The movement to fully recyclable and biodegradable packaging materials has been gradual as consumers become more educated about the danger plastics pose to natural habitats like oceans. It’s a slow tide rising, but many experts predict that sustainable packaging is about to wash over most consumer packaged goods (C.P.G.s) within the decade. The question for baked foods and snack producers is how to convert to these materials without raising prices beyond consumer expectations.
Many laminate films today are not fully recyclable. Metals, certain resins and other materials in films and bags prohibit them from being reused. And the reality is that 100% recyclable films and bags can cost up to 20% more and sometimes come with process performance tradeoffs. Bakers need to weigh the importance of these materials against their bottom line. Will consumers pay 10% more for a bag of chips if the packaging is fully recyclable? The answer is not always clear.
According to the 2018 PMMI report “Snack Foods — Packaging and Processing Market Assessment and Trends,” a lack of sustainable packaging is not yet an obstacle to a purchase decision for consumers. Just because something is or isn’t recyclable doesn’t weigh heavily on purchasing decisions yet.
Innova Market Research recently conducted a survey that showed about 25% of consumers in the United States, U.K. and Germany said biodegradable or compostable packaging is an important consideration when they purchase food. PMMI predicts that recyclable and biodegradable packaging will grow slowly over the next two to three years but will be more relevant, and occupy a much larger segment of the market, in 5 to 10 years.
For example, Kraft Heinz, Chicago, and Nestle, Vevey, Switzerland, have converted their packaging processes, both pledging to make 100% of their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.
Transitioning to these types of films can affect process speeds, but technology over the past five years has improved significantly. There are now many drop-in replacement options for bakers and snack producers if they are willing to make the investment.
Capable of converting
When deciding to convert to recyclable or biodegradable materials, consider seal strength and barrier quality. For years, the sealability of sustainable packaging materials has been problematic, and the barrier properties have been relatively weak compared with their traditional counterparts.
Roy Langlois, market development manager, Jindal Films Americas, said a lag in processing speeds for some types of films remains, but the quality of certain seals and barriers are now comparable with conventional polypropylene bags and films. Made under the SealTough brand, Jindal’s material has a thinner gauge than traditional wraps, so speeds on a horizontal wrapper are often reduced, but the seal temperature can be lowered and requires less time, so manufacturers can potentially save on energy. It also features puncture resistance, enhanced clarity, improved modulus and seals that can exceed 5,000 g per 25 mm.
The recently developed line of Ethy-Lyte films from Jindal was designed as a drop-in replacement for traditional films. The clarity and printability of this film can be used as an alternative to oriented polypropylene and polyethylene films in a variety of applications.
“Whatever you would run the same gauge polypropylene at, you would run this film,” Mr. Langlois said. “There is no change if you’re going to run it on a printing press, a bag line, or any type of snack food application.”
It’s not uncommon for equipment suppliers to partner with materials companies to help food producers convert materials.
Packaging equipment suppliers such as Formost Fuji work with material suppliers and bakers to ensure converting makes sense for the processes and the bottom line. Dennis Gunnell, president, Formost Fuji, said there are some challenges with running certain recyclable or compostable materials on the company’s flowwrap machines, but it often just requires testing to see how fast it can run and what seal temperatures are needed.
“The last thing we want is customers going out, getting a truckload of film ordered and then finding out that either it’s more troublesome to run or that they have to slow their speed down by 40%,” Mr. Gunnell cautioned. “They need to get us involved early on to do the testing, so they know long before they make the commitment.”
Mr. Gunnell said material suppliers can ship their films to Formost Fuji, where they can test it for performance.
“Oftentimes, the speeds do slow down, but we can still meet their needs because typically nothing changes other than a few adjustments like changing the temperatures on the sealer,” he said.
Cavanna Packaging partnered with Taghleef Industries and others to develop bio-based biodegradable films for the global market. NATIVIA bio-based films can be converted employing the same technologies with more traditional polyolefin-based plastics, so the conversion costs are similar.
