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Packaging for a Better Planet
Swedish innovations at the forefront of sustainable packaging
by Anders Eliasson
Food production often has the heaviest environmental impact on the life cycle of food; measures that can be taken to reduce food losses are therefore important. In the retail and consumer sections of the life cycle, packaging plays a key role in reducing food spoilage and loss. Packaging can take a number of forms—from the cartons and bottles food is delivered in, to the packaging used to transport food to stores, to the bags we use to bring food products home. Appropriate and sustainable packaging options are needed to keep food fresh and reduce waste from the point of manufacture to the customer’s home.
Sweden is one country that has a long history of innovation in packaging technology. In recent years, the country’s focus has been on innovative packaging solutions that are sustainable, a combination that helps to reduce food and packaging waste. Food waste is a real issue in the food industry and in our everyday lives, says Ann Lorentzon of the Miljöpack secretariat at STFI-Packforsk, a packaging research institute in Stockholm. “Reports have shown that up to a third of the food we buy is thrown out due to incorrect storage or oversized packaging,” she says.
More Flexible Packaging
Food waste is actually a much bigger environmental problem than the packaging material, according to Lorentzon. Discarded food products have a larger environmental impact than their associated packaging.1 Thus, she says, packaging products need to offer not only sufficient protection for food products but also flexibility and ease of handling in order to reduce unnecessary waste.
In fact, a recent STFI-Packforsk study showed that 74 tons of yogurt—up to 10% of the food content in yogurt cartons—is wasted every year in Sweden because consumers find it difficult to use all the yogurt contained in traditional packaging cartons. Other surveys have shown that consumers in the United States discard up to 50% of their food at a cost of $43 billion a year.2 This figure represents 10% of Sweden’s gross domestic product.
Making it possible for consumers to purchase appropriately sized packaging for their needs—whether they are shopping for a large family or a one-person household—is an important factor for reducing food losses at the consumer level, as is having a package that can be completely emptied of its contents.3
Helén Williams, a researcher at Karlstad University (Karlstad, Sweden), says that there are real environmental gains to be had from offering smaller packages to reduce household waste. Previously, the thinking has been the opposite—that larger packaging is better because it means less packaging material per food unit.
“Our choices of food packaging can help improve the environment,” Williams says. “A one-liter carton of milk, for example, can be more environmentally friendly than a 1.5-liter carton, which may not be finished before its contents go off.”
In fact, a recent study by Williams and colleagues found that the easier it is to completely empty a package, the less of the packed product will be lost. In turn, cleaner packaging is easier to handle in the recycling system and could yield positive environmental effects; additives in the packaging could make recycling more difficult, resulting in negative environmental effects.
More Packaging Options
Williams adds that the onus to reduce food waste is on both consumers and manufacturers. “As consumers, we have to be more responsible about the food we buy. Only buy what you really need, and then use every bit of that food—don’t waste anything. When you’re finished with the produce, recycle the packaging—but reducing food waste is key. Manufacturers, on the other hand, need to start looking at how they market their products and offer different packaging sizes due to different consumer needs.”
To be more sustainable, Williams says, more flexible packaging is needed to help reduce food waste; it may even be beneficial to increase the environmental impact of some packaging products slightly to help minimize food spoilage and loss.
Packaging firm Ecolean (Helsingborg, Sweden) has successfully developed and launched environmentally friendly packaging for such dairy products as milk, yogurt, cream, and crème fraîche. Ecolean’s flexible packaging, which enables the consumer to squeeze out nearly all of the contents with ease, is particularly suitable for dairy products. Made of chalk (40%), air, and plastic, the flexible packaging is used and sold in Sweden, as well as in China, Russia, and Central Europe.
“Modern times and new requirements demand new types of packaging,” says Peter S. Nilsson, sales and marketing director of Ecolean. “The Ecolean lightweight package uses fewer raw materials, causes less waste volume, and requires less energy in manufacturing. This is in line with the global demand of a resource-saving society.”
Minimal Environmental Impact
Ecolean’s minimalist packaging, in development since the 1990s, uses far fewer materials and has a low impact on the environment. Only a minute amount of plastic, diluted with chalk, is needed for each package, which weighs only about half the amount of equal-sized dairy packaging. The handle is filled with air, which makes the package more stable even when it’s half empty. When emptied, the package is as flat as an envelope, requiring minimal space. The total amount of plastic in the entire package is about the same as the amount used in the screw cap for a conventional milk bottle.
