The focus of the food packaging industry has been to ensure food safety. Packaging should endure transportation, storage and material handling. Besides, a lot of planning goes into the design of the package – it should be spill-proof, userfriendly and visually appealing. In recent years, with the impact of plastic pollution, food waste and greenhouse gas emission becoming increasingly alarming, the packaging industry is under tremendous pressure to prioritise sustainability as well. From developing sustainable packaging materials to getting the infrastructure in place across the entire value chain, packaging manufacturers face a number of challenges in accelerating the transition to a circular economy.
Industry experts who gathered at the Sustainable Packaging Conference organised by Waste & Recycling MEA threw light on the challenges and the packaging industry’s initiatives in achieving its sustainability goals.
Packaging industry’s role in the changing world
Sara Jackson, Executive Director at Green Ethics FZ LLC, who moderated the session, opened the discussion by highlighting the urgent need to trace the impact of human activities on the planet’s health. The demands of the global population increasingly push and exceed the planetary boundaries impacting biodiversity, climate change and so on. But at the same time the challenge is to provide safe food and water to 8 billion people in predominantly single-use packaging solutions that do not pollute the environment, she said.
Tomotaka Brink Fushimi, Global Director - Ambient Solutions, Tetra Pak, echoed similar thoughts when he said, “We will need an additional 70 per cent food availability by 2050 to feed the global population. It is estimated that one third of the food produced is either lost or wasted every year. As packaging suppliers, we all play a very critical role in reducing food waste in the food delivery system. As packaging suppliers, we need to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.”
Drawing the panel’s attention to the changing trends in the food sector, Dina Epifanova, Global Head of Sustainability at IFFCO Group, said the packaging industry will be influenced by these factors. By 2030 there will be an increase in singleperson households, “which will have an impact on the packaging industry. This would mean more “on-the-go” options, smaller packaging volumes and so on.” The world is changing constantly and there are a lot of trends emerging from issues such as food waste and water scarcity, she said, highlighting some potential outcomes of these changes in the coming years including zero impact concepts that are being discussed globally, with some of them translating into regulations; farm-scrapers; vertical farming; engineered food; big little players and health hacking, and many more.
Speaking of the company’s efforts in producing eco-friendly products, Dr. Mike Cheetham, Global Business Director, Hotpack Global, said 40 per cent of the 3500 products that Hotpack supplies in the GCC region are paper-based, which have eco benefits.“40 per cent of our products are plastic-based, out of which 40 per cent is PET-based which is recyclable plastic; 50 per cent is PP which is also recyclable, and the polystyrene is gradually being phased out. 10 per cent of our products is aluminium, which is fully recyclable. And 10 per cent of our 3500 products are specifically eco products.” He added that the company is targeting zero waste to landfills.
The company aims to deliver the most sustainable food packaging solutions, said Fushimi. He spoke about Tetra Pak’s goals and initiatives in utilising responsibly sourced renewable and recycled materials. The company also recently started trials by using recycled materials. For instance, we produced caps using recycled polymers that is being tested in France; and we are also working on alternative barriers to replace aluminium foil in the packaging. “We are in the process of replacing all the closures we have in the portfolio with anti-littering, tethered solutions,” he added.
Epifanova highlighted how IFFCO is avoiding unnecessary packaging and using less raw materials, aiming for less CO2 emission. She showcased a line of IFFCO products that have new designs to accommodate its sustainability goals. These include paper grammage reduction in shipper cartons, weight reduction in soya oil caps, plastic lamination reduction in mayonnaise bottles and sachets, and so on.
She gave a few pointers that could help businesses, consumers and stakeholders to achieve their sustainable packaging goals: Avoid unnecessary packaging; Go for lighter packaging/less raw material use; Consider raw material climate impact; Use materials that can be recycled; Wide-spread and mono materials are more likely to be recycled; Source from certified value chains and move towards multi-use/ refillable packages; Use recycled materials, not virgin; The packaging format needs to be scrutinised from a sustainability perspective, and think of ways to transport and store more products with less packaging.
Concern over availability of raw materials
Sustainability packaging efforts do not end with using recyclable materials and designing environmentally-friendly solutions. They also call for procuring raw materials and investing in technology and infrastructure across the value chain, besides compliance with region-wise regulations and safety standards. Dr. Cheetham underscored the challenges in shipping raw materials in the region to manufacture Recycled PET (RPET). He said making RPET uses 50 per cent less energy than making PET from scratch and that Hotpack’s machines are ready to process RPET. He added that the company is ready for a circular economy, but it just needs the raw materials. “We would love to use Recycled PET. But the shipping cost outweighs (its benefits) because the raw material is not available in this region.”
