Consumers increasingly care about the environmental impact of packaging, but not at the expense of value, attractiveness, and proper protection of the product. With so many types of packaging needed in the produce supply chain, “Essentials of Sustainable Packaging through the Supply Chain” took on the challenge at the sold-out inaugural Organic Grower Summit December 13-14, 2017.
The expert panel was moderated by Lara Dickinson of OSC2 and featured panelists Greg Kurkjian of IFCO, Deanna Bratter of DanoneWave, and Mark Sambrailo of Sambrailo Packaging. According to Dickinson, food and agriculture are among the largest contributors to climate change and packaging plays a large role while providing a source of hope for change.
One important means for reducing agriculture’s ecological footprint is to think reusable where possible. While Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) have been relatively common in the produce world, they are also being adopted in other categories including meat, eggs, dairy, bread, fish, and beverage.
According to Kurkjian, not only do RPCs eliminate waste, they also save retailer’s money. With RPCs, retailers gain speed and efficiency through standardization of their box. “What retailers focus on most are the incredible supply chain savings,” said Kurkjian. “We have this tremendous sustainability story, but no one wants to pay for that alone.”
Panelist Bratter broke down the complexity of the packaging puzzle saying, “there are considerations around your materials upstream. There are considerations around protecting your product, around food safety. There are growing considerations around consumer desires around packaging.” She added, beyond the package’s functionality, consumers want it too to look “pretty” and feel good in their hands.
Seeking a more sustainable solution for packaging, in 2009 Earthbound Farm (now a DanoneWave company) began thermoforming its clamshells from 100% post-consumer recycled PET (PCR PET). The PET feedstock is made from recycled beverage bottles which are ground up and turned back into film that can thermoformed into clamshells. Those clamshells, in turn, can be recycled wherever thermoformed PET is recycled.
Earthbound Farm chose PCR PET over PLA, Bratter said, because “putting a compostable clamshell on the market at scale when composting facilities aren’t available so people can’t compost is not going to be the most sustainable solution in all cases.”
But Bratter acknowledged that bottom line still matters and that the company is “…focused on sustainable alternatives that don’t upset the cost structure of the product.”
Sambrailo’s company introduced the clamshell to the produce industry in 1987. Today, people are asking for materials other than plastic for their produce packaging. The company rose to the challenge with the introduction of ReadyCycle – clamshell-style packages made from corrugated carboard. The packages are constructed with food-grade adhesives and printed (inside and out) with vegetable based inks. Labels are not needed, so it’s 100% recycle stream ready.
“Seventy-five percent of corrugated containers are recycled,” said Sambrailo. “Only 30 percent of water bottles are recycled.”
ReadyCycle is about twice the price of a comparable plastic clamshell. “But as volume increases, we’ll see the price come down,” Sambrailo said.
Dickinson challenged the panelists with this sobering statistic: “By 2050, plastics will outweigh fish in the ocean if we continue at our current pace. So, should we get out of plastics? How would we?” Bratter said recapturing packaging at end of life and recycling it into new packages is an important way to keep refuse out of the ecosystem, and consumers have the power. “The more people demand postconsumer recycled products and packaging, the more that will drive recyclability, the more it will drive consumers to recycle, municipalities to drive recycling, and the whole system will thrive,” she said.