October 1, 2007
By Lynn Petrak, contributing editor
Sustainability is the word of the moment for packagers and food suppliers.
If Earth is indeed in the balance, then broad-scale efforts to reduce waste are designed to even the scales somewhat. As the green movement is truly budding worldwide, packaging has become a focus of environmentally driven business decisions, particularly interest in pursuing packaging that is sustainable and more Earth-friendly.
Indeed, sustainability is a hot topic in manufacturing environments right now. The concept of sustainability, in fact, is a major theme of the upcoming PACK EXPO sponsored by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) show in Las Vegas. Industry representatives have heard the drumbeat, too.
“I was at a retailer last week with one of the major packers, and I’ll tell you that the issue of trying to minimize impact on the environment from overpackaging is front and center on the agenda of retailers as well as packers,” says Randy Irion of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Retailers and meat supplier are also looking at reducing the environmental impact of practices like transportation and distribution, says Irion. Meat and poultry processors report that sustainability is a topic that has reached many levels of their organization.
“We always consider sustainability when reviewing current packaging and developing new,” says Beth Goeddel of Oscar Mayer, noting that previous bacon packaging is not recyclable. “The new Oscar Mayer Stay-Fresh Reclosable bacon package can be recycled — the lid is made of polyester, also known as PET, and the tray is the same material, but it has a barrier that aids with shelf life and freshness.”
Other processors have emphasized the sustainability or recyclability of their packages. There are opportunities for natural brands, in particular, to emphasize their commitment to the environment.
“You see a lot of these manufacturers coming out with all-natural products and all-natural and recyclable packaging, and they are having success with it. It’s about, once again, identifying a niche consumer and addressing some of their needs and wants,” relates Jarrod Sutton of the National Pork Board. “A great example is Hormel’s [Natural Choice] sliced deli meats, in the brown natural packaging that is anywhere from one to two dollars higher than other national brands.”
The simultaneous drives for sustainability and convenience, quality and safety may not always match up, however. Although consumers look for convenient products packaged in resealable tubs, trays and zippered pouches, such materials are not as biodegradable as, say, white butcher paper.
“Theoretically you can recycle many packaged materials, but it is a fairly complex process in trying to get such materials collected and get them to a place where someone can actually do something with it and make something besides park benches. It’s hard to find practical end uses for mixed polymers,” Huston Keith, principal of Keymark Associates, points out.
Industry consultant Ken Johnson also wonders if and how those two trend paths will converge in the future.
“I don’t know if they’ll meet entirely. What you wish and what you need aren’t the same sometimes,” he says, adding that the packaging materials would have to be, at the least, recyclable.