Getting easier being green

Getting easier being green

Dudlicek, James

Less is more when it comes to packaging, so proclaims the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA). Obviously, starting with less material to begin with is going to influence the impact of packaging on the environment once consumers are finished with the contents. But even left with a bare minimum, manufacturers are taking steps to ensure what’s left can either be reused or broken down in such a way that Mother Nature won’t mind.

Less Waste in the First Place

Source reduction simply means using less material to manufacture packaging. FPA makes the distinction between recycling and “pre-cycling” – reusing an existing packaging versus using less material at the source.

Packaging makers like Chicago-based Pechiney Plastic Packaging Inc. have climbed aboard the source reduction bandwagon. “Plastic packaging offers an opportunity for source reduction, either by replacing heavier glass or metal packaging or by downgauging or lightweighting existing plastic structures,” says Chad Mueller, materials research manager for Pechiney.

A supplier to the dairy industry since the 1930s, Pechiney manufactures packaging for natural chunk and shredded cheese; process cheese slices, loaves and cream cheese bricks; and foodservice butter. “We have many discussions with customers regarding renewable resource materials, biodegradable materials and recyclability. Although there is demonstrated interest in these areas, our customers are unwilling to compromise on performance or cost in favor of these ‘environmentally friendly’ technologies,” says Mueller. “Nearly all customers are in favor of downgauging and lightweighting programs. Not only is there an environmentally friendly aspect due to source reduction, but there is often an economic advantage due to reduction of packaging materials.”

Pechiney offers many of its products in downgauged versions, as well as packaging free of solvents or hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Among them are lidding film for rigid cups, flexible pouches for pet foods and beverage pouches for juices.

Mueller says many of his company’s customers are concerned with eliminating chlorine and other halogens from their packages. “The most typical issues that we encounter are the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyvinylidene chloride (PVdC),” he says. “In both cases, we are able to offer V alternatives. For instance, we have dramatically reduced our use of PVdC by switching to other barrier materials such as ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH).”

Overall, reduction of traditional source materials has thus far been a more promising option than using hightech recyclable materials, says Mueller. “There has been much discussion regarding renewable-resource materials, but these are generally not suitable for today’s barrier packaging requirements. They may act as a component of a package, but they must be coupled with other more traditional materials,” he says. “We are currently unable to offer a package entirely made out of such materials, which prevents us from making a compelling case for switching away from more traditional materials.”

The use of biodegradable plastic for food packaging is still largely conceptual, according to Food & Drug Packaging magazine. It’s slowly being adopted by foodservice companies and grocery store delis for food wraps, though its use in commercial food packaging has yet to take off. But products like film wrap and thermoformed rigid packaging made from polyactic acid (PLA) – a biodegradable material made from processed corm – could pave the way for more “green” plastics.

Natural and organic food retailer Wild Oats Markets Inc. is starting to use containers made from PLA to package cheese and other deli items. A single-serve dairy container has been prototyped, but with a lower viscosity and a weaker oxygen barrier than PET, PLA packaging for dairy has thus far been restricted to short shelf-life products like deli items.

In the area of adhesives and coatings, nearly every product Pechiney manufactures uses HAPs-free components, which Mueller says results in a healthier working environment and helps to improve air quality in the community. “In addition to HAPs-free adhesives, Pechiney is a leader in solventless adhesive technology. These types of adhesives are comprised entirely of the glue; no solvents whatsoever are used with this technology,” he says. “Not only is solvent use eliminated but the use of driers and oxidizers is not required.”

Among processors, organic yogurt powerhouse Stonyfield Farm recently did its part for the pre-cycling movement. Last January, the Londonderry, N.H.-based company announced it replaced its small cup plastic lid and plastic inner seal with a new durable foil seal.

By moving to a single foil lid, the company estimates a reduction of 6 percent or 106 tons of solid waste in the first year of the new packaging. It’s also an annual savings of 270 tons of plastic, 16 percent less energy and 13 percent less water. “As a business and a corporate citizen, it is our responsibility to take care of the environment,” says Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm’s president and chief executive officer. “The good news is that it is profitable to do so.”

Stonyfield Farm has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WasteWise Program for its solid-waste minimization efforts. The company works to reduce its manufacturing waste and recycles cardboard, paper, metal and plastic. Waste yogurt from quality control testing and product switchovers is sent to local hog farms. The company estimates an annual savings of $100,000 from its recycling efforts.

The Paper Chase

Particular niche segments within the dairy industry have aligned themselves with gable-top cartons as their primary packaging in order to portray themselves as “environmentally friendly,” says Dirk Edwards, global marketing manager for Memphis-based International Paper Co. “Companies competing in the specialty niches, such as organic, soy and lactose-free, predominately package their product in gabletop cartons, a barrier board material (for extended shelf life, original quality taste) and a spout closure for convenience,” he says. “As this is a fiber-based package that is 100 percent recyclable, it is also perceived by most consumers as the more environmentally friendly package within its competitive set as well.”

