Sustainable Packaging Initiatives on the Rise

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Sustainable packaging is more than a trend or a buzzword these days. After decades of producing packaging made without much thought as to its environmental impact, companies on a global scale are developing ways to ensure the packaging they use is “greener” – catch-all terminology that encompasses environmentally-friendly, recyclable packaging that avoids waste in the manufacturing process and discourages waste as it’s being discarded. As an industry leader in developing innovative packaging solutions for clients, Pioneer Packaging Worldwide constantly strives to stay abreast of current trends and anticipate trends developing down the road. This month, we highlight several stories in the news that exemplify how things are changing for the better when it comes to sustainable packaging in 2019.

Nestlé USA is making dramatic strides in this area. The company is proactively working toward meeting its goal of making 100% of the its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, with a focus on avoiding plastic waste. So far 2019 is off to a banner start, with the introduction of several ambitious sustainable packaging initiatives, collaborations, and programs with major brands. Earlier this year, Nestlé began to eliminate all plastic straws from its products, replacing them with alternative materials like paper with the goal to reduce littering. The first quarter of the year, Nestlé will also start using paper packaging for its Nesquik brand and aims to do the same for its Yes! snack bar in the second half of the year. Smarties will transition to plastic-free packaging in 2019 and Milo will introduce paper-based pouches next year. Nestlé Waters is increasing the recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) content of its bottles to 35% by 2025 and up to a full 50% in the United States, and the recycled PET content for its European brands to 50% by 2025 as well. The Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences, created last year with the goal of furthering “The company’s commitment to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025”, is developing paper-based materials and biodegradable/compostable polymers that are also recyclable. The company says this could become a worthwhile option in places where the infrastructure for developing recycling does not currently exist and most likely won’t be available for the foreseeable future. Nestlé also collaborated with the tech firm PureCycle Technologies to produce food-grade recycled polypropylene (PP) from plastic waste feedstock.

Nestlé recently announced its blueprint to deal with plastic waste, with the goal mentioned above to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, with an emphasis on avoiding plastic waste. CEO Mark Schneider said this plan reinforces his company’s commitment to tackling this overarching issue. “Our broader vision and action plan outline our commitment and specific approach to addressing the plastics packaging waste issue. While we are committed to pursuing recycling options where feasible, we know that 100% recyclability is not enough to successfully tackle the plastics waste crisis. We need to push the boundaries and do more. We are determined to look at every option to solve this complex challenge and embrace multiple solutions that can have an impact now. We believe in the value of recyclable and compostable paper-based materials and biodegradable polymers, in particular where recycling infrastructure does not exist.” He admitted that while this is is a laudable goal, it’s one that can’t be met by Nestlé alone, saying, “Collective action is vital, which is why we are also engaging consumers, business partners and all of our Nestlé colleagues to play their part. You can count on us to be a leader in this space!”

Nestlé USA’s Walt Peterson, manager – packaging sustainability, discussed his company’s goals even further. “Our vision is that none of our product packaging, including plastics, should end up in landfill or as litter, including in seas, oceans and waterways. To achieve this, our ambition is that 100% of our packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2025,” he said, adding, “we have a large portfolio of our packaging that is already recyclable in the U.S. In the short term, Nestlé will continue to play an active role in the development of well-functioning collection, sorting and recycling systems. In the U.S., Nestlé is involved with the Materials Recovery For the Future (MRFF) project, whose vision is simple: flexible packaging is recycled curbside and the recovery community captures value from it. After several years of research exploring cutting- edge sorting equipment for recycling facilities and end markets for material, the project is conducting a pilot to demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of including flexible packaging in a single-stream curbside recycling system.”  Peterson added that we should see the results of the initiative later this year.

The Loop reusable-packaging-based program – which was unveiled at January’s World Economic Forum in Davos – empowers consumers to buy their favorite products in durable, not disposable, packaging. Loop does this by using premium and long-lasting packaging designed for multiple reuse before ultimately being recycled. It is supported by top names, such as Coca Cola, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé. Peterson said his company, “Is expanding its global efforts to develop new packaging solutions, minimize its impact on the environment and protect the planet for future generations. Loop fits into those efforts by taking an innovative and disruptive approach to changing how products are packaged – and delivered – and how consumers enjoy them. It’s just one way Nestlé is innovating and transforming its business with sustainability in mind while still providing consumers a premium product experience,” adding, “companies are looking for new ways to address packaging and reduce waste – and consumers are demanding it. Loop is an example of how the industry is responding to that and we believe consumers will be very interested in trying it out for themselves.”

