Well Noted: Judging Health Food by Its Cover

Feb. 7, 2007
Making a case for more aggressive pursuit of sustainable packaging now that bioplastics have caught up to demand.

Some processors in their rush to embrace healthful/organic formulation trends lag in something almost as important: the packaging. It's psychologically unsettling to open a package of "all-organic, pure and natural dried fruit snacks" or "vegan-friendly, minimally processed frozen burrito dinner" only to see the packaging is made of No. 6 plastic which 99 percent of recycling programs in the U.S. refuse to handle.

Admittedly, foods and beverages that have been minimally processed and are preservative-free are by the same token more susceptible to the elements packaging is called upon to keep out: light, heat, air. A few years ago, the argument could be made that packaging technology simply had not caught up to the twin challenges of recyclability and sustainability. That's no longer the case.

Plastics made from corn and other plants have been around for a few years now, but have enjoyed a big boom lately thanks to some technological breakthroughs that make bioplastic suitable for wider and more demanding packaging needs. Natureworks LLC, a part of Cargill Inc. (www.natureworksllc.com), Minnetonka, Minn., processes natural plant saccharides into a polylactide polymer from which it makes bottles, boxes, bags and wrappings that are durable, yet compostable. When composted, bioplastic breaks down completely in a couple months or so (depending on the environmental conditions, it could take a little longer).

Natureworks even makes cloth fiber. Clothing from it feels like a cotton-poly blend, although it feels more like cotton than polyester. A T-shirt I received as a promotional "gimme" at one expo is still like new after a score of washings some in hot water, which the tag warns you not to do. Even the logo colors remain vibrant. With this kind of tech on hand, any reservations about using bioplastic should melt away.

The Charlottesville, Va.-based Sustainable Packaging Coalition (www.sustainablepackaging.org) is a group dedicated to promoting sustainable packaging as "beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle." Yet a list of the organization's members shows less representation from food processing and food packaging companies than you'd expect.

A synopsis of the Pack Expo show last fall on Foodprocessing.com ("Processing and packaging under one big roof," www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2006/243.html), included a review of a presentation by Dennis McGrew, president and CEO of Natureworks. He described the following "four critical areas related to growing the market for a new bio-based material:"

  • Growth of corporate social responsibility as both corporate value and an economic decision.
  • Global "greening" of the consumer as a powerful emerging trend.
  • Importance of collaboration through the supply chain to facilitate market adoption.
  • Importance of listening to many voices for the ongoing issues that will need to be addressed as the bioresin market grows.

Decatur, Ill.-based giant ADM has its hand in the biodegradable plastic pie via its alliance with Metabolix Inc. (www.metabolix.com) at a new Clinton, Iowa, plant. Metabolix plans to make 110 million pounds of its "Natural Plastic"-brand biodegradable plastic products starting next year.

Bioplastic packaging should be an inseparable part of sustainability. Petroleum-based plastic food packaging clamshell containers, bottles, cups, disposable cutlery, film wrapping, labels, bags, stamp-formed compartment packages, six-pack rings etc. -- contribute to the more than 100 million annual tons of plastic waste globally. Only about 5 percent of that currently is recycled. Being petroleum based, it also holds us 100 million more tons-worth of hostage to foreign oil interests. (How many oil-producing countries can you name that aren't ruled by despotic and corrupt terror-exporting dictators?)

As reported in the aforementioned Pack Expo synopsis, McGrew also quoted Sunny Misser, PricewaterhouseCoopers' global leader of sustainable business solutions: "Sustainability has moved from the fringes of the business world to the top of the agenda for shareholders, employees, regulators and customers. Any miscalculation of issues related to sustainability can have serious repercussions on how the world judges a company and values its shares."

We're getting there, but the revolution should be more complete now that we're getting the supply end of it in position. I'm throwing down the gauntlet: To all processors making and marketing foods and beverages from a "green" position -- and even those of you who aren't -- don't talk the talk unless you're willing to walk the walk. By this time next year, I don't think consumers should be opening their packs of "wholesome, organic, non-GMO, fair-trade amaranth crisps" etc. from unrecyclable containers.

Catch the Sustainability Wave

Sustainability isn't just about packaging. As the controversy over farmed vs. wild-caught seafood continues to bubble, processors of seafood and seafood-based formulations can feel the pinch from both sides. Our oceans have been depleted of fish and shellfish to a perhaps unrecoverable degree. In some parts of the world, species have been depleted by 90 percent. There are even areas of our oceans which have become "dead zones."

Once hailed as a win-win solution, fish and seafood farms have turned into nightmares in some cases, polluting the water tables, the rivers and even parts of the ocean. And, when farm-raised fish escape into the wild they breed with and weaken native species, leaving them at risk from disease and predators.

Processors relying on fish and seafood sources can find assistance via the Blue Ocean Institute (www.blueocean.org). The Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.-based nonprofit is a "very different kind of conservation organization" that focuses on practical solutions that serve to benefit all those who depend on Earth's waters for livelihood and pleasure. The group also provides the "Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood" on its website.