Sustainability requirements call for a good packaging strategy

Plastic packaging is under fire. It will have to be less and more sustainable. Better recyclable, preferably made from renewable raw materials and biodegradable. Simple as it sounds, this is complicated in practice. How can you go about this? What options are there? How do you realise the change within your company in the short term and at the same time guarantee the quality and shelf life of your product? In Unpack your Challenge, experts from Wageningen Food & Biobased Research come to the rescue.

The challenges for the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMGC) industry have never been greater. Packaging legislation is becoming is becoming increasingly strict. Think of the ban on single-use plastics in Europe, or the requirement for a certain percentage of recycled raw materials. “In 2025 there will be 20% less packaging material in the supermarkets and 95% of the packaging material will be recyclable”, promises the branch organisation of the food trade CBL in its Branch Plan Sustainable Packaging. The branch organisation of the food industry FNLI has a similar plan and aims to reduce and avoid materials that are difficult to recycle. Many of the members of these organisations have committed themselves to these plans, despite the fact that there are many dilemmas involved.


"It poses a tough challenge to the packaging technologists within the organisation," says Eelke Westra of Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, one of the institutes within Wageningen University & Research (WUR). "They are confronted with the ambitions of managers, but also with a lot of regulations and complexity in the field of plastics engineering and food technology. All of this often exceeds the knowledge of a single person. And yet most companies do not even have a packaging strategy."

Such a strategy is crucial to achieving long-term effective and sustainable solutions. It provides guidance for packaging design, the requirements for the functionality of materials, the cost price, investments in adapting or replacing machinery, but also issues such as the selection of suppliers, logistics and even the possible acceptance of reduced shelf life.

Meanwhile, time is running out. "It is short notice. We are talking about 2025-2030. The risk is real that companies without a strategy will opt for quick wins, which do not yield the greatest sustainability gains in the longer term."

Broad cooperation

Making packaging more sustainable is one of Wageningen Food & Biobased Research's spearheads. In various programmes, this institute conducts multidisciplinary research on the subject, together with the food industry, packaging manufacturers and waste collectors. This broad cooperation ensures that the solutions proposed are actually applicable. The solutions are shared in the Pack with Impact campaign.

Through the initiative Unpack your Challenge, this extensive expertise is now made available to FMGC companies. Westra: “We ask these companies to present their greatest challenge to us. We select three companies from all submissions. At the same time, we invite the CEOs and packaging technologists to a brainstorming session with a custom team of experts. This provides the companies with a free 'roadmap' to a sustainable packaging strategy. Which steps must they take and what information do they need to make well-founded decisions per step? A mix of options is put together, such as reducing, reusing or recycling packaging and recovering raw materials. We also discuss the consequences of these choices and whether they are vital for a company in a specific situation. In return, anonymous versions of the roadmaps are shared via social and trade media, so that everyone can apply the steps in the process. After all, the aim is for companies to realise their packaging ambitions more quickly.”

It is of course up to the companies themselves to determine the balance between economic and sustainability ambitions, regulations and preconditions. Although the primary goal is to meet the packaging guidelines. “We are looking at what decisions are needed to achieve this. And whether we are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater because the savings in one aspect are cancelled out elsewhere in the chain, for example because the transport kilometres are skyrocketing or because 20% more food is wasted. In the end, every solution will need to be tailor-made.”


Participation in Unpack your Challenge is free of charge and open to large, medium-sized and small FMGC companies. Registration is possible as of 15 November on the special campaign website. The selection will follow by the end of December. Brainstorms are planned with the selected companies in January. After that, it is up to the companies themselves to choose the follow-up route, such as purchasing a packaging solution, starting a consultancy or research project or seeking funding.