This transformation in packaging should please consumers. A recent consumer study by WRAP, the United Kingdom’s Waste and Resources Action Programme, found that 66% of consumers think products use too much packaging.5 The research also showed that almost half of global consumers would give up all forms of packaging provided for convenience if it benefited the environment.
“In the globalized world of today, the importance of packaging in general, and sustainable packaging in particular, is increasing at a fast pace,” says Carl Olsmats, PhD, general secretary of the World Packaging Organisation. “Good packaging is needed to support global trade. Packaging needs to be lean on resources itself, and at the same time provide adequate protection of its contents to prevent food—and other products’—spoilage and losses.”
Sustainable Packaging Preserves Food
A good example of sustainable packaging can be seen in products made by the packaging firm Xylophane (Göteborg, Sweden). The company has developed a new, environmentally friendly barrier material that helps preserve food. Xylophane’s plastic is developed from xylan, a group of substances called hemi cellulose. Hemi cellulose is one of nature’s most common carbohydrates and can be found in residue from the forestry and agricultural industries.
Xylan-based material is an excellent barrier against oxygen, grease, and odors, making it ideal for food preservation. Instead of using non-biodegradable petroleum-based plastic films or aluminum coatings, the food industry could switch to the wholly sustainable xylan-based film without compromising food quality. Examples of foods that are especially sensitive to oxygen include fruit juice, coffee, chocolate, and chips.
The biggest advantage of Xylophane is its environmental friendliness, says Håkan Grubb, CEO at Xylophane. “Xylan is biodegradable in the same way as cardboard and can be composted. During combustion, the only substances formed are carbon dioxide and water,” Grubb adds.
Xylophane is cheap to produce, easy to transport, and sustainable enough to handle a manufacturing process that combines it with other materials to create a finished product. For example, Xylophane can be “painted” onto cardboard to create a stronger product. “Xylophane is one of the most interesting packaging projects currently coming out of Sweden,” says Ulf Carlson, a consultant who was previously the vice president of research and development at SCA, Swedish Cellulose Limited. “It’s a very promising technology for the future.”
Bo Lindskog at STFI-Packforsk agrees. “There is a huge demand on sustainable packing from the food industry right now. Where possible, food companies are looking to use renewable resources rather than compostable resources, but the packaging must be good enough in terms of price, safety, and quality, as well as its reduced environmental impact,” he says. “Large food companies are encouraging the use of converted bioplastics and are looking to increase the use of sustainable packaging wherever viable.”
Green Carrier Bags
One example of this trend is the Swedish supermarket Coop Konsum, which has opted to scrap traditional plastic carrier bags in its 170 stores in favor of compostable bags made of cornstarch rather than petroleum-based plastic.
Coop’s environmentally friendly carrier bag is made of 40% renewable raw materials, with cornstarch as its main ingredient. In order to create a sustainable carrier bag, the cornstarch is mixed with biodegradable and compostable polyester. “We want to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels such as oil both in materials and as an energy source,” says Mikael Robertsson, environmental director at Coop Konsum. “The new environmentally friendly carrier bag is a small step in our long-term environmental plan. We want to make it possible for our customers to contribute towards a sustainable development. Besides being fully compostable, the main benefit with our environmentally friendly carrier bags is that the main part of its materials are part of the natural cycle.”
Large food manufacturers and retailers are becoming more responsible about the types of packaging they use for their products, which is indeed an encouraging trend. Sweden has long been a leader in this field and should be the source of more research into, and development of, sustainable packaging options.
Eliasson is head of packaging for the Invest in Sweden Agency. Reach him at +46 (0)70 342 43 60 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Johansson BB. Förpackningens betydelse för produktförluster i hemmet. Förpackningar kan spara miljarder genom minskat produktspill. STFI-Packforsk. Report 204. June 2002. Available at: http://www.stfi-packforsk.se/upload/ Gamla_PF-sidor/204%20Produktspill.PDF. Accessed October 26, 2008.
- Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA). CIAA Web site. Managing environmental sustainability in the European food and drink industries. Available at: http://envi.ciaa.eu/asp/l1.asp?doc_cat_1=Message%20from%20the%20CIAA%20President . Accessed October 26, 2008.
- Williams H, Wikström F, Löfgren M. A life cycle perspective on environmental effects of customer focused packaging development. J Cleaner Prod. 2008;16(7):853-859.
- Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). WRAP Web site. The food we waste. April 2008. Available at:http://www.wrap.org.uk/downloads/ The_ Food_We_Waste_v2__2_.a8bf7f2c.5635.pdf. Accessed October 26, 2008.