The proof is in the packaging

24 May 2016

Choosing the right materials for packaging isn’t a simple consideration. Sustainability, recyclability, cost, ease of production and creating original designs are some of the important factors that influence major brands when making these decisions.

In the beverage industry, PET is growing in all of the market categories, accounting for 33% of all packaging. Klaus Hartwig, head of R&D at the Product Technology Center for Nestlé Waters, says: "There are many reasons to use PET to pack water. It is safe, efficient, light, transparent and recyclable. It allows us to protect the purity and taste of water. As packaging is one of the 'ambassadors' of a brand, PET represents what the brand stands for in terms of size, shape, convenience and aesthetics. PET is also fully recyclable, and recycling streams today are well established in many countries. In fact, global demand of recycled PET material largely exceeds collection volumes."

PET is a key packaging material for Nestlé Waters, which has a packaging mix of about 40% PET, 23% glass and 14% cardboard. Hartwig says: "There are many trends that impact packaging development: health, environment, an ageing population, single-person households and mobility are some of the biggest. Health is driving the substitution of sugary drinks with water, which has an impact on size, format and the point of sales.

"Protection of the environment has driven PET to be the most collected and recycled plastic-packaging material in the world, and there are many developments of PET from renewable resources," Hartwig says. "The ageing population is driving innovation in handling and opening formats, but also in the service business with the home delivery of 5gal bottles."

PET is flexible, which helps when shaping bottles. It also has a lighter weight, which reduces the cost of materials and the impact of CO2 emissions throughout the supply chain.

Hartwig says: "The main focus for PET packaging remains lightweighting and recycling of post-consumer PET. Collection rates in many countries need to be improved. As an industry, we need to assure recyclability of our packages, and work with communities and associations to increase collection rates.

Third-generation bioplastics

"When it comes to bio-based materials, this is a market we are active in, especially where the environmental performance can be demonstrated to be better when compared with petro-based PET. When available, we are targeting third-generation bioplastics from non-food feedstock. So far, there has not been any proven environmental added value in biodegradable polymers when compared with recycled PET. This means that, at the moment, it is better to recycle PET than to let the product biodegrade, but this technology is evolving all the time and this should change in the coming months and years."

In the beverage industry, just behind water, canned soft drinks and juice are the biggest users of PET. April Crow, from Coca-Cola says: "More than half of our global volume today is delivered in PET plastic bottles: the consumers' choice for lightweight, shatter-resistant, resealable, cost-effective and recyclable packaging.

"By sourcing more of our PET from renewable and recycled sources, we continue to offer these benefits while reducing our environmental footprint. The company set the goal of sourcing 25% of PET plastic from recycled or renewable material, but there have been challenges such as low supply and high demand, the collapse of the crude oil price and regulatory restrictions.

Crow says: "In response to these challenges, we are working to increase the recycling and recovery of PET bottles, and thus increase the supply of rPET, while investing in technologies and recovery systems that could enable a more cost-effective production of food-grade PET."

The ultimate goal for the company, according to Crow, is to commercialise a bottle that is 100% renewable, responsibly sourced and fully recyclable. Crow says: "As a representative of the soft-drinks industry, we try to stay ahead of legislation with self-regulation and have committed to only put fully recyclable PET bottles on the market."

Self-regulation means that thereare plenty of things to consider. Crow says there is a list of permitted substances such as certain types of glues, colours and additives, which ensure PET packaging is fully recyclable, and uses standard recycling technology.

"We try to use recycled material in our bottles as much as economically feasible," Crow says.

PET has a lot to offer to consumers who demand requirements for lightweight, convenient, shelf-stable and sustainable packaging that fits in with busy lifestyles. It also has a lot to offer to the company supply chains that continue to improve the designs of sustainable, cost-efficient and high-quality bottles.

Personal-care packaging needs to maintain the quality customers have come to expect from their favourite brands. "The product must be flawless," says Paul Howells, vice-president of packaging R&D at Unilever.

"Where possible, we're looking to exceed expectations through great design. Personal-care companies should always be looking to deliver additional benefits with their packaging."

