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Grocers Go Green for Food Packaging

New solutions in sustainable packaging deliver on quality and safety to meet consumer demand
Marian Zboraj, Progressive Grocer
Sabert packaging
Sabert’s new line of Pulp Produce and Protein Trays are sustainable packaging alternatives to traditional foam trays that do not compromise on quality or performance.

“It’s not easy being green.”

Kermit the Frog will be happy to learn that this statement no longer holds true — at least in regard to retail packaging. This is driven by the fact that more than half of today’s shoppers are concerned about climate change, according to 84.51°, the retail data science, insights and media arm of The Kroger Co., which is based in Cincinnati. As a result, many consumers are striving to shop more sustainably, which includes being on the lookout for environmentally friendly packaging. 

From the perimeter to center store, suppliers and food retailers are addressing the call for green packaging with solutions that don’t compromise on quality.  

[RELATED: How Grocery Retailers Can Ensure Food Safety and Sustainability in Organic Food Packaging]

Planet-Friendly Perimeter

Food packaging solutions provider Sabert Corp. launched its new line of Pulp Protein and Produce Trays in April. This certified commercially compostable packaging solution provides foodservice operators with an eco-friendly alternative to traditional foam trays without adversely affecting performance.

The Pulp 2S Produce Tray caters to the growing consumer trend of hybrid cooking, blending meal planning, meal kits and ready-to-eat items. The tray is ideal for whole or cut vegetables and fruits and fresh meal ingredients. Engineered with Sabert’s Pulp Plus molded fiber blend, the Pulp Produce Tray is refrigerator- safe for up to seven days.

The Pulp 3P Protein Tray is suitable for a wide range of proteins, including chicken, beef, steak and seafood, as well as plant-based alternatives. Crafted with Sabert’s new proprietary Pulp Ultra coated formulation, the tray offers moisture protection, ensuring that oil-heavy food items remain fresh. The Pulp Protein Tray is designed to be refrigerator-safe for up to 30 days, which, according to the company, surpasses the average supermarket shelf life.

“Our new Pulp Produce and Protein Trays are the perfect example of Sabert’s mission-driven purpose of reinventing food packaging to nourish and protect our world,” says Stephny Halstead, VP, marketing and new product development at Sayreville, N.J.-based Sabert. “The trays combine sustainability, versatility and durability, helping retailers and operators meet the growing demand for environmentally responsible solutions that still deliver food protection, preservation and presentation.”

The compostable PFAS-free pulp trays are derived from renewable resources and support a circular solution with sustainable end-of-life disposal. Both trays can be overwrapped or film-sealed for easy integration into current supermarket operations.

Cryovac packaging
Eastman and Sealed Air’s lightweight tray for protein packaging performs like traditional plastic in a challenging atmosphere and yet provides an end-of-life solution through composting.

Also in the area of protein packaging, Eastman and Sealed Air have launched a compostable, lightweight tray designed as a drop-in replacement for traditional polystyrene foam trays that can work on existing industrial food-packaging equipment. The tray is already successfully performing in several market applications. Sealed Air introduced its Cryovac brand compostable overwrap tray to the market in January. 

The new tray is made from Eastman Avent Renew compostable materials, which are produced from sustainably sourced wood pulp and acetyl sourced from a portfolio of recycled material. The tray can be composted in home and industrial environments. Predominately containing cellulose acetate derived from wood pulp, the new trays are compostable by naturally occurring microbes. Aventa Renew material doesn’t remain as microplastics in the environment; it’s a unique compostable material that contains both bio-based and certified-recycled content.

[RELATED: Understanding the Need to Reduce Plastic Packaging]

“One of the most exciting features of these trays is that they perform like traditional plastic in a challenging atmosphere and yet provide an end-of-life solution through composting — a ‘win-win’ for the environment,” says Jeff Carbeck, Ph.D., VP of corporate innovation at Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman.

“Encouraging development of a circular plastics economy takes dedication and collaboration from all aspects of the value chain, including where we source our materials,” adds Tiffani Burt, Ph.D., executive director of strategic marketing and sustainability for the Americas at Charlotte, N.C.-based Sealed Air. 

Meanwhile, London-based Klöckner Pentaplast (kp) has launched what it says are the first food packaging trays comprising 100% recycled PET (rPET) derived exclusively from other trays.

According to the company, food packaging trays have traditionally been manufactured using ever-increasing proportions of recovered PET material. The newly launched kp tray is the first to be composed entirely of recycled tray material. This milestone is the result of kp’s Tray2Tray initiative, which aims to rewrite the PET recycling rules.

“Most rPET in the material loop comes from plastic bottles, of which just 30% goes into food packaging trays, and most of this does not end up being recovered,” explains Thomas Kure Jakobsen, president of food packaging at kp. “As a result, countless tonnes of rPET tray material are wasted each year.

“kp Tray2Tray challenges this by creating a robust closed-loop system of PET flake from trays,” continues Jakobsen. “We work with suppliers to create a separate supply stream of recycled PET from trays, which can be used to create more of the same, rather than being downcycled.”

Thanks to this breakthrough, kp customers can access a fully circular tray solution for food packaging. The kp supply chain is RecyClass certified, ensuring the safety, quality and traceability of its PCR packaging solutions. 

