Safety and sustainability roundtable

26 April 2013

Representatives from several major global brands took part in the Packaging & Converting Intelligence round table on sustainability, which focused on the key issues currently faced by the food and drink packaging industry.

A number of experts from the world of food and drink packaging converged at the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel for the Packaging & Converting Intelligence sustainability round table at the back end of last year. Sustainability, food safety, mineral oil migration and brand responsibilities were just a number of topics discussed during the evening, which started with drinks and canapés in the impressive kitchens of the hotel's The Gilbert Scott restaurant before the delegates – from prestigious companies such as Mondelez International, Coca-Cola, Mars Food and United Biscuits – retired to a private dining room for a four-course meal.

The debate was honest and engaging, offering an insight into the challenges and innovations taking place at some of the world's most renowned brands.

Defining sustainability

Sanjay Patel: We had an interesting internal project to try and define what it would mean to approach a zero-carbon footprint for all of our packaging, and we actually found more than 100 different definitions for what that means. We decided on adopting one: that all packaging was fit for purpose, an appropriate cost, an appropriate quality for the purpose it was designed for but is not perceived as waste, and has a use for subsequent generations.

Steve Pizer: The Global Packaging Project was one good example of this. It took manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, and various organisations, and brought them together to help define what packaging and sustainability meant. I'm not sure it had the impact intended but it left us with a common way of approaching how to measure packaging and sustainability.

Sanjay Patel: Joined-up thinking across the industry is critical. There are lots of different ways to pursue this. Legislation is there, but at times we have the opportunity to take a leadership role. We need to work together to define the objective we are trying to fulfil. One example is looking at closures and silicon valves. We decided not to use them in sports-based products because they disrupt PET recycling, and we worked a great deal with the closure industry to separate out silicon to help us recover more PET.

Sustainability and the supply chain

Oleg Puleyev: It starts at the beginning. It's an integral part of our strategy to consider the sustainability impact of the choices we are making. Is it up to the brand-owner or suppliers to take leadership? It's a challenge sometimes. The way we tackle this in Mars Food is by creating strong, cross-functional teams that incorporate sustainability goals and metrics very early in the strategic sourcing process, and by involving the right external innovation partners. We have to make sure that we are innovative in our approach to sustainability.

Kristian Berings: One general perspective is to look at packaging not as waste but as a solution to prevent waste. If you really look at the carbon footprint of packaging against the product it contains, the contents rate far higher, often up to 70% more than the packaging itself. If you do that job properly, it adds up to sustainability all by itself. Yes, we should be cost-effective, and yes, we should be reasonable, but it's a solution and it prevents food waste. Food waste carries a far greater footprint and that's why I look at it from that perspective.

The food and packaging conundrum

Kristian Berings: Look at bananas. The perfect packaging for them is the banana skin itself, but by packing them in a modified atmosphere, you can extend shelf-life by up to eight days, which slashes waste by up to 20%, because many get wasted. The amount of energy used and the carbon footprint used to transport them from say, Costa Rica or Africa by boat to other countries, then to home, is enormous. If you can use materials that help cut waste levels then why not?

"Joined-up thinking across the industry is critical. We need to work together to define the objective we are trying to fulfil."

Sanjay Patel: You have to be sensible, though, and avoid unnecessary packaging, such as when you see coconuts wrapped in cellophane. With a cucumber, that same piece of packaging can extend the shelf-life by 14 days. It's all about keeping in mind the total lifecycle of the product and doing the sensible thing. Another example could be looking at coffee pouches. The majority of the communication is about the reduction in weight, but in many instances the pouches cannot be recycled whereas a glass jar can be. This is another one of those examples where joined-up thinking is required about the total product lifecycle.

Monika Huber: I think the big issue is communicating this to consumers, because they think that the less packaging there is, the better it is. It is a major challenge for an industry. The consumer sees the packaging waste in the bin, not the food waste. This makes it difficult.

