At the end of March, Dow announced the winners of the 2021 Packaging Innovation Awards in a virtual unveiling ceremony. This edition’s highest recognition, the Diamond Award, went to O F Packaging and its Brookfarm curbside recyclable, high-barrier stand-up pouch. Elisabeth Skoda speaks to Romain Cazenave, Packaging EMEA Marketing Director at Dow, and Joe Foster, CEO at Close the Loop Group and O F Packaging, to find out more.
The Packaging Innovation Awards have an over three decades tradition of recognising ‘outstanding’ packaging projects from around the globe, showcasing the most innovative breakthroughs based on the criteria of sustainability, technological developments, and enhanced user experience.
“The technological advancement criterium is the broadest and can encompass anything from innovative materials, innovative ways to process materials and innovative business models; giving companies the opportunity to showcase their commitment to pushing the industry toward more sustainable solutions,” adds Mr. Cazenave.
Sustainability also takes a 360-degree approach and goes beyond using recycled materials.
“If you use 25% recycled materials, but instead of having a thickness of 100 microns you move to 120 microns, you’re not actually improving the situation. Your packaging is heavier, and it will take more energy to transport it. It’s about using the right amount of material, but not at the expense of performance, food protection or safety.”
Finally, the enhanced user experience category features a lot of consumer packaging, but the whole value chain is covered.
“Being user friendly shouldn’t mean that it’s a nightmare for packaging lines and these don’t run at the desired speed. It’s about enhancing the experience throughout the lifetime of a product.”
Dow provides the logistics for the event, but the winners are determined by a team of independent judges, as Mr. Cazenave points out.
“We make sure everything is well organised, and that the gear box is properly oiled and lubricated, but we don’t drive. We just provide a car with a full tank. It’s important to us to have the entire value chain and the whole world represented. Entries don’t have to use Dow resins or even use plastics at all.”
A group of independent judges from seven countries representing more than 300 years of combined industry experience, evaluated 189 submissions from companies all over the world, and packaging projects ranging from food and beverage applications to homecare, and even electronic goods. In addition to the Diamond Award winner, 35 other projects were recognized: nine Diamond finalist winners, 13 Gold awards and 13 Silver recipients.
Packaging Europe’s own brand director Tim Sykes has been part of the Packaging Innovation Awards jury for the last four editions, and he praises the judging process and the results it yields.
“I was bitterly disappointed to miss out this January on the in-person deliberations in Houston due to Covid. The PIA is unique in my experience in bringing together a set of global specialists with different fields of expertise in one room, to discuss the merits of hundreds of entries - rigorously, sometimes passionately, and teasing out the nuances of their technical innovation and impact. The competition doesn’t just serve to reward the best packaging innovations in the world, but self-consciously seeks to annually spread the wider learnings about good innovation across the industry. Not least through the judges themselves, who without exception come away from the experience enriched, educated, and full of insights to share with their colleagues and networks.”
With this year’s award submissions, Mr. Cazenave observed a focus on sustainability and consumer interaction as well as safety.
“The question is: How do we make sure that a pack moves from recyclable to something that is actually recycled? We saw a lot of debate on what the most efficient way to push people towards recycling packaging is. Little things such as putting ‘Recycle me’ instead of ‘Please recycle me’ on the pack can make a difference. Last but not least, there’s safety. After two years of Covid, we have seen how important food and product safety really is.”
Zooming in on the winning entry
Incorporating these trends, the Award’s highest recognition, the Diamond Award, went to O F Packaging and its Brookfarm curbside recyclable, stand-up pouch, a high barrier packaging structure that protects muesli and granola products that can also be recycled through curbside recycling. The Roll ‘n’ Recycle® packaging was created in close collaboration with their partners PREP Design and Result Group.
The winning entry is made from a monomaterial polymer material with a very thin layer of EVOH. The solution enables consumers to transform the empty, 100% polyethylene flat packaging into a 3D shape, suitable for their recycling bin so it’s ready for recycling through existing processes.
“People are sceptical that this monomaterial can be used in a stand-up pouch as it is very soft. But it was re-engineered with a specialised PE material which offers similar criteria and similar protection as other types of multilayer laminated materials,” says Mr. Foster.
Numerous challenges had to be overcome when it came to developing a more sustainable pouch for Brookfarm. An initial attempt with compostable material didn’t yield the desired results with regards to shelf life, product protection and machinability.
“The multilayer laminate material that Brookfarm used in the past had three layers - polypropylene material, metallised polyester material for the high barrier, and a polyethylene material on the inside for sealability and for the body of the pack. We were able to take these materials out and replace them with a mono structure of specialised polyethylene.
Once the material was determined, the focus turned to making the pack not just recyclable, but to ensuring that it was actually, recycled.
Turning 2D into 3D
“The massive challenge we had initially was to ensure that when the pouch was physically rolled up into a canister or a bottle shape, it was going to remain in that shape when putting it into the curbside bin and into the mechanical recovery facility, the MRF. We conducted tests to ensure that every single packet would actually go through and to ensure that the polyethylene label was actually strong enough for use, and once it’s rolled into the canister it stayed there,” adds Mr. Foster.
The idea for the special Roll ‘n’ Recycle® feature, which allows the pack to be more easily recognised in sorting facilities was developed by Prep Design, tackling the challenge of flexible packaging materials being considered soft plastics. They often get misidentified as paper in MRFs, contaminating the paper stream.
“Prep Design had the initial concept, and put the idea across - what would happen if you took a pouch and changed it into a bottle shape? We discussed and worked on the idea for the past two- three years, until we found the right material, adhesives, and pouch to make this a reality.
We conducted a range of tests with MRFs, where we had cameras set up to ensure that the pouches were detected and put in the correct stream – it was a really exciting project,” explains Mr. Foster.
Making sure a pack gets recycled correctly is one part of the challenge – but how can it be ensured that consumers do recycle the pack? In Australia, information on how to dispose of packaging has to be provided on every pack by law, so consumers already have some awareness.
“There is a call to action on pack that the pouch is for curbside recycling. When the consumer turns our pouch around, they see the label with really simple instructions, telling them to peel the label back, roll the pouch down and put the label on the top of the pouch in the canister format. We did a couple of test runs to see if the consumers understood it and to see if they could engage with it. Results were very positive. We do feel that consumers want to do their bit.”
Beyond the Brookfarm cereal pack, a ‘fold, roll and recycle’ solution has been rolled out for a pet food brand, as well as another snack food brand and a liquid soap brand.
“We also have more clients interested and ready to go with the program and are hoping that this will be rolled out further in Australia and of course around the world,” says Mr. Foster.
Mr. Cazenave congratulates O F Packaging for their systemic approach. “In terms of resource efficiency, flexible packaging is unbeatable, and it’s great to see an innovation that fixes the problem of recycling. Currently, some recycling systems and sorting facilities are equipped to deal with flexibles, and others aren’t. There is a roadblock between ‘recyclable’ and ‘recycled’, and innovation that removes this roadblock by thinking out of the box is fantastic. O F Packaging has gone the extra mile. A packaging manufacturer’s job should not be done when they’ve produced a recyclable packaging solution, but only when they’ve produced a solution that’s recyclable within the current system.”