Sustainability through a company’s products is huge now. It seems that each day brings new promises to implement changes from companies to improve their commitment to sustainability in the future. For several decades, 3M has touted its commitment to sustainable practices but has recently upped the ante with its newest commitment that all new products will include sustainable value. Given that 3M introduces more than 1,000 products to the market annually, this is a major promise. 3M uses its considerable influence to create opportunities to help solve some of the toughest challenges facing the world. The goal is to help customers and the entire world tackle tough environmental challenges. At the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24), 3M announced its first formal requirement that a Sustainability Value Commitment is going to be included in all new products introduced this year. John Banovetz, 3M’s Chief Technology Officer, said, “Today at COP24 we are proud to formalize our commitment to this next step in innovating for a sustainable future.” The company added, “Beyond 3M’s own operations, a primary reason for the goal is to help customers achieve their sustainability goals. This new product goal creates even more opportunities to collaborate with customers on solutions that improve lives around the world,” adding, “examples of 3M’s Sustainability Value Commitment for new products include reusability, recyclability, energy, waste, water savings, responsible sourcing, and/or renewable materials appropriate to the specific product, from the beginning to the end of each product’s lifecycle. This commitment also includes products with a core purpose of helping to solve an environmental or social challenge, such as improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving worker and patient safety in healthcare and industrial settings. 3M will measure progress and impact of this commitment and report on it annually.”

The amount of plastic waste accumulating in our oceans today is astounding. Electronics manufacturer Samsung is responsible for a considerable amount of that packaging, much of it plastic.  After introducing eco-friendly packaging to laptops in 2018, the company is now working toward offering similar packaging for a wider range of products. Samsung is replacing plastic trays with paper or bio plastics, and striving to ensure the paper packaging products it uses are certified sustainable products.

Swedish furniture retailer Ikea has long had a strong reputation of commitment to recycling and reducing product waste. In particular, the company focuses on the reduction of greenhouse gases and energy conservation. A new facility in Virginia will have an 180,000 sq. ft. solar panel array, along with Blink electric car charging stations. This not the first Ikea facility to do so –  it has 55 additional facilities and has invested $2.5 billion in technology on these initiatives, part of a commitment to achieve energy independence by 2020.

Britain is overhauling its recycling system. Beginning last month, it began making producers of plastic packaging pay the full cost of dealing with their waste, and introduced a plan for deposits on cans and bottles. The new plan also aims to make trash pick-ups more consistent. Britain’s Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, said, “We will introduce a world-leading tax to boost recycled content in plastic packaging, make producers foot the bill for handling their packaging waste, and end the confusion over household recycling,” adding the tax will be paid by producers who don’t use enough recycled material. Currently, producers pay only about ten percent of the cost of dealing with waste from plastic packaging waste. Under Britain’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system, the industry will pay higher fees if packaging is harder to recycle or reuse.  This will raise more than $1 billion annually for recycling and disposal. There are two ways a deposit might work on cans, glass and plastic bottles. One would be be aimed at the large amount of drinks on the market, no matter the container size. The second – known as the “on-the-go” model – would revolve around smaller-sized containers, sold for consumption outside the home. “This could drive up the recycling of an estimated three billion plastic bottles which are currently incinerated, sent to landfills or left to pollute streets, countryside and the marine environment,” the government said, adding that household waste recycling rates in England have risen from approximately 11 percent in 2001 to about 45 percent today.  

An English farm has developed a way to help consumers compost packaging. Riverford Organic Farms, near Northallerton in England, came up with a single-use compostable plastic that will be available by the end of next year. Customers who are unable to compost at home can return their reusable box to the company. Sustainable initiatives like this are designed to grow the environmentally-friendly packaging market, along with keeping the environment safer and cleaner.