“One of the biggest advantages of partnering with kp and using kp Tray2Tray content is that it’s a perfect ‘drop in’ solution, so switching over is easy, and packaging performance isn’t compromised,” notes Jakobsen. “Our 100% kp Tray2Tray packaging is a real, workable tray that offers a glimpse into the future of tray packaging circularity.”

celestial seasonings
Global specialty tea brand Celestial Seasonings will no longer include plastic overwrap on the boxes of 130-plus teas, a move estimated to eliminate up to 165,000 pounds of plastic waste from landfills in 2024 alone.

Eco-Centric in Center Store

Hoboken, N.J.-based Celestial Seasonings recently revealed a significant step forward in its commitment to improving the sustainability of its packaging. The global specialty tea brand will no longer include plastic overwrap on the boxes of more than 130 teas, a move estimated to eliminate up to 165,000 pounds of plastic waste from landfills in 2024 alone. According to the company, the removal of the overwrap is the equivalent of approximately 16,000 miles of plastic.

“We are thrilled to announce this exciting step towards reducing our environmental footprint,” says Emily Rosen, Celestial Seasonings’ marketing director. “While we are removing the plastic overwrap from our boxes, we’re still delivering the same great taste that people expect when they enjoy our teas.”

Meanwhile, Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee has invested in new production capability to provide a more sustainable packaging option than traditional coffee formats. Mother Parkers is a customer solutions provider, manufacturing and supplying coffee and tea to food retailers.

The company’s new packaging is the result of a partnership with Atlanta-based Graphic Packaging to create a recyclable fiber-based solution specifically tailored to coffee, using Graphic Packaging’s Boardio technology. The Boardio fiber-based packaging offers an alternative to plastic, glass and metal containers that delivers the same level of freshness and food safety, with less waste. The packaging is also certified by Charlottesville, Va.-based How2Recycle.

Mother Parkers will begin packing roast and ground coffee in the Boardio format from its Fort Worth, Texas, facility beginning in late 2024.

“Our new packaging solution is a win for the planet, for our customers and their consumers,” says Kim Cunningham, chief commercial officer at Mother Parkers. “It offers a recyclable packaging option with less plastic, without sacrificing any of the freshness, consistency or quality that Mother Parkers-produced coffee is known for. For retailers with private label coffee programs, it’s a way to show innovation, gain share, and drive shelf and transportation efficiencies, all while supporting their sustainability objectives.”

Speaking of private label, with all of the success this category is experiencing lately, it’s more important than ever for retailers to stand out in this coveted space. Offering greener packaging is one way to do so. For example, Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern Food Corp. recently expanded its Paperbird Blue line, part of the retailer cooperative’s Paperbird own-brand cleaning and paper products, to include recycled packaging. 

Wegmans Green Packaging
On its journey to improved sustainability, Wegmans recently discovered an opportunity to trade plastic for renewable plant-based fiber in its poke bowl and power meal packaging.

A Grocer’s Green Journey

Sustainability is a major focus at Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets Inc. Every year, it strives to further reduce its waste, carbon footprint and use of plastic packaging. For instance, the grocer recently found an unconventional solution in fiber-based packaging for its prepared food offerings. When it comes to improving sustainability, however, it’s all about the journey.

“We’ve been on a journey to reduce plastic packaging since 2019. It’s a priority for our company and for our customers,” says Jason Wadsworth, packaging, energy and sustainability category merchant at Wegmans. “The part that can be hard to understand is why it takes a journey. On the face of it, switching from one material to another seems like a fairly easy task, but the truth is, packaging is as complex as the food it’s protecting.”

According to the company, when switching to a more sustainable material like fiber, which isn’t as inherently good at protecting food as plastic, finding a solution that can accomplish this task is more difficult. The more complex the food, the harder it is to find a sustainable solution.

“When looking for a fiber-based option for our poke bowls and power meals, we faced a number of challenges, the biggest one being the oils, sauces and moisture,” explains Ed Riederer, sustainability procurement area manager for packaging at Wegmans. “Finding anything made of fiber that can contain those liquids was a challenge. On top of that, the packaging also had to stand up to production, storage in the coolers, and cold and/or hot merchandising.”

Adds Joe Pucci, Wegmans’ restaurant foods group manager: “You also have to look at how it travels and how it will hold up in a customer’s fridge. Then there are the labels — making sure they stick to the package, hold up and then also peel off when necessary. And most importantly, of course, is maintaining the integrity of the product, so we’re not changing the eating experience for our customers.”

To solve all of these challenges, Wegmans’ restaurant foods and sustainability teams partnered to find a solution that satisfied their combined wants and needs. For both groups, protecting the product and preserving its quality and integrity for customers to enjoy were top priorities.

“We had been exploring fiber-based packaging options for these products for some time, but nothing on the market could solve for the use case we had,” explains Wadsworth. “It wasn’t until recently that new innovation in fiber packaging made it possible for us to move away from plastic for these products.”

When it comes to sustainable packaging, the team’s focus is on reducing plastic usage and opting for packaging crafted from renewable or recycled materials. In the case of the poke bowls and the power meals, there was the opportunity to trade plastic for renewable plant-based fiber. However, switching to a fiber container won’t always be an option, based on the needs of certain products. 

“There’s no one easy answer or approach for doing what’s best for the environment, and in many cases, it’s taking small steps to get closer to the ideal as the science and technology continue to evolve,” notes Wadsworth. “We continue to make progress, celebrating our wins while also tackling the next project.”

The team continues to focus its attention on packaging within its Market Café, currently testing a recyclable coffee cup that uses a water-based coating in place of the standard plastic lining. 

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