Strategic Alliances for Sustainable Packaging

Tuesday, May 28th, 2024

Amid evolving consumer demands and new global regulations, the packaging industry advances towards sustainable practices and circular economy solutions in 2024. Contributed by Huhtamaki

In the wake of global efforts to combat climate change and promote sustainability, the food and beverage industry faces increasing pressure to adopt eco-friendly practices, particularly in packaging.

The urgency of the situation has been emphasised both at key international events such as the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) as well as many other legislative developments.

Starting in Europe in 2008 with the EU’s Waste Framework Directive – this served as a crucial milestone in establishing a comprehensive framework for waste management and promoting sustainable practices. This directive uses the principle of the waste hierarchy, outlining a ranking of steps from prevention, reuse, recycling, other recovery, and disposal.

Building upon this framework, the Single Use Plastic Directive (SUPD) was introduced and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) is currently in the final stages of adoption by EU institutions.

Europe, with its proactive approach, can serve as an inspiration for regions across the world, spurring a global movement to reduce plastic pollution and minimise environmental impact.

Currently, single-use plastic regulations have been adopted in various countries, including India, Pakistan, Korea, Australia and China – reflecting the growing international commitment to sustainable waste management practices.

In India, the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016 provide the legal framework and designate responsible authorities for compliance. In 2021, these rules were amended to include a ban on specific single-use plastic items with low utility and high littering potential.

This ban encompasses various items such as earbuds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, and polystyrene used for decoration.

Additionally, it extends to plates, cups, glasses, cutlery, trays, wrapping, etc. Moreover, the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of thin and lightweight plastic shopping bags are prohibited. Consequently, products made using PE coated paper are included in this prohibition – impacting the sale of cups and other PE lined food packaging.

However, certain exemptions are granted to products compliant with ISO 17088 standards, such as PLA, PBS or PBAT coated cups, offering a viable compostable alternative.

Environmental Benefits and Science-Based Decision-Making
“We know that packaging creates tremendous value for consumers by ensuring food is safe to eat and store. Packaging also plays a critical role in reducing food waste, which remains by far the biggest environmental impact from food systems on climate change,” says Meenakshi Sapru, General Manager, Huhtamaki Fiber Foodservice, India.

Food is an essential commodity – yet almost a third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted across the supply chain. An estimated 931 million tonnes of food available to consumers landed in the waste bins of households, retailers, restaurants, and other food providers in 2019 alone. This is at a time when nearly 10 percent of the global population does not have access to sufficient food.

There is no one clear reason for this waste, with factors ranging from agricultural storage issues to a lack of coordination within the retail sector as well as consumer habits.

“We believe reducing avoidable food waste – that is food that is still edible at the time of disposal or would have been if consumed in time – should be at the forefront when discussing food systems. However, this is easier said than done. Collaborative efforts are necessary to make a significant contribution to food waste prevention, and each sector has a part to play. We believe that better, smarter packaging is essential for protection, as well as increased lifespan,” Sapru says.

Packaging not only drives accessibility and affordability by ensuring a reliable supply chain but also extends the shelf life of food, reducing food waste and supporting consumers during times of price inflation. Single-use packaging systems further reduce the risk of cross-contamination, providing a simpler alternative to multi-location cleaning, sanitation, storage, and transport associated with reuse systems.

Moreover, from a climate perspective, reducing food waste takes precedence over reducing packaging volume. Only about five percent of CO2 emissions from packaged food are attributable to packaging, while a significant 80 percent result from food production.

Innovative Technologies and Collaborative Partnerships
The sustainability agenda should prioritise both climate and circularity. Shifting from linear to circular packaging requires a holistic approach, encompassing product design, the entire product life cycle, and product end-of-life considerations.

Huhtamaki emphasises its commitment to increasing recyclability, compostability, and reusability, acknowledging the need for collaboration across the entire value chain.

“We also need to focus on how we give waste value and incentivize local communities to improve their waste management practices,” adds Sapru.