“Minor adjustments such as modifying processing temperatures or modifying the make-up of inks or adhesive components may be necessary,” said Francesco Barbangelo, applications engineer, Taghleef Industries, Inc. “Process modifications are usually minor adjustments and considered normal whenever a different type of material is used.”
Bio-based resins typically have a higher price per pound compared with polyolefin-based plastics. The capabilities are there; it just comes at a price.
Convenience vs. sustainability
Converting to sustainable materials helps not only the environment but also company branding. But such promotion only goes so far if it is still inconvenient to the consumer. That means it must have all the same functionality and not be too complicated to recycle or properly dispose of new types of packaging.
Jorge Izquiedro, vice-president, market development, PMMI, described it as a battle between convenience and health-and-wellness trends. Today, many products like crackers are individually wrapped for portability and shelf life. If consumers open a carton of crackers, they will see another layer of single-serve plastic packaging. While convenient, this creates more plastic usage and waste.
To know which to recycle can be confusing and inconvenient because of the amount of material and different types of components, Mr. Barbangelo said.
“Unfortunately, the public remains unsure which types of plastics can or cannot be recycled in the current systems,” he said. “Recyclability of certain materials is largely dependent upon the availability and capabilities of the recycling facilities across the U.S., which vary greatly across states and localities. This variability can make it difficult to effectively communicate which materials can be recycled, and where.”
Nova Chemicals, a polyethylene producer, is working to simplify things by replacing multi-material packages with polyethylene-based recyclable film structures.
“Polyethylene is a 100% recyclable material,” said Paul Tas, food packaging market manager, Nova Chemicals. “Only when it’s combined with other materials to make a package or end-use product can it become hard-to-recycle or non-recyclable.”
Nova also manufactures grades of polyethylene to address oxygen barrier performance issues typically associated with simpler laminates. SURPASS HPs167-AB resin, a high-density polyethylene, provides a 50% higher barrier than traditional polyethylene. This can extend shelf life for baked foods or snacks. NOVAPOL PF-0118-FI resin enables packaging to be recycled multiple times.
“We foresee these types of products taking on a bigger role and are looking at other opportunities,” Mr. Tas said.
Demand for bio-based and biodegradable materials is driven by the development and commercialization of higher performance and cost-effective bio-based packaging films, Mr. Barbangelo added. Taghleef Industries’ and Cavanna’s NATIVIA BoPLA and EXTENDO products are an example. NATIVIA bio-based films are currently used in lamination with paper in bakery and snack applications. Mr. Barbangelo said they offer a broad set of advantages like being biodegradable and industrially compostable, suitable for paper stream recycling (in Europe), having better breathability and being produced from renewable resources.
Public education about and improvements to recyclable and bio-based materials that match the look, feel and functionality of traditional wraps and bags will close the gap that still exists between convenience and sustainable options.
Is it worth it?
In today’s market, consumers are increasingly considering the environmental impact of packaging. Because of this, C.P.G.s have begun to assess, or in some cases changed, their business strategies to capitalize on the trend. Mr. Tas said many global C.P.G.s have announced flexible packaging changes by 2025 and that companies should assess their own situations on a case-by-case basis.
“Consumer awareness around end-of-life plastics issues is incredibly high,” he said. “More people are demanding greater sustainability and accountability from the brands they buy from. Sustainability is here to stay, and the challenge for all of us is to deliver the benefits of plastic packaging and ensure one-time use packaging can be re-used or recycled.”
A circular economy focused on recycling has benefits that are operational as well as strategic, on micro- and macro-economic levels.
“This is a trillion-dollar opportunity with a long-term potential for those participating and can result in significant gains in innovation, job creation, economic growth and resource preservation,” Mr. Barbangelo said.
Because the cost equivalence isn’t there just yet, some food producers are reluctant to convert all their packaging materials. But Mr. Langlois said that a major shift is just a few years away, if it hasn’t already begun.
“The conversations are happening every day,” he said. “What we say is, ‘Here’s the solution that we have, the one that we think would provide a lot of value to you.’ Maybe it’s not tomorrow or next month, but maybe in the next six months this is going to be a game changer. And then the next year, it might be commonly accepted, and then the next two years it might be the industry standard.”