Sustainability is steadily gaining in importance for consumers. They want ethically and ecologically impeccable products, packaged in a resource-conserving manner that nevertheless ensures their perfect condition when purchased. This is a major challenge to packaging producers, as the industry wants to save on materials without compromising the stability of the packaging in any way.
The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group Unilever, owner of international brands such as Domestos household cleaner and Dove soap, is pursuing an ambitious strategy. It plans to double its worldwide sales from the current 40 billion euros by 2020, and simultaneously to halve its carbon dioxide emissions by improving efficiency in packaging and production. Moreover, Unilever is assuming greater social responsibility. By 2020, for instance, it aims to have integrated half a million small farmers and traders in developing countries into its supply chain. “We intend to be a sustainable company in every sense of the word,” says Unilever CEO Paul Polman.
Unilever’s primary motivation is not the conservation of nature, however, but economic success. For many consumers, sustainability has become an important purchasing criterion. Buyers who formerly seldom inquired about origin, type of production and packaging now put a high priority on ecologically and morally ‘clean’ goods. US market analyst Pike Research estimates that global sales with sustainable packaging will almost double between 2009 and 2014, from 88 to 170 billion dollars. “The environmental awareness of consumers has significantly increased as a consequence of the climate debate,” explains Pike Research President Clint Wheelock.
Lifestyles are becoming greener
Alongside climate protection, social aspects play an increasing role. Modern consumers want to lead a more healthy life, and therefore value natural food products that are absolutely safely packaged and have an unadulterated taste. For this client group, it is a matter of growing importance that product manufacturers demonstrate social engagement and offer ‘fair trade’ goods. “We are seeing a trend towards ethical consumerism,” declares analyst Jens Lönneker of the Cologne market research company Rheingold. He has observed that fair trade is firmly established among LOHAS (consumers who aspire to a Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability). Now it is spreading to ‘18-plussers’, who prefer fair trade beer or lemonade in chic bottles to conventional soft drinks or lager.
For the industry, the sustainability trend is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand it has to develop new products and campaigns, incurring high costs. On the other hand, the increasing demand for sustainable products promises economic growth. This is why the financially strongest big companies such as Coca Cola, Kraft Foods and Unilever pursue comprehensive sustainability strategies. They support environmental, nature and aid organisations or provide development aid themselves. They also invest in more efficient production lines and packaging. “We will cut our materials consumption by a third by 2020,” promises Unilever CEO Polman.
The packaging manufacturers help the industry to reduce their ecological footprint. They design new packagings and develop the associated production processes. This is no easy task. Raw material consumption needs to be reduced by using thinner and smaller amounts of resource-intensive materials, but this must not compromise the integrity and stability of the packaging. “The top priority is protection of the packaging contents,” says Stefan Glimm, Managing Director of the German aluminium industry association GDA (Gesamtverband der Aluminiumindustrie). There is a good reason for this. According to the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN), the value of the resources input into and held in food products is much higher than the value of the packaging that protects these products. Product losses resulting from inadequate packaging therefore account for more carbon dioxide emissions than are saved by eliminating surplus packaging. In developing countries, food losses are a big problem: According to EUROPEN, 40 percent of the goods in the supply chain are lost. Better protection of products in these countries could therefore considerably ease the burden on the environment. At interpack, from 12-18 May 2011, the globally most important event in the packaging sector, food protection will also be one of the key themes. The special exhibition SAVE FOOD, organised together with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, shows how the individual elements in the value chain can make a contribution, in terms of packaging, logistics and transport, to cutting worldwide food waste.
Safety is the top priority
The packaging manufacturers have come up with many innovations to demonstrate that safety and ecology need not be mutually exclusive. The US company Sonoco, for example, will exhibit efficient packaging solutions in the form of its new True Blue Line at interpack 2011. According to company spokesman Jeff Schuetz, they are just as stable as their predecessors but contain less material or can be more easily recycled. The industry is already making appreciative use of this range. The German food conglomerate Kraft Foods recently started to use Sonoco-designed containers made of recyclable cardboard instead of tins for its coffee brands Maxwell House, Nabob and Yuban. Another example is Unilever, which has redesigned the plastic bottles for its Suave brand haircare products with the help of Sonoco: the new containers require 16 percent less material, but thanks to their new curved form they are more stable than their predecessors.
