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Sustainable Packaging Sees Improvements in Functionality

The food retail industry is transitioning toward a sustainable future through innovation
Marian Zboraj, Progressive Grocer
Sustainable Packaging
Mars and Berry Global are driving positive societal impact through new M&M’s, Skittles and Starburst packaging made with 15% recycled plastic.

Seventy-seven percent of consumers believe that sustainability is important when selecting products to buy, up eight percentage points from 2021 findings, according to new research from IRI and the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB). As consumer expectations regarding sustainability continue to evolve, both CPG manufacturers and retailers need to understand and meet those needs. 

One area that has seen tremendous growth is packaging. NielsenIQ’s “Sustainability: The New Consumer Spending Outlook” report found that in September 2022, “sustainable packaging” claims increased by 18% compared with three years prior. 

[Read more: "The ROI of Supermarket Sustainability"]

Consumer demand is directly affecting this uptick, as NielsenIQ discovered that 53% of consumers want companies to reduce the amount of plastic in packaging and 46% want them to use sustainable packaging materials.

These environmentally friendly products aren’t a fad that retailers can afford to ignore. IRI and CSB’s research shows that 27% of shoppers — and 32% of Gen Z and Millennials — specifically seek out retailers that carry sustainable products, indicating a shopper preference that’s likely to endure and increase over time.

Here are some of the latest packaging solutions to help meet this growing need. 

Sustainable Packaging
The new resealable packaging design for Upward Farms’ organic microgreens provides a more sustainable offering for consumers, compared with the average greens clamshell model, driving a 38% reduction of plastic.

Eco-Conscious Concepts From CPGs 

In the produce department, organic vertical-farming company Upward Farms recently unveiled a resealable packaging design for its line of USDA-certified organic microgreens. 

The new resealable design provides a more sustainable offering for consumers compared with the average greens clamshell model, driving a 38% reduction of plastic, and is made with post-consumer recycled content.

The sealed plastic trays are stackable and easier to open and close than traditional clamshells. Plus, the open-and-close technology allows for an extended shelf life for the microgreens. 

“Continuously reducing Upward Farms’ carbon footprint is a top priority for us, and our new packaging marks a significant milestone in that journey,” says Jason Green, CEO and co-founder of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Upward Farms, adding, “Upward Farms’ new packaging is made using post-consumer recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), one of the only truly recyclable plastics.”

“Implementing this resealable technology has allowed us to add value for our consumers by delivering more sustainable, effective packaging,” adds Eric Greifenberger, Upward Farms’ VP of marketing and sales. “Functionality is extremely important to us and our consumers, and through rigorous testing, we have designed a solution that is easily resealable, holds up to stacking in consumers’ fridges and locks in freshness.”

Mars, Inc. is also working with PET. The confectionery manufacturer has collaborated with packaging manufacturer Berry Global Group Inc. to launch pantry-sized treats in PET jars that have been optimized to be lighter weight and include 15% post-consumer resin (PCR). 

Sustainable Packaging
Kraft Heinz’s iconic Heinz Tomato Ketchup aims to become the first sauce brand to develop a sustainable paper-based bottle in collaboration with packaging technology company Pulpex.

The easy-grip square jars are produced by Evansville, Ind.-based Berry using a single-pellet food-grade resin to assure a clean, consistent substrate sourced from mechanical recycling. In addition to the inclusion of PCR, the jars are widely recyclable.

The jars, which come in three sizes — 60 , 81 and 87 ounces — will eliminate approximately 300 tons of virgin plastic per year. For the 81- and 87-ounce jars, Berry also reduced the weight by 10 grams per jar, saving 374 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 savings are equivalent to 42,084 gallons of gasoline consumed, 45,494,350 smartphones charged, and 72.8 homes’ electricity use for one year.

“At Mars, we want to contribute to a circular economy where packaging material never becomes waste, but is recycled, reused or composted,” asserts Justin Comes, VP of R&D at McLean, Va.-based Mars Wrigley North America. “We have set an aggressive science-based strategy to innovate our packaging, and this change to 15% PCR for these large-format jars is a significant step towards a more sustainable future.”

