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New kinds of packaging are emerging that offer a lower environmental footprint. Are they viable alternatives to traditional packaging?
Each year, scientific breakthroughs bring the world closer to making consumer products more sustainable. In 2018, for instance, Reed College (Portland, OR) biology student Morgan Vague made headlines when she discovered a previously unknown strain of bacteria (Pseudomonas morganensis) that consumes plastic.1 Advancements like these will one day help packaging manufacturers and finished-product brands develop innovative new packaging materials that reduce their environmental impact, increase reusability, and cut down on waste. While those technologies are still on the horizon, what are brands doing today to increase sustainable packaging? We checked in with some brands and manufacturers in the natural products industry.
Maria Emmer-Aanes, senior vice president of marketing for Numi Tea (Oakland, CA), says that Numi has made several recent innovations in its tea-packaging practices. The company launched a plant-based, flexible film tea bag wrapper in January 2020.
“This project is the culmination of over 10 years of effort,” Emmer-Aanes says. “The new tea bag overwrap features a non-GMO PLA (polylactic acid) layer made from renewable sugarcane. The new wrapper also uses 100% FSC-certified paper grown in Scandinavia, which guarantees no eco-toxicity when it breaks down.”
Since its founding in 1999, Numi Tea has used 90% post-consumer recycled cardboard in its tea boxes. Furthermore, its tea bags are compostable, and the tags are made from recycled material and printed with soy-based ink. Numi Tea strives to make its products as eco-friendly as possible, Emmer-Aanes says, which extends to its single-use products.
“Our Daily Super Shots are currently packaged in glass bottles to minimize plastic waste,” she says. “Glass can be infinitely recycled with no degradation in quality. And although glass is heavier than plastic to ship, Numi offsets shipping impacts of all products through CarbonFund. We are currently researching solutions to further improve the sustainability of our plastic non-recyclable shrink wrap, like compostable PLA or PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates).”
The Fine Print
Other significant advancements in sustainability include improving the recyclability of often-overlooked packaging components. Don Earl, president of Overnight Labels (Deer Park, NY), says that sustainability now extends to materials that weren’t previously thought of as recyclable.
“In addition to recycled paper stock, over the last few years there have been numerous advancements in plastic resins and extrusions,” Earl says. “These have resulted in both recyclable and compostable options for film packaging. Digital printing has also greatly reduced waste and virtually eliminated setup time and extra materials.”
Earl notes that companies are approaching sustainability in a variety of ways. Packaging design and printing are offering even more ways to improve sustainability, allowing brands to achieve the desired look and functionality. “Some companies are designing their packaging to be smaller and more efficient,” he says. “Some of our customers have come to us because we’re a certified member of the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership. SGP printers are audited and must follow sustainability best practices, including and beyond regulatory compliance.”
Marny Bielefeldt, vice president of marketing for Alpha Packaging (St. Louis, MO), says that it is becoming increasingly common for brands to use PET and HDPE packaging made from recycled and plant-based resin. These materials give brands a number of options for safe packaging that aren’t petroleum-based. Additionally, newer, lighter materials are reducing carbon footprints in other ways.
“Some manufacturers are deliberately light-weighting their plastic bottles and jars to remove gram weight,” Bielefeldt says. “We have light-weighting projects that have removed anywhere from 9%-23% of a bottle’s total weight. There’s an opportunity for further source-reduction by moving from pressure-sensitive labels to direct screen printing with UV-cured inks.”
Bielefeldt says organizations like Oceanworks and OceanCycle are also playing a role in encouraging sustainable packaging development by creating certification processes for post-consumer resins and plastics. The idea is to divert plastic and resins out of the waste process and back into the manufacturing process.
“Plastic that is diverted from winding up in the ocean can be recycled and turned into viable post-consumer resin,” Bielefeld says. “Most plastic that has already made its way to the ocean floor isn’t a good candidate for recycling into food-safe bottles, but now it’s possible to recycle these bottles and turn them into post-consumer resin. Oceanworks and OceanCycle resins also come with FDA letters of non-objection” indicating they are approved for food contact.
How Well Do Sustainable Materials Perform?
Environmental concerns are always important, but the primary function of any packaging material is to protect the product inside it. If a material cannot accomplish this purpose, then it is simply not viable as a packaging solution, no matter how environmentally sound.
Rob Beekers, bioindustrial business development director for Cargill (Minneapolis, MN), says there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for sustainable packaging in terms of what will work best. “In one case, glass might be the best approach,” Beekers says, “while in others it might be metal or paper. It depends on the physical and barrier packaging requirements for the particular product, as well as the infrastructure in place to deal with the packaging after its primary use.”