To address waste impact, Huhtamaki’s single-use packaging solutions are designed to be compostable or recyclable and thereby contributing to the prevention of food waste and its associated environmental impacts.

However, there is still room for improvement in global collection, sorting, recycling, and composting systems. Huhtamaki’s commitment to sustainability drives its efforts to innovate next-generation solutions and reduce the environmental impact. Working closely with customers, circular products are developed where innovation plays an increasingly important role for the company.

Cup Compost Initiative Showcases Circularity
In an innovative collaboration, Huhtamaki together with Rappr Innovations introduced a groundbreaking project last year on 2 October, coinciding with Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary and ‘Swachh Bharat Diwas.’ This initiative pioneers a circular lifecycle for compostable paper cups, adhering to ISO 17088 standards and in compliance with Single Use Plastic regulations.

Huhtamaki coordinates the collection of compostable cups from its clients, ensuring they are specifically designed for composting. These cups are then transported to an open pit windrow composting facility at The Pine Crest School in Gurgaon, where students actively engage in the initiative, learning about composting and household waste management.

The resulting compost is distributed locally and used for tree plantations, amplifying environmental education, community involvement, and sustainable practices. Huhtamaki’s Cup Compost Initiative not only showcases circularity but also nurtures environmental awareness and regeneration within the community.

Paper Cup Recycling Pilot in China Yields 68 Percent Carbon Reduction
In 2022, Huhtamaki launched its first paper cup recycling pilot project in China in collaboration with S-bag, a service provider for recyclable resource management, and value chain partners.

The aim of the six-month pilot was to collect, sort and recycle post-consumer paper cups in a selected area in Shanghai, generating real-life data to inform evidence-based decisions on viable solutions for paper cup recycling. The pilot successfully gathered approximately 15 tonnes of paper cups.

Following this, Huhtamaki released a report on the project, conducted by The Tongji Ecological Civilisation and Circular Economy Institute. The report revealed that paper cup recycling could reduce carbon emissions by 68 percent compared to alternative waste management methods such as landfill or incineration.

Additionally, it provided policy recommendations aimed at enhancing the recycling rate of paper cups and other waste, suggesting actions such as expanding the pilot and conducting similar projects in large parks, restaurants, airports, and train stations.

Introduces Fibre-Based Coffee Cup Lids to Combat Plastic Pollution
In response to the demand of reducing the amount of plastic entering the environment, Huhtamaki has invested significant resources developing technology to produce packaging previously formed using plastic from moulded fibre instead.

An example of one application are lids used for coffee cups which require a high level of precision in the forming process to ensure they are functional. These fibre-based lids are being adopted across several states in Australia as they provide a plastic free alternative without compromising the functionality and convenience provided by the packaging.

The fibre-based lids also provide a solution to the end-of-life concerns of conventional cup lids which had limited ability to be collected and processed in the existing waste management infrastructure within Australia. This technology is also applicable to other packaging formats and underlines Huhtamaki’s commitment to providing the market with packaging that protects food and environmentally responsible end of life options.

Embracing Regulation, Innovation, and Collaboration for a Sustainable Future
Collaboration, innovation, investment, and political commitment are crucial for achieving a circular economy. Sustainability and innovation drive systemic change, promoting materials compatible with collection and recovery systems, ensuring consumer information and ease of use, and addressing product end-of-life.

Regulation needs to be driven by scientific evidence and facts. By adopting a sound basis for laws, this will then encourage the use of renewable and low-carbon materials, incentivising a shift away from fossil fuel-derived rigid plastics.

Identifying and addressing gaps in circular infrastructure, focusing on waste labelling, collection, and end-of-life management policies, is vital for success – alongside sector relevant life cycle analyses.

“At Huhtamaki we firmly believe that enabling regulation founded on scientific evidence and facts, supports and stimulates innovation and delivers the best solutions for people and the planet,” Sapru ends.