Attaining better sustainable packaging doesn’t always need to be scientific, however. For example, Shake ‘N Bake, part of the Chicago-based Kraft Heinz Co., is set to save 900,000 pounds of plastic waste annually with its first-ever packaging update. In November, the brand ushered in a new era for its signature packaging by revealing the removal of the plastic “shaker” bag from its products. 

Sustainable Packaging
Bumble Bee Seafood has achieved 98% readily recyclable packaging with an industry-first shift to paperboard cartons for multipack can products, eliminating an estimated 23 million pieces of plastic waste per year.

In place of the “shaker” bag, consumers are encouraged to shake using a reusable container as the vessel for adding the extra layer of crunch to their favorite recipes. According to the brand, this simple change to families’ mealtime routines is helping eliminate the equivalent in weight to more than 270 midsize cars.

“While the ‘shaker’ bag is an important part of our legacy, our product is just as effective and delicious without the plastic waste, and we are excited for all the good to come from this simple yet effective packaging change,” notes Brianna Galvin, brand manager, Shake ‘N Bake.

Fellow CPG company Bumble Bee Seafoods says that it’s also eliminating an estimated 23 million pieces of plastic waste per year by becoming the first shelf-stable seafood brand to change its multipack can product packaging from shrink wrap to readily recyclable paperboard cartons. The change applies to all multipacks produced by San Diego-based Bumble Bee — a total of 23 SKUs, including four-can, six-can, eight-can, 10-can and 12-can packages. The paperboard is made from 100% recycled material, with a minimum of 35% post-consumer content, and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. That means that the multipack is fully recyclable, both the box exterior and the cans inside.

Sustainable Packaging
The inaugural Sustainable Packaging Innovations Award winners were Smile Compostable Solutions for Compostability, Amcor for Recyclability, The Clorox Co. for Refill and DeliverZero for Reuse.

Award-Worthy Green Solutions

In an effort to further eliminate plastic pollution across the packaging value chain, Walmart Inc. recently joined the U.S. Plastics Pact in October at GreenBiz’s VERGE 2022 conference, in San Jose, Calif., to reveal the inaugural slate of Sustainable Packaging Innovations Award winners. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer donated the use of its recently launched Circular Connector platform to help capture innovations for the awards. The honorees cover four categories — Composting, Recycling, Refill and Reuse — with each winner spotlighting scalability, low-cost efficiencies or a customer-first proposal.

The winners were Smile Compostable Solutions for Compostability, Amcor for Recyclability, The Clorox Co. for Refill, and DeliverZero for Reuse.

Darien, Conn.-based Smile’s pods provide a convenient, sustainable solution for polypropylene plastic (PP #5) coffee pods, especially where there’s limited recycling available and food contact is present. PP #5 pods are rarely recycled, due to their small size and the need to separate the lid, filter and grounds before recycling. Smile’s pods compost whole, however, eliminating water waste from cleaning and lid disposal.  

Shortly after its win, Smile  signed a material sales agreement with Pod Pack International, a Baton Rouge, La.-based co-manufacturer of single-serve coffee and tea pods and cups. The company is now able to produce Smile’s commercially compostable, plant-based and carbon-neutral coffee pods that are compatible with Keurig brewers, enhancing sustainability options for Pod Pack customers. 

Meanwhile, AmSky, from Zurich-based Amcor, is a breakthrough blister system innovation, free from vinyl and aluminum. AmSky is both a more sustainable alternative for the most in-demand health care packaging and designed for recycling in rigid and flexible recycling streams.

The Concentrated Refillable Cleaners, from Oakland, Calif.-based Clorox Co., are refill spray solutions. In addition to less plastic used, less weight and carbon are emitted from transport, since customers add water at home.

Reusable delivery containers from New York-based DeliverZero provide a more sustainable alternative for the takeout food industry. DeliverZero containers can be used up to 1,000 times and have a return rate of 98%.