One of the best ways to improve sustainable packaging is to solicit ideas from the people who work on the plant floor with the machines and packaging materials. Conagra Brands helps to cut waste, improve packaging line operations and save money by incentivizing employees to come up with ideas. In 2009, the company established its Sustainable Development Awards, encouraging employees to submit innovations or projects that reduce water, waste, energy and costs across the company. To date, projects developed for the contest have reduced the carbon footprint of the company by more than 189,000 metric tons, conserved 3.5 billion gallons of water, diverted more than 207,500 tons of solid waste from landfills, reduced solid waste by nearly 98,000 tons and decreased packaging by 32,000 tons. Winners receive a $5,000 grant from the Conagra Brands Foundation to use on sustainability-focused public service projects in their communities. Conagra’s Vice President of Sustainable Development, Gail Tavill, said that “This year we received 57 entries, which is consistent with the last three years of the program. Winners are chosen by a review committee made up of a cross-functional leadership team. Leaders from our grocery and snacks business, health and safety, procurement, communications, supply chain and R&D functions are all part of the review process.” She went on to talk about a successful project submitted for the Sustainable Development Awards. “After realizing a significant amount of time and money went into replacement parts for a cutting assembly, our Slim Jim facility in Troy, Ohio, modified equipment to allow for a quicker and less expensive repair option. Rather than replacing a whole assembly, the plant created a modular design that was more robust and allowed for replacing small sections at a time, which was both faster and more efficient,” she said, adding, “the improvement helped reduce unplanned stops and film waste, eliminating over 500 tons of waste annually.”

Conagra’s plant in Waterloo, Iowa, sparked another environmentally-friendly packaging victory, according to Tavill. “To preserve freshness of our David Seeds, the headspace in the individual bags are nitrogen-flushed. At each startup cycle, achieving the correct residual oxygen level required the plant to purge 10 bags. After observing the volume of waste generated by that practice, the team questioned if the current standard was necessary. Working with the quality team, they were able to identify that optimal nitrogen values were reached after purging only seven bags. This change saved 225,000 bags of sunflower seeds,” she said.

Tavill pointed to another Conagra success story. “A low-viscosity sauce was creating a high-yield loss in our Milton, Pa. plant when small amounts of sauce would spill while going through a waterfall briner before the can was sealed. By creating a thicker sauce and using the waterfall briner to add a thin layer of water across the sauce, the team was able to create a barrier to keep the sauce in place. This ‘topping water’ mixes in with the concentrated sauce during thermal processing, thus not changing the overall product design. After the first month of operation, the yield improvement has been tracking at 2% with an annual yield improvement projected at $350,000,” she said.  

Sustainability continues to be a major global trend in the packaging industry. As consumers search for healthier food options and manufacturers who employ innovative packaging and processes have a positive impact on the environment and the quality of goods, sustainable packaging has never been more important. According to Packaging Digest’s 2017 Sustainable Packaging Study:

  • 92% of respondents felt sustainability in packaging has never been more important.
  • 89% of brand owners say they are mostly responsible for educating consumers on sustainable packaging.   
  • 74% of companies put an emphasis on using recycled-content materials for their packaging.

Corrugated packaging offers advantages for eco-friendly packaging. If you’re considering using corrugated cardboard for your packaging, here are ways it can help you support responsible sourcing while considering the environment:

  • Corrugated packaging is recyclable and contains recycled content. It’s made from a high percentage of recycled paper, and without using dyes or bleaches, so it can be disposed of more sustainably than other types of material that contain contaminants.
  • It’s renewable. Since it’s made with paper pulp, corrugated packaging is predominantly made from timber from fast-growing pine trees; it can also be created from wood chips and leftover materials from a variety of paper-making processes.
  • It’s reusable, reducing packaging costs and the environmental impact. Many corrugated case styles are meant to be easily collapsible and fully reusable.
  • Corrugated packaging helps save energy. Because it has a high percentage of recycled components, it costs less energy to make. Most corrugated manufacturers make products from locally sourced recycled content.
  • Corrugated packaging cases offers protection for your products. More and more businesses are creating right-sized boxes for their products, allowing businesses to help cut down on carbon emissions when it comes to shipping and transport. This can make a dramatic difference to a company’s carbon footprint.

For more than 35 years, Pioneer Packaging Worldwide has been engineering innovative packaging solutions for clients in the industrial, retail, and moving and storage industries. To learn how we can help you find eco-friendly solutions that will reduce your company’s carbon footprint and make you a more responsible corporate citizen, contact us today.

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