In this article, Michael Dann, global product line Leader for HFFS solutions at BW Flexible Systems, provides a refresher on how the food market has historically met consumer demand, explains the complexity of offering “sustainable” packaging solutions, and shares some suggestions for possible collaborations that can lead to better solutions.
For years, food manufacturers have reacted to ever-evolving demands from consumers, brand owners and retailers. Sometimes, adapting the business to these market pressures is like steering a Ferrari around a racetrack; it’s swift, smooth and reasonably predictable. Other times, it’s like jumping on a train without knowing the final destination. This is the scenario we find ourselves in today.
Today’s food manufacturers are being challenged to prove that they are serious about sustainability. However, the path to a truly sustainable food market is logistically complex and fraught with financial risk. How can we as an industry satisfy consumer demand for "sustainable packaging" when the term is still being defined?
An abridged history of plastic in food packaging
When plastic was coming to prominence during the 1950s and '60s, "sustainability" wasn't even in the dictionary. In the UK, we would walk to the shops and buy just enough food to feed our families for a couple of days. We'd bring sturdy reusable bags that served the primal purpose of transporting food from one place to another. Like our ancestors before us who carried food in big leaves and clay pots, we saw the package for its first function: to bring food to someone who could eat it.
As time went on and Western society became richer, we started to drive to a 'supermarket' in cars and carry a week's worth of groceries to and from our car with flimsy single-use plastic bags. Consumers favored the simplicity of disposable plastic packages and soon they would be found all over our store shelves. Manufacturers had discovered an opportunity to satisfy consumer demand. Convenience.
As the packaged foods industry took off, the market became crowded with new brands. It was survival of the fittest. Brand owners differentiated themselves with eye-catching and more complex packages developed to respond to consumer demands, including the increasingly crucial factor of convenience. By shouting “buy my product, not theirs,” manufacturers sought to ensure the longevity of their business. Branding.
With the proliferation of packaged food products, food safety agencies stepped in to set standards for how manufacturers must convey product information to consumers. This is how much protein is included. This is how much sugar. This is how long to cook it in a microwave. This is how long in the oven and crucially 'This is when you must eat it by'. Governments did their part to protect consumers from unhealthy nutritional practices. Legislation.
While each of these stakeholders did what they felt was right, the secondary functions of the food package have compounded over the years and resulted in the use of more packaging material than is necessary, which is causing harm to our planet. Consumers have realized this and what we are experiencing today is the tipping point of public sentiment.
Today, we can look back and say that the overuse of packaging is reprehensible, but the material itself is not to blame. Sustainability will require so much more than once again jumping to meet consumer demands.
The complexity of accommodating “sustainable” materials
In the eyes of many consumers, plastic is bad. It’s really that simple. It ends up in the ground, in the sea, on the streets, and – because a lot of plastic isn't biodegradable – it can stay where it’s discarded forever. Because of this, the sentiment that plastic is worse than paper for the environment is understandable. But it’s also irrational.
The truth is that the “paper vs. plastic” debate is only a small part of the sustainability picture. When it comes to sustainable food packaging practices, there are three primary aspirations we should consider:
- Packaging Material – we want our material to have the lowest environmental impact possible.
- Carbon Footprint – we want our processes to have the lowest carbon footprint possible.
- Food Waste – we want all of the food that we produce to be eaten by someone who needs it.
As we begin to examine these aspirations more closely, we will notice that there is dynamic tension between each of them.
Take flexible plastic for example. It probably has the lowest carbon footprint and offers the best product safety and shelf life, thus minimising food waste. But even if it is fully recyclable, the impact on the environment is still a problem based on our behaviour (littering). In comparison, paper has a much worse carbon footprint and generally doesn’t perform as well on shelf life, so more food is wasted. But paper has lower impact on the environment than plastic if it is not disposed of in a responsible way.
When we are choosing a packaging solution for a specific product, we search for the best balance point between these three (sometimes conflicting) objectives. This is why I like the concept of a 3-legged sustainability stool. A 3-legged stool always stands up. It doesn’t wobble because, if one leg is shorter, the other two will help the stool find its balance. What we need to do in the packaged food industry (retailers, brand owners and solution suppliers included) is collaborate to find the balance point between these three sustainable food packaging aspirations.
The future of sustainable packaging solutions
As I mentioned before, the definition of a "sustainable packaging solution" has not been clearly defined and agreed upon yet. Some manufacturers are exploring recyclable plastics, while others have drawn a bold line against all plastics. Again, choosing a sustainable solution isn't just about choosing a biodegradable or recyclable container, it's also about food safety, prolonged shelf life and mitigating the waste of food and the carbon footprint.
Let's press pause on the sustainability conversation for a moment. When manufacturers buy a new packaging machine, they typically want to see a return on investment (ROI) within the first two years. On average, they will keep that equipment for more than 15 years. Changes in consumer demands will happen over a shorter cycle than 15 years. So, the more flexible, modular, configurable, and reconfigurable the machinery, the better chance the manufacturer stands at accommodating those market changes that will take place during the useful life of the machine.
Let's apply this to the sustainability conversation. When there is uncertainty in the market - like the debate between paper and recyclable plastic packaging - machine flexibility becomes very important. It's not clear which packaging material will prevail as the standard in the future, so it's very valuable to choose equipment solutions that allow you to change your pack style and material structure as the market evolves.
In other words, food manufacturers have a huge incentive to purchase flexible equipment that can cover the range of alternatives. This is more cost-effective than buying new equipment whenever the market changes. Our engineers at BW Flexible Systems are innately aware of this value and are continuously innovating to develop horizontal flow wrappers and other form, fill, seal machinery that makes it easy for food manufacturers to pivot when needed.
The journey to find the best sustainable packaging solution for your product is complex and filled with uncertainties. Don’t start out on your own. My recommendation is to make a partnership with a materials company and a machinery company. Choose partners that genuinely share the values and aspirations that you have for your business and your products and there will be a great chance of success.
To meet the ambitious 2025 sustainability goals, we need to work together and stay aligned.