Sustainable Packaging
Smile Compostable Solutions signed a material sales agreement with Pod Pack International to produce Smile’s commercially compostable, plant-based and carbon-neutral coffee pods that are compatible with Keurig brewers.

Emerging Influences From Abroad 

There are plenty of other innovative developments poised to thrive in food retail. For example, Yakima, Wash.-based Kwik Lok recently introduced Fibre-Lok to the U.S. market. Ideal for the baking and produce industries, Fibre-Lok is an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bag closures. Fibre-Lok has been tested and proven in other markets, including Europe, to deliver the same quality and reliability that customers expect from traditional Kwik Lok products while using 0% plastic. Composed entirely of natural cellulose fiber, the closures are ideal for those looking for a 100% plastic-free solution that’s home compostable in some markets and recyclable in others.

To innovate its iconic ketchup bottle, Heinz is teaming up with London-based Pulpex to develop a paper-based, renewable and recyclable bottle made from 100% sustainably sourced wood pulp. Heinz is the first sauce brand to test the potential of Pulpex’s sustainable paper bottle packaging for its range of condiments.

The companies are developing a prototype to determine how the cutting-edge innovation could be used for Heinz Tomato Ketchup bottles and other packaging formats in years to come. Pulpex’s current data indicates that the carbon footprint of Pulpex bottles is materially less than glass and plastic on a bottle-by-bottle basis. Once used, they are also expected to be widely and readily recyclable in paper waste streams.
The next step in the process will involve prototype testing to assess performance before testing with consumers and bringing the bottle to market.

“We hope to bring this bottle to market and to be the first sauce brand to provide consumers this choice in their purchasing decisions, as many consumers today are looking for more sustainable packaging options,” says Rashida La Lande, EVP, global general counsel, and chief sustainability and corporate affairs officer for Kraft Heinz. “We’re eager to continue discovering more sustainable packaging for our beloved and iconic brands.”

Sustainable Packaging
ProAmpac, a leader in flexible packaging and material science, has partnered with JBT Proseal, a tray-sealing machine manufacturer, to offer North America’s first in-line sandwich packaging testing lab at ProAmpac’s Collaboration & Innovation Center.

“We believe that the scope for paper-based packaging is huge, and when global household names like Heinz embrace this type of innovative technology, it’s good news for everyone — consumers and the planet,” adds Scott Winston, CEO of Pulpex.
Testing has also started for multinational food packaging and processing company Tetra Pak. The Pully, Switzerland-based organization started testing a new fiber-based barrier to replace the aluminum layer in aseptic cartons. This step marks yet another breakthrough in the company’s long-term roadmap toward developing an aseptic package that’s fully renewable, fully recyclable and carbon-neutral.

“Early results suggest that the package with a fiber-based barrier will offer substantial CO2 reduction when compared to traditional aseptic cartons, together with comparable shelf life and food protection properties,” says Gilles Tisserand, VP climate and biodiversity at Tetra Pak. “We believe this development will therefore act as a breakthrough in reducing climate impact. In addition, cartons with higher paper content are also more attractive for paper mills; thus, this concept presents clear potential for realizing a low-carbon circular economy for packaging.”

“To keep the innovation engine running, we are investing €100 million [approximately US $102 million] per year and will continue to do so over the next five to 10 years to further enhance the environmental profile of food cartons, including the research and development of packages that are made with a simplified material structure and increased renewable content,” adds Eva Gustavsson, VP materials and package at Tetra Pak. “There is a long journey ahead of us, but with the support of our partners and a strong determination to achieve our sustainability and food safety ambitions, we are well on our way.”

Meanwhile, ProAmpac, a leader in flexible packaging and material science, has partnered with JBT Proseal, a tray-sealing machine manufacturer, to offer North America’s first in-line sandwich packaging testing lab at ProAmpac’s Collaboration & Innovation Center (CIC), in Rochester, N.Y. Designed to form and seal fresh sandwich packaging, Proseal’s GTSV machine will be used to optimize packaging design while allowing customers to run trials on new packaging formats without disrupting commercial production operations.