Bob Poletti: If you ask a consumer what is important, it is what is convenient, what is cost-effective. There is much work being done but consumers are still confused.

Doing the right thing

Sanjay Patel: Without understanding what is holistic and the best solution, which may add more cost in order to do the right thing by the plant, we are missing the point. You may hate me for this, but we have to be honest with ourselves, and if we are trying to do the right thing in that sense then there may be an additional cost associated with that.

Oleg Puleyev: No, we don't hate you for this. One of the few things on sustainability that different companies seem to agree on is that there are three dimensions. One is economical, one is environmental and one is social. And it's not about how expensive it is, but how much meaningful value it brings to the consumer and how long it can survive.
Monika Huber: With the regional farmer, he does not expect a cucumber to be wrapped in PET, but on a global level this is needed.The consumer wants their product all year round.

Torkel Bergengren: In Sweden, we have had a packaging system where it is not viewed as a sustainability problem anymore. If you analyse waste from households, 50% is food waste, so as a result, it is becoming more and more common that you have a separate bin for that waste. But I think that if you can handle the infrastructure for packaging recovery, it is no longer a problem in people's minds.

Overcoming packaging hurdles

Monika Huber: I'm not so fully convinced by the innovation argument. For innovation, we need to overcome certain hurdles and find a way to compete, even if it is not perfectly recyclable in the beginning but is in the long term.

Kristian Berings: But the intention is that when you design and develop packaging, you think about the second life and how it can be reused.

Bob Poletti: From a chemical standpoint, we can provide coatings that help food preservation, but what strategies interest you?

Monika Huber: Extending shelf-life is important, but to a limited selection of foods. It really is something for fresh products because after four weeks that product could not be considered fresh any more. With fresh fruit, vegetables and, say, pasta, you are looking at something completely different.

Mineral oil minefield

Monika Huber: We can never compromise food safety and the health impact on human beings, but further research is needed. It is such a complex field because we are talking about oils now and tomorrow maybe certain printing inks, and then chemicals in coatings. We definitely need a subset of proven migrants in packaging materials that may go into food.

Kristian Berings: It's interesting that packaging is always the focus, but when you look at the chemicals that potentially migrate from recycled materials such as newspapers or magazines, then how many of these chemicals are you potentially absorbing in day-to-day life? There is a lot of uncertainty with the risk of these chemicals. What we do know is that there are many migrating into foods. So there is one question: what is the risk? I doubt anybody knows what it is long term. As an industry, we should make the effort to help prevent that migration through inks and barriers.

Bob Poletti: We are observing that there is an uncertainty and a public perception of the problem. We have been working hard to develop and commercialise solutions to help prevent these issues. Our responsibility is to help them be prepared. If regulations get ahead of the technology, then that is never a good thing. Clearly, from initial recognition of the problem several years ago there has been a compulsion to react to that. Brand-owners generally have said that recycled fibre in contact with food must be stopped. I understand that reaction, but what about the impact of the printing side on virgin fibre in contact with food? And even then, this goes into a corrugated box made from recycled fibre. There is a very good argument for a barrier somewhere in that system.

End-user involvement

Bob Poletti: We have an extremely important responsibility, and although there is publicity informing the consumer about the issues with packaging, I don't know if the consumer is switched on just yet. If that happens, it is important that brand-owners must embrace this, like any issue, and maybe even use it as a differentiator and be proactive and first out of the blocks with a solution.

Sanjay Patel: We have to work on this holistically because when the consumer has a problem, it is the brand that they reject. It has taken 126 years to build our organisation and in 126 seconds it could easily all be gone. It's not the packaging company that supports that brand, so from our perspective your brand equity is your most valuable asset. We also must start managing and put into context some of these risks that you find. Somehow this needs to be managed with consumers, but in an educational sense and not a defensive state. But it needs to happen.

Delegates included Oleg Puleyev, Torkel Bergengren and Steve Pizer
Meet the delegates
Meet the delegates

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