products.

Plastic packaging, and what to do about its proliferation in product and waste streams, continues to be the target du jour, with companies making headway in minimizing or eliminating plastics or incorporating recycled plastics into packaging. The past year has seen significant launches of new packaging designs and materials, aimed at helping win the battle and ditching plastic in food & beverage packaging.

In our July 2023 issue, we discussed this trend and highlighted meat processor Volpi Foods’ transition to a paper-based, recyclable backer for its sliced deli meats packaging, which uses 80% less plastic than a typical all-plastic deli-meat package. This package, in fact, went in the opposite direction of a recent meat packaging trend: letting consumers see all sides of the meat product (clear packaging all the way around).

The launches of eco-friendly packaging options didn’t stop with that story. Since then, a veritable tidal wave of plastic-reduction options have continued to push ashore in food & beverage packaging applications.

Searching for solutions

In April of last year, Google announced the launch of its Single-Use Plastics Challenge, which aimed to help the company switch from single-use disposable products in its own foodservice operations to more reusable solutions. Google invited food & beverage companies with single-use, plastic-free packaging solutions — whether snack wrappers or distribution packaging solutions — to apply to the competition.

In November, Homefree LLC, a Windham, N.H., manufacturer of brownies and cookies that are gluten-free, vegan and free from the most common 14 food allergens, announced it was a winner of the challenge. Homefree founder and president Jill Robbins said when she first heard about the challenge, she thought “it was awesome” for an international company like Google and its foodservice partners to make such an impactful commitment.

“When I saw Google’s challenge to reduce single-use packaging in foodservice, I loved it,” she explains. “It was partly business-related to apply, but also partly so we could learn and be part of the community supporting a cause like this.”

For Robbins, it all starts with the fact that Homefree is a sustainability-focused company, having earned certified B Corporation status in 2011. The company produces shelf-stable, single-serve, boxed and bulk-packaged mini cookies for retail and foodservice, as well as a line of 1 oz. soft cookies and 2 oz. brownies delivered frozen to foodservice.

“The electricity used to run the packaging machines and the lighting, which was also refurbished, is 100% green energy,” she says. Homefree offers its bulk products in three 1-lb. bags, which allow operators to deliver the product to consumers via dispensers, reducing packaging materials while maintaining product freshness.

Robbins has been working since the company’s infancy to minimize plastic use, she says, relaying that early in the company’s history, when it was first making the larger cookies, it was looking to impact the environment as little as possible. Most similar products on the market were packaged in plastic trays, but Robbins wasn’t keen on going that route.

“At the time, I started to think about how many trays we were going to create for these cookies, and I thought there had to be a better solution,” she says. “We ended up wrapping them in groups of three and putting them into the box without the tray, and nobody was doing that at the time; but I simply couldn’t bring myself to create all that plastic.”

The company also transitioned to a wrap made with 53% reworked food-grade materials, diverting waste from landfills. Cookie boxes are made with local fiber that is platinum-rated through sustainability ratings company EcoVadis, and they are printed using wind power. Case boxes for all the products are 65-80% recycled content and also recyclable and reusable, Robbins says. But the company isn’t done working on its sustainable packaging efforts.

“What we have decided at this point — always knowing it’s a transition and learning — is to try to make the wrap itself as sustainable as possible and not count on the end user to do anything with it yet, because the infrastructure isn’t always there even if they want to be sustainable,” she says.

The focus on single-serve packaging can make an even bigger impact if the trend-spotters such as retail supermarket chain Whole Foods are proven correct on food & beverage trends heading into 2024. In Whole Foods’ “The Next Big Things: Our Top 10 Food Trends for 2024,” the company called out “little luxuries” as a key driver.

“We know firsthand the power of a treat, like an impulse macaron buy or a fizzy, functional and flavor-forward bev,” the report says. “Brands are getting in on the trend by considering both cost and format — like individual serving packages that add joy without breaking a budget.”

Big food & beverage steps up

The big companies have stepped up in a big way to eliminate plastic as well. In August, PepsiCo Beverages North America (PBNA) announced it would eliminate plastic rings on its multipacks and replace them with paperboard solutions in a phased, regional rollout across the U.S. The paperboard packaging would be made from recycled materials and is recyclable, the company says.

Over the decades, the long-maligned “six-pack” plastic rings went from a not-so-funny punchline to a fully negative image of a beverage industry that lacked any care about the environment. The entire industry has worked to minimize impacts over the years. PBNA said its solution would eliminate millions of pounds of plastics from its North American product lines.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola Co. announced it would be using 100% recycled plastic (excluding caps and labels) for all 500ml sparkling beverage product bottles in Canada by early 2024, creating a circular economy for plastic packaging and allowing the company to stop using virgin plastic for any of those bottles moving forward in Canada. Coca-Cola India also has converted to using 100% recycled plastic for its 250ml and 750ml Coca-Cola product bottles in that country.

Plastics reduction extends beyond beverages as well, with Bimbo Bakeries USA chipping in with its own innovative packaging solution. In October, the company announced that the Arnold Bread brand’s organic line had begun using what the company said was the first bread bag made from 30% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content , produced from FDA-compliant PCR resins.

In December, Kellanova, the global snacking and frozen foods spinoff of the former Kellogg Co., announced that Cheez-It Snap’d, Cheez-It Puff’d and Club Crisps had knocked down their use of plastic packaging significantly year-over-year. Kellanova said optimized packaging designs helped the brands cut 124,000 lbs. of plastic (as well as 672,000 lbs. in total material weight and 548,000 lbs. of corrugated cardboard for case shipments) annually.

When you think single-serve products, ramen noodles may come to mind, and one of the major players in that space, Nissin Foods, overhauled the packaging of its Cup Noodles product. Nissin replaced the polystyrene cup with a paper cup, removing the clear plastic wrapper entirely and featuring a sleeve made with 100% recycled paper. The changes have allowed more convenience for consumers as well, as the product can now be microwaved with the move away from the polystyrene cup.

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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