Muesli bag in recyclable packaging. Image: UPM Specialty Papers
Perhaps inevitably, attention turned to the numbers in the immediate aftermath of the publication of a commissioned study by UPM Specialty Papers. The conclusion of which states: in 2040 a fifth of all food packaging could still be landfilled or incinerated unless packaging innovations accelerate.
As the dust settles, and we learn more from different viewpoints, it is worth reflecting more widely on the process, and on what might be important about the results. Here are my initial thoughts.
With food packaging predominantly plastic and recycling rates relatively low, both economic and environmental pressures have grown to such an extent, organisations have to develop solutions that use sustainable materials and processes in their products, and packaging.
One answer is to use fibre-based materials. While fibre-based packaging is widely recycled in non-food uses, the industry believes that by 2040 fibre-based packaging will approach circularity as technical development broadens its suitability for food packaging. The calls for its use will only grow despite negative comments regarding its recyclability. Recent research puts paid to detractors, however. It has shown that fibre-based packaging material – paper, board, cartonboard and folding boxes – can be recycled more than 25 times with ‘little to no loss’ of integrity.
The study, conducted in Austria, repeatedly recycled folding cartonboard to understand what effect there would be on the mechanical property of the material, including its innate strength and crush resistance. According to the study conducted by Graz University of Technology: ‘No negative effect on the mechanical properties in question can be demonstrated in this study. The swelling capacity of the fibre also showed no negative trend.’
With a check mark in the positive column for paper and board fibres’ durability, there are other areas that brands will need to consider, such as the eco-benefits of the increased number of recycling loops and the mix of virgin and recovered fibres to keep in step with a circular business model.
There is huge potential for fibre based materials to contribute to packaging as they have advantages around biodegradability, recyclability and renewability. Why it hasn’t taken more of a hold in the food and beverage sector may be because the considerations brand owners have to bear in mind for it to become more appreciated.
For one, the function of the package and how it is marketed, particularly, with respect to wood-fibre based materials not being as flexible as plastics. The ability to design and form advanced paperboard structures is a key for the success of wood-fibre based packaging.
“The packaging industry will focus research and development efforts to meet increasing consumer and regulatory demand for more recyclable and compostable packaging”, said Maria Saloranta, vice president, strategy for UPM Specialty Papers.
As a result, UPM expects the share of fibre-based food packaging to grow, accelerated by breakthroughs in barrier properties and use of smart technologies that help “relay information to consumers quickly and easily”.
In the report, more than 200 global packaging professionals from across the value chain contributed to the “first-ever collective assessment” of key trends that are projected to drive sustainability in the food packaging industry by 2040.
The industry anticipates the global share of polymer-based packaging will fall by half over the next two decades in sustainable food packaging applications, while fibre-based materials are projected to contribute to over 40% of all materials in use for food packaging.
Many exciting initiatives have been undertaken, and several research and network projects with the focus on bio-based materials for packaging purposes are in progress. I look forward to the outcome of these projects and we will see how they positively contribute to sustainable development in the packaging sector.
- Rodney Jack, editor, Food & Drink Technology.
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