Edwards says this environmentally friendly characteristic is also a secondary characteristic (the primary one being low cost) in the school milk segment where children are learning more about ecology and how to protect the environment by using products with recyclable packaging, like International Paper’s Eco-Pak(R).

Dairy processors are asking for packaging systems that meet the ongoing demands of their end-use consumers and retail customers, says Edwards. “At International Paper, we provide our customers with our Total Packaging Solution System(TM), whereby we meet their specific packaging needs from the filling machines, packaging materials – paper, spouts – all the way through to the end product, through service and support,” he says. “We work with the top manufacturers throughout North America, both from a branded product standpoint as well as a private label or in-house perspective.”

International Paper offers a full line of Evergreen(R) filling equipment, TruTaste(TM) barrier board (to keep nutrients and flavor in while keeping light and oxygen out), a variety of printing capabilities (flexographic, high-definition flexographic and lithographic) as well as SPOUT-PAK(R) closures.

These technologies are used in various ways to best serve International Paper’s customers, like schools, for which certain packaging demands must be met. School milk packaging must be environmentally friendly and meet the federal requirements of the meal line program, says Edwards. “This year our partner is Scholastic Media, and we are working together to stimulate reading within those schools districts being supplied through International Paper by providing games and activities for the kids through the carton illustrations as well as a Web site and planning guideline suggestions for teachers,” he says. “The teachers also have a chance to win books for their classroom through a monthly drawing as well to help off-set some of their supply challenges during the school year.”

Specialty dairies have their own requirements. “Companies competing in the specialty niches such as organic, soy and lactose-free predominately package their product in gable-top cartons in order to obtain a finished package symbolizing dairy heritage while providing the basic elements for strong shelf appeal and consumer convenience – all the while being more environmentally friendly with regard to its 100 percent recyclability,” says Edwards.

“Everyday” or commodity milk producers still offer, on a limited scale, gable-top cartons because of their environmental advantage, low cost structure, historical relevance as the symbol for milk as well as differentiating themselves from those processors in plastic containers, says Edwards.

Glass Act

Perhaps the most environmentally friendly packaging is the kind that can be used over and over again just by being washed.

Marshall, Calif.-based Straus Family Creamery has calculated that selling its milk in glass bottles has prevented approximately 6.1 million pounds of waste from going into landfills through 2002, according to information on the company’s Web site. Straus’ glass bottles are made from 40 to 50 percent recycled glass. The company actually recommends consumers return the bottles rather than recycle them, so the containers can be sterilized and reused.

Based on sales versus number of bottles purchased, Straus estimates each of its bottles is reused an average of seven times. In fact, the company reports that some of its bottles made in 1994 are still in circulation. Straus customers can return their empty bottles to the store of purchase or any retailer that carries Straus products, where they will receive a $1 refund.

Beyond environmental concerns, Straus says glass helps keep milk cold and argues that milk tastes better in glass.

The operators of North Aurora, Ill.-based Oberweis Dairy think so, too.

Using glass bottles to package its milk since 1927, the company – which also continues home delivery in addition to its own retail dairy stores – says its customers prefer the taste of milk in glass, which keeps the milk colder and protects the flavor.

But even a glass disciple like Oberweis is open to change, and opted for PET bottles for its new single-serve milk line, which has been embraced by customers.

Demand and the Future

It would seem processors and suppliers have a vested interest in finding better ways to reduce waste or lessen packaging’s impact on the environment.

According to a Consumer Network Inc. survey published in the August 2003 issue of Food & Drug Packaging, 63 percent of respondents age 18 to 49 and 58 percent over age 50 said product packaging should be more “ecofriendly.” Additionally, 33 percent of females surveyed and 35 percent of males said they’d be more likely to choose one brand of product over another if the packaging was “more ecologically friendly.”

And manufacturers are delivering. For the demands of the vast majority of processors – for whom the question remains, “Paper or plastic?” – suppliers are continuing to stay on the cutting edge of packaging technology where the environment is concerned.

Pechiney continues to maintain a “technology watch” on renewableresource materials, says Mueller. “As the technology advances, we hope to incorporate these materials into existing structures as well as develop entirely new packages based around them,” he says. “In the area of solventless adhesive technology, we continue to develop high performance adhesives that allow us to switch more and more of our packages away from solvent-based adhesives.”

Edwards says International Paper works constantly to improve its existing packaging solutions through higher filling efficiencies (Evergreen’s N-8 machines for school milk or EH-3 machines for UHT processing) and to improve the packaging elements with such things as Micro-Pak(TM) for retail portion-controlled single-serve products, Tru-Taste Silver Barrier Board for extended shelf life dairy products and SPOUT-PAK closures for resealability and protection.

Copyright Stagnito Publishing Sep 2003

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