26 April 2011

The just-food management briefing

Sustainable packaging - renewable and biodegradable packaging

just-food’s management briefing now turns to packaging from renewable sources, which, Jonathan Thomas writes, is developing rapidly. Bioplastics and biodegradable packaging are gaining traction in an industry keen to become more sustainable.

Although varieties made from recycled materials continue to dominate the global sustainable packaging market, much of the recent industry focus has been on the development of packaging made from renewable materials. This trend has been most evident in the paper/board and plastic sectors, and frequently forms part of a wider sustainability strategy by food and drinks companies.

As far as paper and board packaging is concerned, the trend towards renewable materials has been evidenced by increasing use of certification. Perhaps the most widely-known example is the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), which was established in 1993 “to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests”. Although an increasing percentage of packaging products such as cartons are now sourced from FSC-accredited forests, this area remains relatively undeveloped – at present, only 5% of the world’s forests carry certification from the FSC.

Industry leader Tetra Pak has already made large strides in this area, as is discussed in a case study later in the briefing. However, the importance of FSC certification is also illustrated by the fact that the company’s major packaging rivals are also switching to sustainable materials for their products as well. Together with the high use of recycled material, gaining FSC accreditation is expected to be the major driver of sustainability within the paper and board packaging industry over the next few years.

In 2010, Elopak (which supplies cartons for products such as fruit juice and milk drinks) obtained FSC certification for its major European converting sites. As a result, around a quarter of all its drinks cartons now bear the FSC logo. By 2018, the company hopes that all of its worldwide converting operations will be FSC-certified. Elsewhere, SIG Combibloc (which also specialises in the supply of cartons for liquids) launched its first FSC-certified packaging in late 2009. This took the form of cartons for fruit juice and iced tea in Germany, after which the company launched FSC cartons for yoghurt drinks manufactured by China’s Yili Group.

The desire to incorporate more renewable and environmentally-friendly materials has been particularly acute in the plastic packaging sector. Plastic has traditionally carried negative environmental perceptions, due to factors such as low recycling rates plus the use of petroleum for manufacturing many types of polymers and its associated carbon footprint. According to a source from at Dutch firm CSM, “the average carbon footprint for producing one tonne of PET is approximately 3,000 kilogrammes”.

These factors have led to growth in world demand for packaging products made from bioplastics. These are typically derived from sources such as vegetable oil and corn starch, and are making an increasing impact within the global food and drinks industry as manufacturers seek to reduce their reliance on traditional polymer-based packaging, as well as decrease the carbon footprints.

Global interest in packaging made from bioplastics continues to grow, as technological developments have enabled performance capabilities to increase. By 2012, global production capacity is expected to reach 1.5m tonnes per annum, up from under 600,000 tonnes at present, although these figures remain extremely modest compared with conventional plastics.

Bioplastics have traditionally been most popular for foods such as organic and fresh produce, although they are now finding favour in sectors such as bread and bakery goods. This is mainly due to the ability of many bioplastics to extend the shelf-life of foods. From a product perspective, bioplastics feature most heavily in packaging such as hot-fill bottles, flowpack and microwaveable trays.

Many of the world’s leading chemicals groups (such as Dow Chemical) have made commitments to expanding production of bioplastics, in response to rising demand from end-user markets. Within the food industry, Nestlé announced early in 2011 its intention to switch to bioplastics as part of its overall packaging strategy. Its UK and Ireland unit had already replaced the the cellophane wrappers for Quality Street sweets with a NatureFlex variety, which is described as carbon-neutral and compostable, while it has also entered into partnership with Cardia Bioplastics. Cardia’s expertise is particularly suited to the development of packaging products such as flexible film and blow-moulded containers.

On a related note, some of the most novel examples of innovation within the global food and drinks packaging industry have featured the use of plant-based materials, rather than traditional plastics. One of the best examples is the PlantBottle, which was first launched by Coca-Cola in 2009. Plant-based materials derived from sugar cane and molasses account for 30% of the new bottle. Furthermore, PlantBottle reduces carbon emissions by up to 25%, and is fully recyclable. Coca-Cola has since launched bottles made from plant-based materials for its Odwalla and Dasani brands.

The rising global demand for environmentally-friendly goods is also expected to drive the market for biodegradable packaging, which remains one of the most dynamic sectors of the sustainable packaging industry. The market continues to experience double-digit annual growth levels, with sales also boosted by the enhanced performance properties biodegradable packaging now offers. This sector of the market is also set to benefit from regulatory clampdowns on certain forms of packaging, with polystyrene foams in the foodservice industry one such example.

Within the packaging industry, one of Stora Enso’s most significant recent innovations has been the development of 100% biodegradable paperboard cups. These are made from renewable wood fibres and biopolymer coatings, and are supplied to customers within the fast food industry. However, biodegradable packaging has not received universal support across the food and drinks industry – Coca-Cola, for example, has stated that biodegradability is unsuitable for its single-use plastic bottles. The company has instead preferred to reduce packaging weights, as well as exploring the use of alternative materials.

According to Pira International, the global biodegradable packaging market is expected to reach 115,000 tonnes by 2011, having grown by more than 20% per annum within the last few years. A separate report from Pike Research expects biodegradable varieties to increase their share of the global packaging market from under a quarter at present to almost a third (32%) by 2014. The US has the world’s largest market for biodegradable packaging, with volume sales now worth over 40,000 tonnes.

Source: just-food.com, 2011-04-26.

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