Less is more when it comes to packaging

EM2 21 TECH PackagingReduce, reuse or recycle properly

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 2 2021.

A world without packaging is nothing but a pipe dream, since there is hardly a single product that can be produced, transported and handled completely unpackaged. This is why there are many initiatives aiming to make packaging better, more environmentally friendly and more sustainable, to protect the environment, prevent waste and keep its CO2 footprint as small as possible. What packaging alternatives currently meet these requirements best?

Many things about our lives that previously seemed difficult to change or unshakeable were transformed within a few days by the coronavirus. Some developments accelerated, while others stalled. The climate benefited, since global CO2 emissions fell by a full seven percent in 2020 due to the shutdown of the economy. On the other hand, efforts to reduce waste generation, especially from plastic and single-use packaging, took a step backwards. Declines in commercial waste from businesses were more than offset by plastic waste and other waste from private households. According to the recycling company Grüner Punkt, German recycling bins were filled with an average of ten percent more packaging waste. This was to be expected, since people leave their own homes much less frequently when working from home, leading to more takeaway food orders. The ongoing trend towards ever more packaging waste was accelerated by this. This was fuelled by households composed of singles and seniors, ever smaller retail packaging units and also increasing demand for convenience foods, including ready meals. Then came the ardent appeals to support local catering businesses during the coronavirus crisis by purchasing takeaway food and beverages in disposable packaging. Although it may be sensible and advisable from an environmental perspective to use reusable dishes, this is inappropriate and potentially risky during a pandemic.

In order to prevent infection, it is currently not permitted to fill reusable cups with coffee. Containers brought by customers are not accepted at coffee counters. Because the closure of restaurants often leaves consumers with no other option than a rushed picnic walking through a city park, municipal cleaning services are battling with vast quantities of pizza boxes, noodle cartons and disposable coffee cups. The boom in online shopping has meant further growth in the mountains of waste, particularly as retailers frequently use standardised boxes that are too big for their small contents. Since 2015, the quantity of packaging waste per person in Germany has fluctuated around 230 kg per year, of which almost half can be attributed to industry and trade, and the other half to private consumers. It is already clear that there will be a further increase in the packaging waste caused by the coronavirus crisis, particularly because low oil prices are reducing the pressure on suppliers to use less plastic packaging.

Despite the coronavirus-induced setback, the basic goals of industry and trade remain the same: as much packaging as necessary, as little as possible. Materials such as styrofoam and aluminium, specific plastics and composite materials such as coated paperboard should be replaced as soon as possible with more sustainable alternatives that use renewable or recyclable raw materials. Environmentally friendly, ecologically responsible packaging is also playing an increasingly important role for fish products, and is often even a purchasing criterion for particularly environmentally conscious consumers. When consumer wishes are ranked in order of priority, avoiding packaging comes out close to the top. Where packaging is unavoidable, reusables are frequently the better option, and if disposable packaging is used, then it should be made from recyclable material if possible. However, packaging requirements for fish and seafood are very stringent. Freshness, taste and hygiene can often only be ensured and safeguarded through complex packaging designs, high quality foils, thermoform trays or aroma-proof bags – regardless of whether the fish offered is fresh, smoked or frozen. It is not easy to replace tried-and-tested packaging materials that producers and retailers have been using for a long time with alternative packaging, as desirable as this might be.

Fibre and cellulose-based materials are the focus of development

The fish industry is essentially already starting from a good position with those of its products that are packaged in tinplate cans or screwtop glass jars. Herring, tuna, sardines and mackerel that are canned or preserved still make up about a quarter of per-person consumption of fish. The contents are reliably protected in cans and jars and premature spoilage and contamination are largely prevented. The manufacturing of such packaging is relatively intensive in terms of materials and energy, but both have very high recycling rates. At 93% in Germany, the recycling rate for tinplate is the highest of any packaging type.

The ‘sustainability offensive’ of packaging manufacturers is focusing on new raw materials that can be obtained in a way that protects resources, as well as materials that are lighter and thinner, but still have similarly good features to their predecessors. Recyclate packaging, a high percentage of which is composed of recycled material, is often favoured in this context. Germany provides a good economic environment for this, as almost 70 percent of packaging waste is sent for recycling in this country. Recycling rates for paper, cardboard, glass and steel are particularly high, but those for plastic packaging are less satisfactory.