Beekers says that sustainable packaging materials can perform well provided they can easily be incorporated into the existing recycling infrastructure. Packaging materials that require major changes to a well-established supply chain face untenable adoption challenges, he adds.
For instance, new label and resin materials are making it possible to recycle more of a finished product. While traditional adhesives could render an otherwise recyclable package non-recyclable, Earl says that Overnight Labels’ new water-based label adhesive is fully recyclable and cleanly separates during the recycling process.
Change is incremental, and in this regard, companies and their packaging manufacturers continue making progress in ensuring that each generation of packaging is not only more sustainable than the packaging before but that they improve performance.
Emmer-Aanes says Numi’s new plant-based tea wrappers provide a cleaner tear and therefore offer a better user experience than the original wrappers, with no decrease in either product shelf life or product freshness. Meanwhile, Earl says that sustainable materials are improving in printability, making it possible to maintain the same quality of aesthetic experience that consumers can get from conventional materials.
By all objective measures, sustainable packaging materials are continuing to improve. Earl says that while there is always room to perfect sustainable materials, sustainable packaging options have come a long way in a short time and are starting to close in on conventional packaging regarding functionality and strength.
The Cost of Sustainability
Beekers says the cost of packaging isn’t solely determined by the materials that constitute the packaging. Other factors like scalability and end-of-life processing cost also influence how costly or inexpensive sustainable packaging may be. However, Beekers also says that despite the initial cost of making changes to the supply chain, sustainable packaging becomes less expensive at scale and over time.
“When the true cost for treatment of packaging waste at end-of-life is factored in, sustainable packaging might actually be less expensive than incumbent materials,” he says. “We also know that consumers want more sustainable products. When asked in consultations, consumers indicate that they are prepared to pay a small premium for more sustainable goods.”
Emmer-Aanes points to the results of a 2019 research report by consumer intelligence provider Toluna (Paris, France). The report, a survey of 1,000 American consumers, found that 37% of consumers are willing to pay up to 5% more money for an environmentally friendly product. The survey also found that over one third of consumers are already changing their buying habits and seeking out brands that operate in an environmentally sustainable manner. Perhaps most importantly, the report noted that consumers hold a belief that corporations are morally obligated to pull their weight in the fight against climate change.2
“(Sustainability) does cost slightly more,” Emmer-Aanes says, “but when others jump in, it brings the cost down. Consumers are willing to pay more for products that are good for the earth. Investing in innovation and supporting a market for plant-based packaging materials brings us one step closer to eliminating the natural product industry’s dependence on fossil fuels.”
Sustainability in 2020 and Beyond
Sustainable packaging is growing in popularity and advancing in sophistication, with new developments making eco-friendly packaging options less expensive and more effective. Beekers says that the next evolution of sustainable packaging will result in increased recyclability, more use of natural materials like paper and cardboard, and materials with a smaller environmental footprint.
“The major trends in packaging materials are a shift toward mono-materials and materials that can biodegrade at their end-of-life,” he says. “But the most significant advancement is that all companies now realize sustainable packaging will become a qualifier to be in business rather than a differentiator.”
The future of sustainability is one that will encompass product, packaging, process, peripherals-and partnerships. In 2007, Numi CEO Ahmed Rahim co-founded OSC2 with vice president of sales and marketing Lara Dickinson. OSC2 then created the Packaging Collaborative, a group of over 40 brands, printers, manufacturers, extruders, and end-of-life recovery businesses that are collaborating on the development of sustainable packaging materials.
The time could not be more right. Given the growing consumer demand for companies to operate sustainably, brands that invest in sustainable, biodegradable, and eco-friendly packaging will likely reap the benefits of increased brand loyalty and positive press.
Mike Straus is a freelance writer living in Kelowna, Canada. He has written for publications including Canadian Chiropractor, Grow Opportunity, and Massage Therapy Canada.
1. Herron E. “A Reed College biology student discovered plastic-eating bacteria after smuggling bags of dirt through the Houston Airport.” Willamette Week. Published online July 10, 2018. Accessed at: https://www.wweek.com/culture/2018/07/10/a-reed-college-biology-student-discovered-plastic-eating-bacteria-after-smuggling-bags-of-dirt-through-the-houston-airport/
2. Toluna. “2019 Sustainability Report.” Published online November 4, 2019. Accessed at: http://go.toluna-group.com/l/36212/2019-10-30/5p7ppd