While sustainable packaging can be divided into three categories - environmental, economic, and social - food packaging and processing operations most directly address the environmental area from two perspectives: materials and operations.

Materials can often be “low-hanging fruit” for food manufacturers looking to enhance their sustainability offerings. These can be packaging formats that contain renewable materials or a greater proportion of recycled material - or simply use less material (e.g., downgauging, lightweighting) - without compromising the durability of the structure. Other sustainability tactics on the materials side include smaller packages with highly concentrated products.   

For food manufacturers, the manufacturing and distribution process is where large resources are expended. There are a tremendous amount of opportunities to grow sustainability here - and it all starts with approaches to lean out their operation.  Modern machine solutions are also designed to be more flexible to handle multiple formats, material gauges, and multiple package sizes.  Modern packaging and processing equipment is designed to save utilities, especially water, and reduce downtime during changeover. In addition to water, companies are adjusting how they power their production facilities including utilizing alternate energy sources to improve their sustainability ratings, and perhaps reduce costs. Dairy processors are also exploring alternative shipping methods to reduce transportation costs.

As new technologies are consistently developing that not only make sustainable products possible but also enable manufacturers to meet their own sustainability goals through cost and waste reduction within their production lines.

Processing and packaging partners should communicate goals early in the process. Often, important adjustments need to be made in machinery setup to capitalize on these innovations. The processing and packaging solutions experts can help to identify any technical hurdles that may arise, increasing the likelihood of success.

To prevent incompatibilities that can lead to a jammed manufacturing line, food manufacturers should look for highly versatile equipment. Equipment that can easily change settings to handle packaging in a wide range of shapes, sizes and materials offers high value to dairy processors that foresee a packaging transition in their future. It is also important that the team responsible for the new packaging selection work directly with their operations counterparts to understand what will run on existing equipment and any new equipment needed to accommodate different materials and containers.

At PACK EXPO Las Vegas 2011, more than 1,600 exhibitors are showcasing the full spectrum of material, container, packaging and processing equipment solutions. This is a powerful resource for food manufacturers seeking to enhance their approach to sustainability. Special pavilions of interest include The Brand Zone, which spotlights material and container innovations that enhance shelf appeal as well as sustainability, and Reusable Packaging Pavilion (sponsored by the Reusable Packaging Association), which highlights reusable pallets, hand-held containers, bulk containers, dunnage, technology and  other services for transport packaging solutions.

But timing is key. More than ever, food manufacturers are seeing the potential benefits of enhancing their products with sustainable materials. Consumers are increasingly seeking packaging that helps to minimize brands’ environmental footprint, and consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) respond in their efforts to maintain or increase brand loyalty. Additionally, the material and energy savings resulting from steps to enhance packaging sustainability have helped reduce production costs in many instances, reducing the cost impact that “sustainable packaging” presents a burden on CPGs. More and more, the efforts of food manufacturers to use sustainable packaging materials are becoming the norm, not the exception.

For more information, visit www.pmmi.org and www.packexpo.com