From shrink wrap to bottles and polyethylene supermarket bags, plastic packaging produced by the fast-moving consumer goods industry accounts for a large proportion of the waste produced worldwide each year. For example, statistics from 5 Gyres, a Santa Monica, California-based organization whose aim is to reduce plastics pollution, showed that only 5% of the plastics produced in the US are recovered, while 50% are buried in landfill sites and the rest washes into the ocean.
Consequently, many companies are looking for new materials, manufacturing methods and other end-of-life alternatives to source, produce and dispose of their products in a more environmentally responsible way.
Lynn Dyer, president of Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), a Virginia-based trade association for companies operating in the foodservice industry in North America, explains that foodservice operators consider two key questions when designing packaging: “What is it made from?” and “What can be done with it after it has been used?”
Bioplastics, which are derived from renewable biomass sources that include vegetable fats, corn starch and agricultural byproducts, are gaining in popularity. Multi-national food and beverage brands, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Heinz, and packaging manufacturers such as Tetra Pak, have all launched or integrated bioplastic products into their portfolios. Ecover, a Belgium-based company that manufactures eco-friendly cleaning products, has developed Plantplastic packaging, which is made of plastic derived from sugarcane (75%) and recycled plastic (25%).
Currently, European trade association Plastics Europe, headquartered in Brussels, estimates that these materials represent less than 1% of the 300 million tons of plastics produced worldwide annually. But a study by European Bioplastics, an association based in Berlin, predicted that bioplastics production capacity will increase by 400%, from the 2013 level of 1.6 million tons to around 6.7 million tons by 2018. Almost 75% of the bioplastics will be produced in Asia. Europe, which is currently at the forefront of R&D, will have about 8% of the production capacity.
Using biomaterials also helps companies to reinforce their branding, according to John Perkins, vice president of Strategic Customer Partnerships at global paperboard and plastics packaging manufacturer MeadWestvaco (MWV), based in Richmond, Virginia.
Reinventing Traditional Methods
Packaging companies operating in the fast-moving consumer goods space are also using new manufacturing techniques to optimize packaging design and reduce their use of virgin materials.
“Many of FPI’s members use lightweighting techniques to reduce the amount of raw materials in their packaging, which involves altering the design, or replacing plastic resins with renewable materials such as calcium carbonate or talc,” Dyer said. “However, companies must ensure that lightweighting does not reduce the product’s functionality, a top priority for foodservice operators.”
MWV, for example, used lightweighting techniques to remove 18% of the plastic from the Shellpak medication packet it developed for discount retailer Wal-Mart in 2011. “Our key priority was to ensure that we reduced the amount of plastic, but created a child-resistant product that still could be easily opened by older patients,” Perkins said.
Extending the Product Lifecycle
Today, many companies recognize that to significantly reduce the environmental impact of packaging, they must take into account how the raw materials are sourced, transported and manufactured, but also how they are disposed of. Some companies have implemented a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach to ensure that their products contain materials that can be reused or recovered at their highest possible value multiple times after their first use. Designed to mimic natural processes, C2C aims to eliminate waste and develop products that actively benefit the environment.
As an example, Amcor uses an in-house Advanced Sustainability Stewardship Evaluation Tool (ASSET) to perform quick assessments and accurately calculate the environmental impact of different container types and designs throughout their lifecycles, before commercializing new packaging solutions.
Packaging for a Purpose
Eight years ago, Swiss company Nestlé adopted a lifecycle assessment approach and introduced the Packaging Impact Quick Evaluation Tool (PIQET) to better understand the end-to-end environmental impact of different packaging.
“PIQET was used for over 15,000 lifecycle assessments and helped us to optimize various products, including our Nescafé Dali pouches for the UK market and the Crunch and Galak chocolate packaging for Italian customers,” said Christian Detrois, group leader of the sustainability and novel packaging team at the Nestlé Research Centre. “It was replaced with our EcodEX tool, which covers the environmental impact of the complete product through its full lifecycle, to include the packaging and the ingredients of its contents.”
More than 30 of Nestlé’s R&D sites use EcodEX to help its brands develop the most eco-friendly products based on the agricultural and packaging materials, production processes and recovery schemes available in their target markets.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Compass Magazine, “Strategic Marketing in the Age of Experience,” Issue #7 – 2015, published by Dassault Systèmes.
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