Trends in sustainable food packaging
Food packaging continues to be an area abundant with innovation. While the number of new food product launches is declining, the number of those launches based on new packaging is increasing, which is helping to expand the sustainable packaging market. In fact, according to a report conducted by Smithers Pira (smitherspira.com), the sustainable packaging market will hit $244 billion by 2018, based on consumer demand and advances in material technology. Today, consumers are demanding more, especially more sustainable packaging, which is driving innovation in food industry packaging. At Asia Pulp and Paper (APP, asiapulppaper.com), we see five rising trends in this area that will continue throughout 2014:
Traceability: For a long time, consumer purchasing decisions have been based in part on what happens to their packaging once they discard it. But more recently, we see consumers increasingly basing purchasing decisions on the traceability and sustainability of products and packaging through the entire supply chain. At the core, consumers want assurance that their packaging is from a legal, acceptable and sustainably managed source. As traceability is both an environmental and an ethical issue, brands are adapting their sourcing to enable them to communicate with consumers about traceability through the supply chain, from procurement to transport to end-of-life cycle.
Food waste reduction: The fight to reduce food waste continues to be important, with groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) approximating that 40% of food in the United States today goes uneaten. To address the issue, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) have tasked the public and private sectors to reduce waste through the Food Waste Challenge. Packaging can play a major role in meeting this need through advancements that help food stay fresh longer (e.g. re-sealable packaging with zippers), extend shelf life, or enable consumers to remove all food product from the package. And based on a recent Mintel survey, it is clear that consumers agree; 92% of respondents reported that packaging that helps food retain freshness is important to them, and 80% indicated they consider re-seal ability an important packaging attribute.
Labeling: Consumers are insisting on clearer labeling, as witnessed by the ongoing debate around mandatory labeling for genetically engineered foods. With sustainability, consumers want recycling labels that provide clear instructions. Recyclable packaging is, after all, only as good as a user’s understanding of how to recycle it. Labels must provide easy-to-understand information about how to manage various packaging components at its end of life. Improving on-package labeling supported by internet and mobile app communications will enable consumers to get better information faster, and provide channels for brands to better engage their consumers. There are various initiatives underway to reform recycling labeling. One example is the How2recycle label, a nationwide labeling initiative to reduce confusion and misinformation about recycling by creating universal on-package labeling.
Reusable packaging: Traditionally, reusable packaging was limited to manufacturer and retailer use of reusable pallets, racks, bulk containers and the like. While this contributed to a more efficient and sustainable supply chain, similar approaches didn’t broadly extend to the consumer level. But more recently, reusable packaging for retail products is gaining momentum among consumers. Products whose packaging can be reused offers consumers additional, tangible value they can derive once food is consumed, engendering positive associations from a “greener” purchase decision. While glass is often thought of as prime reusable material, Pizza Hut showed that paper can be fun too. In 2011 the fast food giant introduced a multi-use pizza box in Costa Rica; cleverly, the box breaks down into plates, and a smaller box for leftovers.
Responsibly grown: Today, sustainable packaging must consider materials derived from renewable resources, be it recycled material or plantation-grown fiber such as quick growing trees, waste wheat chaff, or other materials. For example, paper and board packaging can be made from virgin fiber sustainably sourced from renewable plantations. Certain equatorial climates, in particular, allow faster tree growth and shortened maturity cycles for tree harvesting. Demand for packaging from this type of fiber is increasing.
As views toward sustainability continue to evolve and expectations grow, the packaging industry will remain an area of significant consumer scrutiny. Food brands that manage to keep pace with those expectations will fare best.
About the Author: Ian Lifshitz is the sustainability director for the Americas for Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP). He is responsible for leading the company's sustainability and related stakeholder engagement programs across Canada, the United States, and South America. Ian is also charged with leading the company's North American CSR activities, translating and communicating many of APP's successful conservation, biodiversity and social community programs to North American audiences.