Wood, cardboard and paper are currently experiencing a revival as packaging materials, as they are fibre and cellulose-based substances that are manufactured from renewable resources in a CO2-neutral process. They are very suitable for recycling and they are biodegradable after use. In addition, packaging manufacturers can receive certifications such as the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC, like a BSI standard for forests), or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which can verify that they work responsibly with wood as raw material. Pure wood fibre can be used as a basis for paper and cardboard or it can be dried as a fleece together with recycled paper and have the natural minerals kaolin and chalk added to it to make the mass whiter and smoother. Either way, paper is extraordinarily versatile and suitable for countless applications. Dry food can come into contact with recycled paper, if it is approved for use with food. For wet or fatty products, only packaging made from primary fibres is approved, unless it has an additional coating. The range of wood-based products extends from wooden cutlery to noodle and burger cardboard cartons, tear-proof carrier bags, folding paper bags and cardboard plates.

With the Pure Paper Bag, the packaging specialist Schur has developed a mechanically sealable paper bag manufactured from pure, unbleached and non-coated paper material. The strong fibre structure makes the paper bag particularly puncture- and tear-resistant, which means it has a wide range of applications throughout the food sector, where barrier properties are not urgently required. Superseven, founded in 2017 in Wentrof near Hamburg, manufactures foil packaging made from wood for the B2B sector. The recyclable foils are made from cellulose, water, glycerine and a binding material. However, because cellulose is relatively costly, Superseven’s foils are significantly more expensive than conventional plastic packaging. A Japanese company has developed an alternative to conventional aluminium foils with the NatureFlex foil, which is based on wood fibres. It provides robust protection for products and can be composted within 42 days. Fresh food counters in some organic markets are currently testing wraps impregnated with beeswax, which could replace artificially coated paper in future. Beeswax wraps keep food fresh for a long time and are
also reusable.

Packaging made from grass, straw, bagasse or cocoa beans

Although using wood as a raw material fulfils many ecological requirements, the search for alternative fibre materials goes further. This trend is being driven by committed startups in particular, who are increasing their focus on resource efficiency and eco-friendliness. The tangible results of these efforts are grass paper and grass pellets, the processing of which requires less water and energy than manufacturing cellulose or recycling old paper. Grass is a sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable raw material. It grows very fast and can be harvested multiple times per year. Since it does not contain a lot of lignin, grass is easier to process than wood. Manufacturing a tonne of pulp from wood requires approximately 6,000 litres of water, but getting the same amount from hay, on the other hand, rarely requires more than two litres of water. Creapaper, based in Hennef, near Bonn, is already manufacturing packaging, paper and cardboard from dried hay. Even straw, which is impact-dampening and moisture-regulating, and is created as a by-product of cereal harvests, is being used for packaging. Landpack, for example, a company based in Puchheim near Munich, makes compostable insulated liners from straw.

The fibre-rich shells of cocoa beans are another sustainable and resource-saving raw material that is generated as a ‘waste product’ after the cocoa beans are extracted, as well as bagasse, the fibrous remnants of the sugar cane that remain after pressing out the sugar syrup. It is prepared into a fibre slurry that can be rolled out into a type of cardboard. Brown cocoa paper, which is visually very attractive, is heat-resistant, microwave safe and compostable in accordance with EN 13432. Hemp fibres have a similarly positive ecological balance and are shock-absorbing and breathable. Insulating fleece made from hemp fibres has a low thermal conductivity similar to styrofoam and is therefore suited to use in thermal packaging. Bamboo and palm leaves also supply natural fibres for food packaging. Because these fibres are relatively stable and moisture-resistant, they often serve as raw material for skewers, plates, takeaway trays and other disposable dishes, such as those offered by Leaf Republic, based in Taufkirchen near Munich, for example. The Berlin startup Arekapak makes a variety of packaging materials that can be heated up to 200°C and are compostable within 60 days from the leaves of the areka palm, a waste product of Indian agriculture. Bio-Lutions from Hamburg has developed an upcycling process that uses diverse regional raw materials such as banana, pineapple or tomato plants to manufacture water- and oil-resistant disposable dishes. The first plant in India has already been built.

The list of natural raw materials suitable for manufacturing sustainable packaging and disposable dishes now ranges from climate-neutral polylactic acid (PLA) to sugar cane and palm leaves, plant starch, bamboo and wood. Companies such as Bio Futura from Rotterdam or Bionatic from Bremen, one of the market leaders in the sale of palm-leaf dishes and sustainable packaging with its B2B brand Greenbox, are showing how extensive and varied the relevant ranges for catering, retail and end consumers already are.