While Tetra Pak has its recycling facilities in the Middle East and Africa regions with a capacity to process 87,000 tonnes of used beverage cartons per year, it is looking to increase the capacity in order to meet the growing demands in the region. “The last step in the circular economy is, of course, recycling. If you look at the recycling rate in the Middle East and Africa at the moment, it is about 16-17 per cent of all the used beverage cartons. This is lower than what we see in many other regions,” said Fushimi, adding that in order to increase the recycling rates, there is a need to expand recycling capabilities.
Tetra Pak, along with other carton suppliers in the region, have made investments to set up new recycling facilities, and the latest facility to open was in Saudi Arabia, he noted. “In 2020, we had 16 recyclers in the whole region and by 2023, we expect the number to be more than double, with 35 recyclers in operation.” He added, “We have resources in place. We have a roadmap. Now to increase recycling rates, we are investing in recycling capabilities. We need to work on recycling infrastructure as well. We can have the recycling facility, but we need to get the material there.”
Epifanova said IFFCO is keen to use recycled materials such as RPET, “but the availability (of raw materials) and regulation landscape is not fully ready.”
Talking about regulation, Sunanda Kadam, General Manager-India at Intertek Assuris, said there is a rapid increase in sustainable packaging regulations in various jurisdictions. “Safety and compliance in the packaging landscape is changing to adjust to the circular economy. There are legal and regulatory frameworks that already exist today and then there are new regulations regarding circularity, recyclability and reusability. Almost all governments are revisiting their extended producer obligations.”
As far as liability and safety aspects are concerned in the food packaging sector, Sunanda said there can be a number of challenges, especially with regard to safety as human health is at stake. “Circular economy is causing higher demand for suitable and sustainable materials driven by various regulations,” she said.
She added that there are strict regulations around recyclability in Europe and the US. Recently, India has also adopted a regulation on the use of recyclable material in food contact applications. She spoke about the various regulations in the United States and European Union and how they govern the safety, labeling and documentation requirements in the food packaging sector.
As more and more businesses and organisations come forward to take eco-friendly measures, authenticity becomes a question. When done without proper research, the “ecofriendly solution” itself could become a problem. And there is also the danger of greenwashing. While some companies make misleading claims about the environmental benefits of its product or service for marketing advantage, others don’t have the expertise to know what is truly environmentally beneficial, and what isn’t.
Dr. Cheetham highlighted the importance of being “eco-educated and not greenwashed.” Comparing paper and plastic, he said production of paper bags consumes more water than plastic bags. It causes atmospheric acidification and clearing of forests. “Paper bags are six to seven times heavier than the lightweight plastic bags and therefore require more transport and associated cost. And if paper bags get into the landfill, they will take much more room.” Citing a report by ULS, Dr. Cheetham said plastic bags generate 39 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than uncomposted paper bags and 68 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than composted paper bags. Paper bags generate five times more solid waste than plastic bags. “There are many benefits to plastic bags over paper bags if they are properly reused and recycled.”
He then went on to debunk the commonly-held myth that paper cups are eco-friendly. “The paper cups are traditionally coated with PE, polyethylene. The problem with that is you cannot put it in a paper bin because it is coated with plastic and you can’t put it in a plastic bin because it is paper.” Many companies offer PLA-coated paper bags claiming them to be compostable and eco-friendly. But the truth is “To produce a PLA, it takes about 27.2 Mj/kg of fossil energy. It emits 1.2kg of CO2 per kg.” The PLA is only compostable in an industrial composting facility. To activate this process, 60 degrees of heat over three days is required. Moreover, you can’t just put a PLA cup on the ground and hope it breaks down. It has to be specifically collected and treated.”
Fushimi emphasised the need to continue to drive and build awareness among the consumers. “In the end, if the consumers do not put the recyclable package in the right bin, it’s not going to reach the recycling facility.”
Dr. Cheetham suggested “Why could we not have a colour scheme. For PET we could have a red tint or blue tint or green tint. For PP, we could have another tint, so that we can instantly recognise and separate these plastics.”
In her closing remark, Sara Jackson said, “We have the technology and the innovations, but unless we have all the elements of the ecosystem in place, all these applications will remain as theories. We must all work together. It is the only way to put these solutions into practice and really make a difference.“