Six questions about sustainable packaging

Consumers and brand owners have a great need for sustainable alternatives to existing packaging with a high environmental impact. Together with and together for producers of packaging, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research is developing new so-called renewable packaging materials with exactly the desired functional properties. We are also looking for alternatives to sustainable packaging for fresh and shelf-stable foods. After all, which packaging material ensures that products have a shelf-life, are safe and at the same time have good end-of-life options and are also affordable? The market is looking for answers on the following questions:

Questions & Answers

Dilemma 1: Fresh products such as strawberries look more environmentally friendly in cardboard trays than in plastic trays. But how can I be sure this is an environmentally friendly alternative and that the tray contains no harmful chemicals?

Answer from an expert: Which tray causes the least environmental impact is highly dependent on a multitude of factors (tray weight, production energy, food waste, etc.). It is therefore worthwhile to calculate the environmental impact of packaged foods. As the contribution of packaging to litter and the plastic soup is becoming increasingly relevant, it is also useful to include estimates and indicators of the contribution to these waste streams. This assessment also includes the food loss attributed to the packaging. In the example of strawberries in trays, it is important that the shelf life of the strawberries is not reduced, and if this is the case it must be included in the assessment. Various additives are used to make cardboard trays watertight, sealable, etc. Some of these additives are harmless (food safe) and do not affect recycling, however others, regrettably, are not. Chemical analyses should therefore be conducted and included.

Dilemma 2: Which yields more sustainability gains: recyclable packaging that causes more food waste or non-recyclable packaging that causes less food waste?

Answer from an expert: That depends on the type of sustainability you want to achieve and the nature of the product. In case your prime objective is to reduce litter, then making your package recyclable is bound to have a greater impact, provided it is actually collected and recycled. If you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, packaging that causes less food waste will be more effective in almost all cases. The only exceptions are products such as water and soft drinks, for which recycling the packaging has a more significant impact than ensuring no product is wasted. Nevertheless, most companies do want to reduce both environmental impacts and will therefore seek tailor-made compromises.

Dilemma 3: The packaging I currently use is difficult to recycle: is it wiser to wait for a better recycling technology or should I redesign my packaging now?

Answer from an expert: In all cases it is wise to investigate if your package can be redesigned for recycling based on the current state of the art. In the end it depends on the type of packaging and the reason why it cannot be recycled at the moment. For example, PET trays were long unable to be recycled, but now recycling of this packaging has started. It is expected that PET trays will be able to be recycled into new transparent PET trays within five years. This means that the current lack of recycling options is no longer a reason to abandon the use of PET trays. Other examples are small foil packaging, PS packaging and small bottles, all of which are currently difficult to recycle and require made-to-measure solutions. What makes this dilemma even more complicated is that many producers manufacture products for multiple markets and the collection and recycling systems are organised differently in each country. This can mean that a given packaging is recycled in one country but not in another. Nevertheless, advances in technology and policymaking are expected to lead to all plastic packaging being collected and recycled in all European countries in the future.

Dilemma 4: Milk cartons contribute less to climate change than milk bottles, but cartons are still more difficult to recycle; what is the best choice at the moment?

Answer from an expert: Milk cartons are in many ways the most sustainable form of packaging for beverages that leave food residues like dairy products and juices. They are currently recycled to a limited extent only because there are no specific legal recycling target for beverage cartons. However, the recycling capacity for beverage cartons in Europe is expanding and a dedicated recycling plant was recently opened that recovers the plastic and aluminium separately from beverage carton rejects. In short, it is expected that beverage cartons will become completely recyclable in the future and that this will therefore no longer be a dilemma.

Dilemma 5: How can I make my plastic packaging truly circular while there is hardly any food contact approved recycled plastic available?

Answer from an expert: This is indeed is a serious issue since currently there is a major shortage of high-grade recycled plastic because of:

1.    the demand has risen faster than the recycling industry can build production capacity.

2.    several large enterprises have secured strategic positions in this markets by purchasing large quantities

3.    the European directive for recycled plastics used in food packaging is so strict that most plastics cannot comply with it. In fact no recycled plastic formally complies. State of the art is rPET, but even for this material only “positive opinions of the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) that the combination of process and raw material is compliant” have been written. However, not one company has yet received formal approval from the European Commission. Therefore, the scarcity of food-grade recycled plastics is partly caused by the European legislators themselves and will have to be resolved by them in the first instance. In the meantime, packaging companies can continue to work on ‘design-for-recycling’ to limit the amount of contaminations in recycled plastics and so make the challenge for recycling companies to produce food-grade recycled plastic easier.

Dilemma 6: Supermarkets and consumers are forcing suppliers of fresh produce to stop packaging their products in plastic. How can they continue to guarantee shelf life and food safety?

Answer from an expert: It is generally always a good idea to remove plastic packaging materials that do not contribute to the protection of the product. However, the real question is, how far can we go in reducing the use of plastic packaging without increasing food loss and compromising food safety? Simply banning plastic packaging without changing the logistics and storage conditions will only lead to more food being wasted. The protection offered by conventional plastic packaging will have to be replaced with a protective coating or by keeping the product cooler. The shelf life of the products can only be guaranteed at an acceptable level if the cooling process can be optimised to replace the use of plastic. In some products (such as freshly cut produce), packaging plays an essential role in ensuring food safety. The absence of packaging, or inadequate gas permeability, will be detrimental to the protective atmosphere in the packaging, and this protective atmosphere is essential for ensuring the food safety of the product. Before launching a fresh product in a new packaging, it is advisable to carry out microbiological research by means of so-called challenge tests in order to guarantee the food safety of the freshly packaged products.

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