More sustainable food packaging coming soon

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Dear EarthTalk: What’s new in food packaging to make it more sustainable?

EC, Bern, NC

Along with food waste, food packaging is a significant source of pollution, generating about half of the packaging waste in the United States. In the wake of growing concerns about climate change and the role of food packaging in it, companies are taking steps to make packaging more sustainable.

Heinz is working with Pulpex to prototype a food-grade bottle made from sustainably sourced wood pulp that can be recycled and biodegrades if discarded.

Many changes are underway. Corn and sugarcane plants are increasingly used as food packaging materials. However, this system puts pressure on already stressed agricultural land and can jeopardize food security, as crops that could be used for food are used for other purposes. One solution is to use agro-food residues, the by-products of agricultural production – cornstarch, rice husks, etc. that would otherwise be discarded – for food packaging. In this way, packaging can reduce the waste of agricultural materials without threatening agriculture or food resources.

Companies have begun to consider the entire packaging lifecycle of a product, beyond use and disposal. In doing so, they encouraged the design of products made and transported from sustainable materials, not just those that can be recycled by customers. For example, Heinz is working with Pulpex to prototype a food-grade bottle made from sustainably sourced wood pulp that can be recycled and biodegrades if thrown away. It has a 90% lower carbon footprint than glass and 30% lower than PET, a very common type of plastic in food packaging.

Other examples abound. Alter Eco worked with Natureflex to create truffle wrappers made from eucalyptus and birch, then lined with foil. The material would compost in industrial settings and biodegrade in the ocean. Boxed Water is Better sells water in recyclable boxes, made of 75% flattened paper so efficient for shipping, allowing one truck to transport as many boxes to filling centers as 26 trucks transporting plastic bottles. The company also ensures that the paper comes from well-managed forests, that the material is free of BPA and other chemicals, and that a portion of the profits are invested in planting trees in deforested areas and prone to fires. Mondelez, which produces snacks like Oreos and Wheat Thins, Ritz and Belvita crackers, has almost met its goal of reducing its use of virgin plastic by 25% for rigid packaging and 5% overall by 2025.

These technologies create more efficient food packaging that reduces waste, but these solutions face obstacles. Investing in sustainable materials and partnering to develop new ideas, combined with the supply chain and inflation disruptions associated with the pandemic, come with potentially prohibitive financial costs that have hampered some planned transitions. Moreover, it has proven difficult to demonstrate the benefits of these changes, and “greenwashing,” marketing that exaggerates the environmental benefits of companies’ products, has made investors wary. However, the chances of success are high as an increasing number of customers are demanding sustainable packaging. For example, 24% of young adults said they were willing to pay 5% more for sustainably packaged food.

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