The German plastics packaging industry association Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen (IK) views such innovations as a confirmation of its own position that plastic is eminently suitable for sustainable packaging. “It is very versatile,” declares Isabell Schmidt, IK expert on the environment and sustainable development. Plastic provides protection, is transparent, and thanks to the low weight of the packaging, it enables savings to be achieved in transport costs and carbon dioxide emissions. The sector intends to increase its sustainability performance still further. “Its aims include even lighter packaging and even more recycling,” says Schmidt.
Besides plastic, which is the most frequently used packaging material in the world, conventional materials such as paper, cardboard, glass and metal (e.g. aluminium) are also candidates for a sustainable packaging strategy, as each of them offers its own individual advantages.
A study by the Dutch research institute DE Delft shows that paper and cardboard, for example, have a smaller carbon footprint than most other packagings, due to factors such as efficient production and lower transport emissions. The carbon dioxide equivalent of paper and related materials is 676 kilograms carbon dioxide per metric ton of material, whereas that of other conventional packaging materials is at least 1,000 kilograms.
Glass, on the other hand, cannot boast a very low weight, but is returnable, recyclable and absolutely safe. “Glass is inert, so that practically no interaction can occur between contents and packaging,” explains Johann Overath, the Managing Director of the Federal Association of the German Glass Industry [Bundesverband Glasindustrie e.V.]. In addition, it is made almost totally from raw materials that occur in sufficient quantities in nature. This appeals to consumers who value pure taste and want to consume products from a ‘healthy’ packaging. According to a survey by the European Container Glass Federation [Fédération Européenne du Verre d’Emballage (FEVE)], 75 percent of Europeans prefer glass as a packaging material, as it contributes to a healthy lifestyle.
Tinplate and aluminium also protect food products and can be easily recycled. The recycling rate of aluminium is 82.3 percent and that of aluminium cans is an impressive 96 percent. “This rate will be boosted still further by closing the gaps in recycling loops,” says GDA Managing Director Glimm. The sector also wants to cut the consumption of materials. According to Glimm, “The aim is to protect more products with less aluminium.”
Bioplastics are gaining ground
Manufacturers of established packaging materials must, however, expect increasing competition from bioplastics. These may not be as versatile as conventional oil-based plastics, but they make up for this with ever improving properties. The British company Innovia Films recently launched a biodegradable plastic film for food products: known as Natureflex, it is 100 percent compostable. According to head of marketing Andy Sweetman, this multilayer biofilm forms an excellent barrier against moisture and gases, so that packaged products such as biscuits retain their crispness over a long time. The German bioplastics producer FKuR Kunststoff also focuses on excellent barrier properties. The company’s products include multilayer biofilms that also prevent leakage from eco-nappies. A new development from FKuR is biopackaging suitable for very low temperatures, which is used for frozen food. The rapid advance of bioplastic packaging is also reflected at interpack. Whereas only a special display of 250 square metres was devoted to this theme in 2005, in 2011 there will be about 2,000 square metres of regular exhibition area.
Sustainability even in production
Manufacturers of packaging machinery can also contribute to further rapid cuts in the cost of packaging. The Food Processing and Packaging Machinery Association of the German Engineering Federation VDMA [Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbau] sees opportunities for achieving savings not just in packaging materials. A major contribution to sustainable production can be made by reducing the consumption of energy and operating materials by packaging machinery through the use of modern technology. For instance, decentral servo technology, which functions more dynamically and efficiently than large drives, could be used. Although the purchase costs for these machines are high, VDMA claims that the expenditure can easily be recouped during the life cycle of a modern system through its lower energy consumption. Product manufacturers who put their faith in sustainability therefore profit first of all at the production stage, even before their products reach the point of sale.
By Press Department Interpack 2011