Agrifood Energy - Environment - Mobility Cross-sector

Sustainable packaging design and recyclability: major challenges for food manufacturers

Published on 11 February 2022 Read 25 min

The regulatory evolutions on the recyclability of packaging as well as the evolutions of the environmental display of food products, echoing consumers’ expectations, raise major issues of innovation and sustainable packaging design for industrial actors. Alcimed offers you an overview of the evolution of the packaging context, the possible sustainable design solutions and their associated challenges.

Increasingly pressing regulatory constraints on packaging

The EU has adopted recycling targets in the circular economy section. The directives set specific targets for different types of waste, and a 70% recycling rate for packaging.

The recycling targets vary according to the materials: 85% for paper and cardboard, 80% for iron metals, 75% for glass, 60% for aluminium, 55% for plastic and 30% for wood.

In France, a 20% reduction target for single-use plastic packaging has been set for 2025, as part of a policy to reduce, reuse and recycle packaging. Thus, French targets aim to limit the marketing of plastic packaging to the condition that it has an operational recycling channel.

Discover our experience in circular economy approaches >

Sustainable packaging design driven by increasingly informed consumers

At the end of August 2021, the “Resilience and Climate” law mentions a mandatory environmental label in the food sector, integrating an A/B/C/D/E score, similar to the Nutriscore. This obligation has a double objective: to provide consumers with information on the environmental impact of products and to motivate manufacturers to change their production methods.

This obligation will be applicable after an experimental phase of maximum 5 years which has started last year with a call for projects, led by ADEME and the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Solidarity, aiming at selecting an “environmental score” methodology. This score will take into account, among other things, the sustainability characteristics of packaging, by promoting the circularity of packaging and the use of renewable and biodegradable resources.

In view of these regulatory changes and the developments in environmental labelling, manufacturers are being pushed to design their packaging in an even more eco-friendly manner. To do this, several paths are being explored for the sustainable design of packaging.

Sustainable packaging design: reducing excess packaging, weight and size

To reduce environmental impact, the first step for an eco-designed packaging is to reduce over-packaging as much as possible, optimise the dimensions of the packaging and reduce the weight of the packaging by working, for example, on the thickness of the plastic layers.

This multidimensional reduction of packaging should enable manufacturers to reduce the volume of material consumed and, consequently, to reduce the volume of storage and transport, thus contributing to limiting environmental impacts.

Facilitating the recyclability of packaging through a mono-material sustainable design approach

The use of multi-material packaging offers real advantages for the preservation of food products. The more sensitive they are, the more important it is to add layers that act as UV filters, oxygen or water barriers to ensure product stability, durability and safety.

However, the use of different layers of materials makes the recycling of the packaging more complex. For this reason, many manufacturers are working on the development of single-material packaging.

For example, Haribo has developed a confectionery bag made only of polyethylene, instead of a multi-layered polyethylene and polypropylene. Similarly, Andros offers its water bottles in single-material PP, and Florette has launched trays and juice bottles in single-material polyethylene terephthalate.

However, the use of mono-materials may not be appropriate for some of the more sensitive products, at the example of food supplements. If optimisations are made, the addition of further layers may be compulsory. In this case, the separation capacity of the different components of the packaging should be worked on to optimise sorting.

Choose recycled and/or renewable materials in sustainable packaging design

Recycled plastics

The use of recycled plastics brings many environmental benefits and is being pushed by public authorities. However, their use is limited in the food sector, especially for packaging in contact with foodstuffs. Indeed, despite the progress in recycling, a recycled plastic may still contain various contaminants whose elimination would require processes that would lead to a strong loss of quality of plastics.

Therefore, regulations require that recycled plastic are not used in packaging in contact with food, except for bottles, thus limiting circularity. However, a major trend is the use of recycled PET in bottles, such as Suntory Beverage and Food France and Nestlé Waters, which have announced a switch to 100% recycled PET for their MayTea and Pulco Citronnade bottles, or Vittel, Hepar and Contrex.

Recycled PET is also making its appearance outside the bottle with AgriCool, which offers recycled PET trays for salads and herbs. In this case, the use of recycled PET is possible but it cannot be used a second time in another food packaging: other outcomes must therefore be found (e.g. household products), requiring sourcing organization.

Paper and cardboard

Paper and cardboard are increasingly being used as materials for food packaging. While paper and cardboard have strong potential to be a credible alternative to plastic for secondary packaging, their use remains a challenge for primary packaging in contact with food.

Following this trend, several manufacturers have changed the packaging of certain products with paper or cardboard: Florette offers ready-to-use salad bags made of recyclable paper, Quintesens uses cardboard for its oil bottles and Candia is extending its brands of butter with paper packaging. However, although the reduction in the use of plastic is very significant in each of these developments, layers of PET or metallization had to be incorporated to ensure product preservation and packaging performance.

Bio-based plastics

Like paper and cardboard packaging, bio-based plastics should improve the environmental footprint as they are not made from fossil resources but from renewable materials such as sugar cane and corn.

However, it is important to note that “bioplastic” is not equal to “biodegradable”. Bioplastics with a standard structure (Bio-PE, Bio-PET…) do not have special biodegradability properties. If they can be recycled in the traditional plastic channels, it is only thanks to recent innovations, as these packaging materials have long been considered as flow disruptors.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a biosourced and biodegradable plastic. However, the conditions for compostability are still quite specific, and generally require dedicated industrial facilities and quite thin films, which explains their use mainly in single-use shopping bags. In addition, there may be discussions about conflicts of use, using crops that can be used for food supply.

In view of these limitations, the production of bioplastics is still limited, with only 1% of the world’s annual plastic production in 2019.

Sustainable design through reusable packaging and refill system

Removing all or part of the packaging has, by definition, even more impact than working on the composition and dimensions of the packaging. The bulk approach is therefore increasingly used and allows for “zero waste”. In addition to cereals and seeds widely available in retailers, Kellog’s also proposes to retailers a bulk offer with a “cereal saloon” of its brands.

In addition to bulk, there are also refill systems. For example, Nestlé has developed a “refill bag” made of recycled paper (FSC certified) for Nesquik chocolate powder. Consumers keep the plastic box they bought once and refill it. Nestlé also proposes three of its products (Nesquik, Ricoré and Chocapic) in deposit system. When the stainless-steel pack is empty, it is collected by Carrefour, cleaned, refilled and then put on sale. Similarly, Blédina is experimenting with returnable jars in several shops. The brand estimates that this system could reduce environmental impacts by up to 50% in the long term.

While sustainable design trends are abundant, innovation must also be strengthened in production and recycling chains, whose level of maturity remains variable and perfectible depending on the raw materials and countries. At the same time, consumer practices must also evolve, and manufacturers must contribute to educating consumers on the right sorting gestures (although this question may often go beyond their scope of action) and on the potential price increase generated. Finally, if innovations promising environmental benefits of an ecological nature of packaging flourish, the performance of the packaging must not be forgotten, in order to guarantee the safety of products. This is particularly the case for functional foods, which are currently on the rise, and which contain sensitive ingredients such as probiotics.

Reconciling the functionality of packaging, the acceptability of price premiums and sustainability is still a wide field of innovation for the industry on which our team is ready to support you!

About the author,

Mathieu, Project Manager in Alcimed’s Agrifood team in France

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