Moulded pulp, which everybody is familiar with from egg cartons, is a highly environmentally friendly and also versatile material. It is made mainly from wood and paper fibres that are made into a fleece, pressed into the desired shapes and dried. Moulded pulp is reusable, recyclable and compostable. By adding more environmentally friendly materials, the features of the basic material can be enhanced and made more varied. There are now also water-resistant and oleophobic moulded pulp products available that can replace trays made from expanded polystyrene (EPS) or extruded polystyrene (XPS). Some moulded pulp components are even suitable for automated packaging processes. Papacks is a Cologne startup that has specialised in the development of sustainable packaging solutions made from moulded pulp.

The Indonesian company Evoware manufactures water-soluble foils and bags based on algae, which many will recognise from shrink-wrapped dishwasher pods. The materials are odour- and taste-neutral, have a shelf life of two years and dissolve in hot water. They are great for use in portioned packaging of coffee, tea, spices, instant noodles or gravies. The US company Monosol also offers foil bags that dissolve in liquids. The British startup Skipping Rock Labs manufactures edible ‘Ooho Balls’, which have a membrane casing that is 100% made from plant fibres and algae extracts. The US startup Ecovatice Design is growing fungal mycelium into packaging in a pilot system. The rapidly proliferating fungal fibres combine in just under ten days into a foamy but stable mass called EcoCradle, which can be further processed into seed trays, coolers and insulation materials. Compostable packaging made from wood, sugar cane and similar natural materials does have less of an environmental impact than many synthetic plastics. However, hardcore environmentalists warn that they do not solve the underlying problem of excessive resource consumption, because they are mostly made from monocultures, which in turn require huge amounts of land. They say the goal must be to avoid packaging entirely or at least to develop reusable designs.

Plastics remain indispensable for now

If material cycles are consistently taken into consideration when choosing packaging materials, plastics can also continue to be part of an environmentally friendly solution. Recyclates from the yellow recycling bin such as rPET, CPLA (made from ­polylactic acid) or reusable salad boxes reduce the consumption of mineral oil-based plastics and energy consumption, often very significantly. While recycled LDPE can no longer be used for food packaging, recycled PET is approved for continued use as primary packaging for food as long as the recycling company is approved by the EU. From a waste disposal perspective, packaging made from a single material is better than combinations of various substances. This is unless they can be easily detached from each other and disposed of separately, as with duplex paper, the packaging classic of many fresh food counters. In this case, because the foil only adheres to the paper at certain points, the paper and foil can easily be separated from each other. For composite materials of the kind frequently used at fish counters this is hardly possible. The wafer-thin PE coating on the inside of the paper protects the products from drying out and serves to seal them in an odour-proof way, and the external aluminium foil ensures particularly good barrier properties. However, there are now alternatives made from pure paper which could take the place of such multi-layered composite materials in the future.

German packaging manufacturers are driving forward development in this area and also setting international standards. Some fish processors and fish dealers in Germany are using these new opportunities to position themselves on the market in a more targeted way. For MAP and vacuum skin packaging, thinner sealing foils are increasingly being used, as well as paper fibre-based trays and bowls, which are recyclable and reduce plastic consumption. Fish fillet manufacturers are turning to ­recyclable cardboard trays instead of the aluminium trays which they previously used, approximately 95% of which are made from unbleached, natural brown paper with a wafer-thin PET coating. Since 2006, Deutsche See has been increasingly transporting fish and seafood in more environmentally friendly reusable fresh fish boxes instead of styrofoam boxes, which is saving 640 tonnes of styrofoam per year. Südpack has developed environmentally friendly packaging made from over 95 percent cardboard in a modern design that is intended for fresh and smoked fish ranges in the SB (sustainable brand) sector. The food manufacturer Frosta, with its freezer bag made from pure kraft paper, has just won a sustainability prize for particularly environmentally friendly packaging. According to the jury, the design helps prevent waste, meets the requirements for hygiene and transport safety and, when compared to traditional PP bags, leaves a 30% smaller CO2 footprint.

Although these solutions and successes are impressive, ‘green’ packaging that fulfils all our wishes and requirements is still a long way away. The fish sector is on the right path, and even if progress sometimes happens in smaller steps, rigorous specifications or requirements would be somewhat counterproductive. This is because, in addition to how environmentally friendly a product is, the look and feel of its packaging at the point of sale are decisive for a successful sale when choosing between similar products. A study from Information Resources Inc. (IRI) and the Association of European Cartonboard and Carton Manufacturers has shown that packaging is often more important than the brand itself.