Howells says that the company has a clear understanding of packaging's functionality. "Advance simulations
and the use of materials that deliver this functionality without excess packaging are the key to ensuring our products are as cost-effective and sustainable as possible."

Beyond sustainability

Unilever launched smaller deodorants, which resulted in a 25% reduction in a can's carbon footprint. The redesign was a strategy to make its packaging more sustainable, but Unilever also wanted to convince consumers that they would benefit directly from the redesign. "The pack is a great design, but it's important to realise that not everyone is invested in sustainability, so it had to deliver a further benefit," Howells says.

"I think our customers appreciate that it's a much more portable and useable product. You get two wins because we've made a reduction in the amount of packaging, and the buyer is happy because we've put out a product that gives benefits above and beyond sustainability."

According to Canadean's latest research, the global paper and board market will reach 136,976 million units by 2018, which is about 8.7% of the total packaging materials market. This is a growing market and one that customers regard as sustainable and trustworthy.

Paper packaging holds soup,cereal, fast food, toiletries, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and drinks. It is easy to print on, it can be resourced sustainably and it has a defined waste-management process, which makes recycling more straightforward than using triplex-layered films.

Migration of hydrocarbons

"We see recyclability as one of the key benefits of paper packaging," a spokesperson for Associated British Foods says. "We can produce a higher volume and quality of paper packaging at less cost than a comparable run using rigid plastics, metal or glass. An example of this is when we look at paper versus plastic sacks; the former is more commercially attractive and the same or better aesthetics can be achieved."

The spokesperson says that with all packaging, determining the optimum functional specification is a challenge, but it is not limited to paper and board. "Currently, for the paper and board packaging in our organisation, one of the biggest challenges is migration of mineral-oil hydrocarbons through coatings and barriers. How do we find a solution to this problem that addresses the legislation, but does not prevent the product from being fully recycled?

It is no good to provide a barrier that addresses the legislation, or protects the food, but is then unrecyclable, as that simply pushes the problem from one area - ink migration or food safety - to the problem of waste management, without a concrete solution in place."

Packaging teams want materials that protect the product. Roger Zellner, associate packaging director at Mondelez, says: "Protecting the product is the most important consideration, followed by cost and fit with other products. Finally, we come to sustainability. Protecting products has to be the primary purpose of development. Without this, all other considerations cease to matter."

Sahab Satsgani, packaging manager at GSK, says that protection of the product is vital. "We need transparency, traceability, and compliance with child-safety and senior-friendliness across all our products, but protecting the product remains the leading requirement. If the product is not fit for purpose, the fallout can be catastrophic."

Lars Lundquist, who works in environmental sustainability of packaging at Nestlé, says: "End-of-life is a key trend and theme in packaging, and as brands strive to reclaim more raw materials as part of their sustainability commitments, it will remain important for years to come.

"Paper in cereal boxes has an incredibly efficient recycle stream, which means it is easy to separate the liner and carton, reclaim the materials and reuse the material without compromising quality or sustainability targets. Any material contamination presents a big problem, as we cannot use the affected material and must start the process again, which is costly in resources, value and time."

Trends in packaging

Paper is versatile. It can be treated to improve the barrier, and prevent moisture, grease or migration. It is functional and aesthetically pleasing. The uniformity of paper, which can provide certification and control quality across a global market, is seen as a key benefit. This must be considered with issues such as whether or not to use virgin pulp or reclaim paper for manufacturing. If the latter is adopted, companies need to ensure that there is no migration or leaching of mineral oils or inks that could contaminate the recycled product. Given the chemicals needed to treat effectively for barriers and coatings, recycling is usually a limited option.

The issues at the moment are whether or not a barrier or coating will be required on primary products that are recycled, and whether or not barrier coatings required on primary products will need virgin boards. The spokesperson from Associated British Foods says: "If a barrier coating is the only way to meet legal limits set for migration of hydrocarbons, then, in many cases, this will prompt producers in virgin to switch to coated, recycled boards for commercial reasons. If we look at materials such as corrugated, the gap between recycled and virgin is already at historic levels in terms of cost and proximity."

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