Available in day-fresh and modified-atmosphere options for longer shelf stability, ProAmpac’s Sandwich Wedge is a fiber-based package that includes a thin film lining for product viewing and freshness. Once the film is peeled away, the fiberboard packaging can be introduced into paper recycling streams. With minimal materials used and the majority made from certified-renewable sources, the Sandwich Wedge is lightweight and shipped in a flat-pack design for easy distribution and storage.

“The recyclable fiber board sandwich packaging format is in early-stage adoption in North America,” notes Irma Randles, global marketing director for fresh food to-go for Cincinnati-based ProAmpac. “Having a facility to showcase the packaging functionality on a commercial-scale sealing line allows our customers to experience this new technology. The fiber format has been an industry mainstay in the U.K. for years and continues to grow. However, Proseal’s GTSV is the first in-line sandwich high-speed sealing machine in North America.”

Along with increased efficiency, the hermetically sealed packaging extends sandwich shelf life from one week up to one month while maintaining product quality, which ultimately reduces food waste to landfill.

“We’re looking forward to having guests visit ProAmpac’s CIC to see firsthand how this in-line wedge machine, coupled with ProAmpac’s Sandwich Wedge and other award-winning fresh food to-go packaging, will be a game changer in North America,” says Randles. 

  • Retailers Reimagine Store-Brand Packaging 

    Grocers are ushering in new efforts to reduce packaging waste through their popular store brands. For instance, Southeastern Grocers Inc. has committed to increasing sustainability for its own-brand packaging by the end of 2028. The company pledged to eliminate the use of polystyrene; make all packaging reusable, recyclable or industrially compostable; and include an average of 30% post-consumer recycled material in all packaging.

    “We heard clearly that sustainable packaging is among [consumers’] top concerns, and we listened! In response, we are working with our supplier partners to establish sustainable packaging goals and meet our commitments in 2028. We strive to be the grocer people can always count on, and we mean always,” says Anthony Hucker, president and CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Southeastern Grocers.

    Meanwhile, independent grocery store chain New Seasons Market has already transitioned its private label Partner Brand Fresh Pasta packaging from plastic clamshells to a greener option, the Paperseal MAP tray.

    Each PaperSeal MAP tray uses 91% less plastic than the fresh pasta’s previous clamshell packaging. By upgrading, the grocer eliminates more than 120,000 clamshells from the waste stream annually. The grocer plans to continue reducing operational waste from its stores, striving to achieve a 60% landfill diversion rate.

    “Packaging is a complex environmental problem, and we actively work to balance the tradeoffs required to ensure food preservation while limiting unnecessary excess and waste,” says Athena Petty, senior sustainability manager at Portland, Ore.-based New Seasons. “By upgrading our Partner Brand Fresh Pasta packaging to PaperSeal MAP trays, we’re drastically reducing plastic from the waste stream and extending the shelf life of the product, combating the negative climate impacts of food waste.”

    The PaperSeal MAP trays are made from FSC Certified fibers and are fully recyclable once the food-safe liner is removed. In addition to reducing material impact, the packaging extends product shelf life from 12 to 20 days. 

    “Consumers are increasingly more knowledgeable and interested in where the products come from and what happens to them at the end of life,” notes Karen K. Reed, global director of marketing and communications at Yakima, Wash.-based Kwik Lok Corp. 

    So, how can other food retailers start to implement sustainable packaging into their own operations? Reed points out that the journey is different for every retailer. 

    “The first step is to analyze your current packaging to see if you might already be adopting sustainable packaging options or to see if there are opportunities that are easy to implement,” she recommends. “Using science to make data-driven decisions is also important. It’s very easy to make emotional decisions, only to find out later that the science doesn’t support your decisions. Working with organizations like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition or the U.S. Plastics Pact can also provide resources and the opportunity to collaborate with others that may be working towards similar solutions.”

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