Toward Sustainable Packaging: Addressing Solid & Food Waste Management Issues

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020

Aspiring towards a circular economy, product innovations and a surge in demand will be expected for different sustainable packaging solutions such as plant-based polymer packaging. Contributed by Diego Shimizu, Chemicals, Materials & Food at Frost & Sullivan.

The world generateToward Sustainable Packaging: Addressing Solid & Food Waste Management Issues s more than 200 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. The APAC region represents the highest consumption, followed by the EU and North America.

Plastic has been the major concern worldwide, accounting for 12 percent of the world’s solid waste, which has contributed to a major environmental impact on carbon footprint, global warming, and blue water footprint. 

At the same time, a growing urban population with higher disposable incomes has contributed to food consumption issues, higher rates of food waste and food loss. 

Food packaging companies and suppliers of basic materials are now investing enormously in putting in place robust sustainability plans and innovating new materials to improve the management of paper and plastic waste, moving from linear to circular economy and extending shelf-life to ensure food quality and reduce food waste. 


Understanding Sustainable Packaging In The F&B Industry

Sustainability is still an emerging term that has been coined in recent years and has placed great emphasis on all spectra—especially in the food and beverage industry, as it has contributed intensively in the production of excess plastic due to the high consumption of a growing urban population that has led to high rates of environmental impact.

On the other hand, consumers today are more connected with the brands they consume through packaging in the shopping experience and fortunately they are more aware of the environmental impact of the products they consume and have joined this journey. 

For this reason, companies have found themselves in the task of communicating and being more transparent when conveying the sustainability practices used in packaging—such as carbon footprint, end-of-life disposal, plastic-free, renewable material credentials, among other environmental stewardships. 

A clear example is the increase in product packaging that is certified by institutions such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Plastic Free Trust Mark and Metal Recycles Forever.

Similarly, environmental regulations, such as the Ban on Single-use Plastic or The Circular Economy Action Plan, have encouraged this market for the sake of a more sustainable world and the implementation of environmental measures and goals to be achieved in 2030—China’s  strategy to phase out single-use plastics by 2025. 


Trends Driving Sustainable Packaging

Growing Demand For Plant-Based Packaging

There is a surge in demand for plant-based materials as an alternative to conventional single-use plastic in food packaging. Bio-based plastics from organic polymers, paper and pulp are gaining importance as alternative materials to petroleum-based packaging in the F&B sector. Owing that they are proven to be biodegradable, such as PHB, bioplastic materials made from biomass waste, oleochemicals waste and like-plastic plant-based materials—Polylactic acid (PLA) which is an excellent substitute for plastic made from fermented plants. 

Another plant-based material category on the rise in the food packaging industry are polysaccharide-based polymers suitable for use in coatings films and composites—such as edible films or coatings for fresh food packaging to increase the product shelf-life. 

To date, cellulose-based packaging is the state-of-the-art in food packaging due to its excellent properties and cost-effective solutions, while reducing environment footprint compared to fossil-based polymers.

All of these plant-based packaging solutions potentially reduce the effect of the environmental footprint on the food packaging industry.


Increasing Sustainability Awareness & Labelling Have Become More Important Than Ever

Consumers have become more sceptical about what they consume in different ways. From the perspective of food safety to product quality to sustainability view. More and more consumers are joining the sustainability journey and keen to consume food with less environmental footprint. Providing transparency through product labels and transmitting the product story in the most transparent way has become more important than ever. Therefore, there is a need for food packaging companies to communicate their sustainability practices in the most honest and transparent manner for both their end consumers and their B2B partners.


Active & Smart Packaging Enhancing Sustainability

Smart packaging is necessary to address key challenges in response to sustainability issues in food consumption and diminishing the environmental footprint of the packaging industry.  As new digital technologies are applied to packaging in terms of its functionality, traceability, and consumer communication, sustainability and smart packaging must coexist on the same journey.

Innovations in sustainable packaging aims to address food waste and loss by extending the shelf-life, preserving food quality, as well as meeting food safety standards issues by preventing any food-borne diseases or contamination. 

Today, active and smart packaging such as QR-codes, real-time quality sensors, time-temperature tags and labels or atmospheric gas indicators are used to extend the product shelf-life and reduce food waste. This substantially improves the food inventory management and increases sustainable business operations. 


Compliance With International Standards & Pressure From Local Governments

The United Nations has set the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) to be achieved by 2030, which has activated sustainability views in almost all countries and impacted the food packaging companies by making them reconsider their plans and investments of resources in their Environment Social Governance KPI’s (ESG) for the use of paper and plastic in packaging, especially in the creation of a circular economy with novel materials, in reducing carbon footprint and improving the management of food waste.

At the same time, activists and other international non-governmental institutions have put great pressure on large multinational packaging companies to implement sustainability best practices across the value chain.    


The Rise Of e-Commerce

For consumer goods, the rapid changes in purchasing habits and preferences are the main drivers of the shifts in packaging requirements, especially in online stores and e-commerce. 

E-commerce has become a major retail channel for groceries and other home care products, therefore food packaging companies and manufacturers are now developing packaging for direct customer shipments. At the same time they are facing heightened pressure to reduce the amount of single-use plastic and paper of cardboard boxes. 

Food retailers and food packaging are investing heavily in efficient grocery logistics to deliver proper packaging, especially for perishable goods in order to maintain the atmosphere temperature, product freshness and meet food safety standards. 

To maximise sustainability and drive the goals to a circular economy as well, companies have been tasked with developing insulating materials made from sustainable and biodegradable content—such as insulating papers to maintain ideal thermal condition, recyclable cellulose-based fibre films for temperature-sensitive edible goods, and other insulation bio-based products.   

Simultaneously, many third party delivery services are increasingly entering the market with also reusable shipping systems to replace short-lived plastic or paperboard packaging with closed-loop logistics models to meet business-to-business (B2B) requirements. 


Moving Forward

Food packaging companies will aggressively tackle sustainability solutions in response to growing consumer awareness and the imposition of stringent government regulations.  At the same time, they will face complex cost-effective trade-offs between lightweight materials (carbon footprint) versus recycled materials (circular economy) and food waste management, as not all packaging materials enhancing sustainability have the same level of environmental impact—Adding polymer layers to food packaging to extend the shelf-life can contribute to a better food consumption management and less food waste but could be less environmentally friendly.

As circular economy is on the rise, surge demand and innovations will be expected for different sustainable packaging such as plant-based polymer packaging as biodegradable, cellulose-based fibre in plastic and paper board to reduce weight and  increase strength, food-grade plastic films (all-polyethylene) with recyclable material content, tamper-proof biodegradable packaging, among others.

The key to success will focus on how companies transmit their sustainability journeys to their B2B and B2C so that their investments in innovation translate into economic benefits. 


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