In recent decades, packaging technologies continuously improve to combine optimum product protection with highly efficient processes. One factor has gained importance within the last few years: The environmental impact of packaging. Manufacturers are seeking new approaches to use environmentally friendly materials such as paper. Sensitive products like dairy call for innovative technologies that meet these high demands. Yogurt, dessert and dip packaging needs to be safe and hygienic — especially when using paper. Ilona Junker, project manager of sustainable solutions at Syntegon Technology, develops new technical solutions for filling machines, making it possible to use sustainable packaging materials for liquid and viscous food products. Here, Ilona explains sustainability and product safety are not mutually exclusive.
Sustainability is on everyone's mind with regard to packaging solutions. What trends can you identify in terms of packaging for liquid and viscous products? How will packaging change in the future?
JUNKER: In the future, manufacturers will rely on renewable raw materials more and more and will increasingly question conventional packaging concepts with regard to plastic content and recyclability. Existing packaging concepts will be reconsidered. For example, plastic snap-on lids for yogurt cups will gradually disappear from the refrigerated section and will be replaced by new solutions that considerably reduce the packaging’s overall plastic content. Reusable lids offer an alternative; they can save several thousand tons of plastic waste per dairy manufacturer every year.
New packaging concepts are being developed as an alternative to snap-on lids for refrigerated drinks. Some initial approaches include peel-off lids with integrated drinking openings. This eliminates the need for plastic snap-on lids with drink openings — a worthwhile saving. Besides reducing the plastic content and improving recyclability, the environmental impact of packaging also extends to lower carbon emissions, thanks to less packaging weight and less product waste. In the future, cup solutions for viscous products that are made of plastic-paper mixtures as well as mono-material solutions will replace composite materials.
The development of sustainable packaging alternatives includes various approaches to material reduction and recyclability. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; however, we are working on creating a full paper solution for dairy products and other liquid and viscous food products.
Where does this transition to the development of sustainable packaging solutions come from?
JUNKER: Changing consumer expectations are an important driver of change in the packaging industry. Media reports repeatedly associate plastic with the pollution of the world's oceans. Congruently, consumers have very negative associations surrounding plastic packaging. Syntegon is working toward a circular economy. Innovation drives new sustainable solutions. For some products, the issue of sustainability is easier to implement; while for others, such as liquid and viscous foods, a large number of technological developments are necessary.
What challenges arise by using sustainable materials in processing and packaging dairy products and other liquid and viscous foods?
JUNKER: In the past, plastic was the most commonly used packaging material. Quite simply because it had established itself in the market with regard to processing and manufacturing. What is more, the material is very robust and easy to handle. A major challenge in the transition to sustainable materials is to keep equipment efficiency high and to minimize the rejection of faulty packaging. Paper solutions tear or crease more quickly, which renders the pack useless. Product handling in the machine and during transport is therefore much more challenging than with plastic cups, otherwise machine malfunctions can occur. During storage and transportation, several aspects need to be considered. What is more, the machines have to be able to process conventional materials as well as the new sustainable materials. If it is only a partial transition to mono-materials or thinner composites, attention must be paid both to sufficient disinfection and other potentially damaging influences, such as temperature.
How does Syntegon meet these challenges?
JUNKER: At the Liquid Food Lab in Königsbrunn, Germany, Syntegon conducts research, tests and develops new approaches until the technology is ready for the market. The goal is to assess the various processing parameters of possible packaging materials, such as paper or recyclable PP mono-material films. How are the cups destacked, how do they sit in the carrier plate, and how sensitive does the material react to differences in temperature? The Liquid Food Lab and its testing facilities are fully equipped and enable the performance and evaluation of germ reduction and product filling tests in small quantities to ensure product safety and customer satisfaction.
These tests support customers in their transition to sustainable materials because they can predict the necessary machine adjustments and sensory effects on the product. Highly flexible machines enable quick and easy changes between different materials — a key point when several products are to be packed and sealed on one machine. We are therefore working on individual solutions to retrofit existing systems, which allow changes between different materials for cups and lids. New lines are equipped with the developed solutions and become standard. Field tests with customers are essential to accelerate the development process.
Do you see further development potential for sustainable packaging?
JUNKER: There is a huge potential for development. Our goal is to develop technical solutions that make it possible to fill liquid and viscous food products into sustainable packaging made of paper or mono-material. This includes new technologies for sterilization, sealing and machine handling. Parameters such as new materials, technological progress, digitalization, new regulations, but also regional conditions influence the further development potential for environmentally friendly packaging.
Finding sustainable packaging solutions for liquid and viscous food products and adapting them to a particular brand and regional conditions is a complex process. We continuously strive to develop innovative technologies that meet the high product requirements while minimizing their impact on our planet.
Syntegon Technology is a leading global process and packaging technology provider. Formerly the packaging division of the Bosch Group, the company, headquartered in Waiblingen (Germany), has been offering complete solutions for the pharmaceutical and food industries for over 50 years. The portfolio of intelligent and sustainable technologies includes stand-alone machines, as well as complete systems and services.