17 Aug 2021
Sustainable food packaging has been a hot topic for years. Developments towards making more environmentally-friendly packaging choices and minimising the environmental footprint of packed food products are top of mind, and laws and regulations are continually drawn up to accelerate these developments. At the same time, consumer’s feel a strong need for freshness and food safety. And in 2020, a whole new factor came into play: the coronavirus pandemic. What’s the impact of COVID-19 on sustainable packaging developments? And on the future of food packaging as a whole? Tim van Caelenberg, Packaging Development Manager at Puratos, offers his opinion on the impact of COVID-19 on food packaging.
As packaging development manager, Tim keeps a very close eye on every aspect of packaging, like material and machinery developments, legal and regulatory changes, waste management policies, ethical and economical factors, packaging design and the related prevention of food waste. In his opinion, the COVID-19 crisis can be a threat to all sustainability developments, especially to the speed of implementation and availability of materials. But it can also bring us new opportunities. Why not take a different approach to this issue and finetune our strategies and policies?
Tim believes that COVID-19 will impact these developments in different ways. “Covid has shown us again that food is very valuable and perishable. And as a consequence, it needs to be protected in the most efficient way. Moreover, due to the Covid-outbreak, people started to think more about the overall hygiene of the products they were consuming. What we consume should be well protected, tasty, fresh, and – now more importantly than ever – safe and hygienic.”
In many cases, robust packaging is the answer to all these demands, but sustainability is equally important as reducing our environmental footprint becomes more urgent. Which leads us to the key considerations:
how can we avoid ‘under-packing’ at the lowest cost possible?
what are new alternatives for plastic materials?
which sustainable materials are hard-wearing enough to endure demanding (new) supply chains such as home deliveries?
Tim acknowledges that new discussions often bring new opportunities. “During the first lockdowns, the consumer’s perception of unpacked food items had our special attention. Taste Tomorrow executed extra surveys to indicate the impact of the coronavirus crisis, which revealed that in countries like China and Germany consumers became less comfortable with unpacked food. Before COVID-10, we had seen clear trends towards unpacked foods, free to pick and collect in supermarkets. Even packaging-free food shops were popping up, asking consumers to use their own reusable containers. But COVID-19 raised big question marks about packaging-free food.”
This clear shift from using as little packaging as possible to providing safety with robust packaging leads to new questions. Should we better protect our food better for hygiene reasons? Can we keep consumers’ trust? When making packaging choices, what’s the most sustainable alternative without compromising food quality? Tim explains: “All of these questions are in direct relation to the environmental impact of food versus packaging. Food is a precious product and should be protected as long as possible from any kind of quality loss and contaminations. And yes, we therefore also need packaging materials. But we can make better choices than we did earlier. An extremely dynamic discussion is unfolding.”
To facilitate these kinds of discussions correctly, objective data are needed. In many fields, Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) come into play, quantifying the environmental impact of a packaged food product over its complete life cycle – from cradle to grave, or more preferably, from cradle to cradle, leading to a circular economy. “At Puratos, we use a specific LCA methodology called PEF: Product Environmental Footprint. This is supported by the European Commission and allows us to calculate the environmental impact on 16 different environmental impact factors. Both food product and its packaging are taken into account, including the impact of packaging extending shelf life of the packed product. This information is essential when speaking about the environmental impact of packaging materials, as food production and potential food waste often have a higher environmental impact than the packaging materials itselves. The end-of-life of packaging materials is inherently part of such an LCA. Is the material single-use only? Can it be reused? Can it be downcycled into a new resource for non-direct food contact applications?”
“Within the field of sustainable packaging, there is currently a lot of innovation ongoing. Driven by many factors and stakeholders in the field, the transition towards more sustainable packaging has irreversibly started and will not be stopped by COVID-19 or any other macroeconomic event.
Part of this drive is pushed by the public opinion on packaging which has not changed over the last few years, by the impact of the media, and also by new laws and regulations coming into force in the upcoming years. Single-use plastics taxations are in preparation and on the rise. The impact of the Green Deal in Europe, and other climate commitments in China and the US will play a driving role. And companies that succeed in making these transition towards sustainable packaging are positively rewarded.”
A very important development in packaging sustainability is the focus on its end-of-life of packaging: what happens to it after it’s been used to pack food? “At Puratos, we have set the goal to become 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. A very ambitious target, that will be hard to reach all by ourselves. That’s why we are teaming up with our suppliers, sector organisations, universities and knowledge centres to support us in achieving our goals. One example thereof is the TRUCE project: ‘True Recycling Upscaling of Flexible Packaging in the Plastics Circular Economy’. In this project, Puratos joins forces with key innovative players in the packaging value chain to develop new packaging solutions for highly functional, flexible packaging. The innovations pursued within this project, are yet another important step towards a truly circular economy."
What does Tim expect from the future of sustainable food packaging? Are the developments threatened by COVID-19? “Overall, I am very positive about the current trends. Sustainability is here to stay, the Covid crisis hopefully not. At this moment, the need for safety and hygiene is as prominent as the need for sustainability. However, this has always been an inherent requirement of food packaging solutions for the industry. The challenge is to further combine those aspects with real packaging sustainability. Recyclability, reusability and linked to that, a lower environmental footprint of the packed products, including avoiding food waste, will become more important over the years. As important as the previous aspects: better waste management and end-of-life treatment of packaging. Today, the focus is far too much on particular material choices; just look at the criticism on the use of plastic materials. In my opinion, we should no longer blame the materials themselves. Plastics remain a fantastic invention and a very advantageous material to protecting food products. We should extend the focus to how humanity is treating packaging materials post-use. Proper collection, sorting and recycling, and turning this into an economical beneficial model, is the new way forward, for any kind of packaging material. Only through the correct handling of all steps in the packaging value chain, can we avoid having packaging materials incinerated for energy recovery or even worse, push them to landfill somewhere in the world.”
Do you want to learn more about sustainable food packaging? Discover why sustainable food packaging is about much more than just using less plastic.
Besides sustainability, there are many more trends in food packaging. Curious? In two interviews about the future of food packaging and transparency, Peter Ragaert, Project Manager at Pack4Food* and Professor in Packaging Technology at Ghent University, and Roland ten Klooster, Professor in Packaging Design & Management at Twente University, provide you with a lot of insights on this subject.